BEND, Ore. — The homeless population in Central Oregon increased another 13%, according to preliminary data from the region’s Point-in-Time count, which includes a significant increase in the number of homeless youth in the region.
The data comes at a time when the issue of homelessness is at the forefront of local politics, as public bodies like the Bend City Council are trying to handle a growing homeless population.
The annual count is a snapshot in time that shows how many people in Central Oregon were homeless on a single night in January. This year, 1,098 homeless people were counted compared with 969 last year, according to Colleen Thomas, Deschutes County’s homeless services coordinator. A similar increase of 12% was seen between 2019 and 2020.
“Even though it was a pandemic year, and we had limited folks providing outreach outside of our normal routines, we still saw an increase,” Thomas said.
But within that population, the count also showed an increase in the number of unaccompanied homeless youth in the region from 48 last year to 169 this year — a 252% jump.
Thomas said it is hard to pinpoint any one reason why numbers are going up. But in general, a steadily growing homeless population reflects a community without enough housing, untenable rental prices for the working class and not enough resources to support everyone, she said.
Addressing this issue means creating more housing options, ranging from managed homeless camps to multifamily homes, Thomas said.
“Without those options, without the continuum of services and resources we’re going to continue to see more visible homelessness in our region,” Thomas said.
Thomas said the large spike in the number of unaccompanied homeless youth — which means kids who are homeless and are not in the care of their parents — could be in part due to the pandemic, as well as a change in the way homeless people were counted this year.
Because of the pandemic, the county was advised to not send lots of volunteers into camps to do counts and ask people survey questions, and instead get data from service providers, who work with the population more regularly and can provide a more accurate picture of how many people are in this situation than a random count.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which oversees the count, allowed counties more time to gather data, Thomas said.
Homeless service providers and nonprofits were given a week instead of a single day to ask people whether they were homeless the night of Jan. 20.
The fact that schools were virtual could also be a contributing factor, said Eliza Wilson, the program manager of the homeless organization Grandma’s House of Central Oregon, which operates under J Bar J Youth Services.
Because schools were closed, more kids have been reaching out to organizations like hers for services, making them more visible for something like a Point-in-Time count, Wilson said.
Wilson said she was not surprised to see the high number of homeless youth counted this year.
“I think the (Point in Time) count is only as good as our effort,” she said. “Historically, and nationwide, the (Point in Time) count for youth is substantially lower than other counts.”
Several factors can contribute to a kid becoming homeless. Wilson said one-third of the children she serves experienced homelessness with their family before being on their own. Circumstances like a parent dying, going to jail or substance abuse all can contribute to children becoming homeless and on their own.
In the 12 years Wilson has worked in Central Oregon, she has seen the population grow.
“People always think it’s kids out of the area. It’s not,” Wilson said. “These kids are from Central Oregon.”
A full Point-in-Time count report, which will get into the specifics of the data more thoroughly, will be complete next week, Thomas said.
Story contributed from The Bulletin via the Associated Press