PORTLAND, Ore. — Beginning Wednesday night, volunteers will fan out across Multnomah County to count the number of people experiencing homelessness. It's the first Point in Time Count since 2019, offering the first glimpse at data showing how the pandemic has affected the county's homeless crisis.
The count will continue until Feb. 1, with volunteers asking people living on the streets, in shelters and transitional housing where they slept on Jan. 26. The count is federally required to receive federal housing money.
In January 2019, Multnomah County found 4,015 people experiencing homelessness. The number of unsheltered people — those living on the streets — was a record-high 2,037.
"We've got some anecdotal sense that we're probably going to see some increase in our overall number," said Denis Therault with the Joint Office of Homeless Services. "Certainly we know that visibility has become a lot more prevalent. We're seeing so much more. This will allow us to cut through the mystery right now — to what degree is the visibility reflecting people having more tents, being more spread out, being in places they hadn't been allowed to be in because of COVID, or is there a huge surge?"
Therault said it is difficult to even estimate what the numbers might be.
"That's why you do the count, because you don't really know," he added. "There are some outreach teams who will say that for every three tents, there might be one person in some areas who [is] using those tents to store belongings. That's what I mean — it's hard to gauge the increase in visibility necessarily against what we're seeing."
Nobody knows the reality better than David Bell, who lives in a tent in downtown Portland.
"More people are living out in tents now and have become accustomed to it and learned to deal with it, than what it was before, When you get used to something and learn to abide by it, you stay" Bell said. "I'm 65 years old. I've had three heart attacks this year. I live in a tent. I get SSI and that's all I get. It's just not enough to make it on. I mean, what can be done? I don't know, but something must be done. It's not getting any better, but that, that matters is getting worse."
During the survey, volunteers ask questions about a person's age, gender, whether they're a veteran, where they're from. If they're not from Portland, they ask whether they were homeless when they arrived, and if so — why Portland?
In 2019, 73.9% of unsheltered people surveyed said they were not from Multnomah County. Having family and friends in the area was the top reason unsheltered people cited for moving to the area.
2022 Point in Time results are expected to be released later this summer.