PORTLAND, Ore. — A federally mandated count of the Portland metro area's homeless population was released Wednesday for the first time since 2019 after being postponed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Point-in-Time (PIT) survey counted 6,633 people living without a home in all three counties on the night of Jan. 26, 2022 — 5,228 in Multnomah County, 808 in Washington County and 597 in Clackamas County, according to the Joint Office of Homeless Services (JOHS).
Multnomah County saw an increase of more than 1,200 people compared to its last PIT count in 2019. Of the 5,228 homeless people counted in Multnomah County, 3,057 were unsheltered, 1,485 in shelter and 686 in transitional housing.
The number was lower than anticipated due to limiting factors for the people who conducted the survey.
"Teams were unexpectedly forced to quarantine or were faced with lost staff the week of the Count," the JOHS said in a news release.
The count highlighted the disproportionate rates of homelessness among people of color. In Multnomah County, people of color made up 40% of everyone counted.
To address the housing crisis in Multnomah County, JOHS is requesting funds for more than 2,000 shelter beds. That coupled with "COVID-related shelters" and federal funding for Safe Rest Villages would increase the number of beds to nearly 2,700, almost double what was available before the pandemic.
Washington County was able to complete a PIT survey in 2021 and counted 716 people living without a home. This year, the number jumped to 808 people.
While the total number increased in Washington County, the number of unsheltered people — those living outside — dropped significantly.
In 2021, there were 269 people living in shelters in Washington County. This year, that number nearly doubled to 496 people.
"This is due to increased access and availability of shelter options in Washington County with new bridge shelter locations and new and extended winter shelter options," the JOHS said.
In Clackamas County, surveyors found that of the 597 homeless people counted, 327 were unsheltered, 241 were in shelter and 85 were in transitional housing.
The data collection was limited compared to previous PIT counts because of "COVID-19 outbreaks and the implementation of necessary safety measures amongst outreach teams and at collection sites."
Despite the limitations, JOHS said the data gives valuable insights on the scale of the housing crisis in the county and which areas should be prioritized.
Clackamas County Chair Tootie Smith said the county's supportive housing services team is making strong progress toward its first-year goals to provide outreach, case management and permanent housing for people in need.
"This work, coupled with the Board of County Commissioners’ goal to develop 1,500 affordable housing units, puts the county on track to make a significant difference for all members of our community," she said.
The bigger picture
The impact of COVID-19 on homelessness in the Portland area continues to pose serious challenges.
Katrina Holland, executive director of JOIN — a homeless services agency in Portland — said she and many others, are not surprised by the increase in numbers.
"I think a lot of us knew, and could see and feel the impact of homelessness increasing," Holland said. "I think people really underestimated the impact of the COVID-19 economic fallout.
"While the Joint Office and agencies like ours are place more people in housing than we ever have, quicker than we ever have, keeping up with this inflow of new houseless it's going to be really challenging with the COVID-19 fallout."
Holland said that homelessness is a symptom of a larger, systemic problem. Her team believes in scaling up housing-first initiatives, enacting programs that make people aware of housing instability earlier in the process, increasing outreach and investing in affordable housing.
"I would love to see everyone, at every level of government, working hard to not just fix what has happened — which is a lot of folks experiencing houselessness now — but also work on the systemic issues that create houselessness in the first place."
During the pandemic, Portland has seen some of the fastest hikes in home prices and rents in the U.S. A recent survey by Redfin found that rents in Portland have climbed roughly 40% since March 2021, the JOHS said.
A significant number of people in the metro area are experiencing chronic homelessness, meaning they have at least one disabling condition — a mental health condition, addiction disorder, chronic illness or physical disability — and have been homeless for at least a year.
Overall, the three counties tallied 3,674 people who met that definition.
In May 2020, voters approved the $2.4 billion Supportive Housing Services Measure to help tackle chronic homelessness throughout the tri-counties. The finding from that measure became available in July 2021.
Since then, Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties have invested in hundreds of shelter beds as well as street outreach teams and supportive housing placements.
Local governments have also invested substantial federal relief funds into rent assistance programs while also using the funds to increase shelter and hygiene services through programs like the Safe Rest Villages and others.
The results of the PIT survey will be reported to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and a full report on the survey will released this summer.
This year was the first time the metro area's three counties jointly released their PIT count results. It's also the first overall snapshot of the housing crisis since the start of the pandemic, which was found to be a major contributor to the housing crisis over the past couple years.
Due to the dynamic nature of homelessness, and the fact it's impossible to count every person experiencing homelessness in the region, JOHS underlined that the one-night PIT count is only meant to be a snapshot of the problem to help address areas of need.
The next PIT count is scheduled for 2023.