In 2015, city and county officials made a bold claim. With unprecedented and continued funding toward the right resources—permanent housing, shelter, and preventing people from falling into homelessness in the first place—they said the city could slash its homeless population in half by 2017.
They were wrong.
Despite record amounts of spending and thousands upon thousands of people served, the still-unfolding housing crisis has led to a roughly 10 percent increase in the homeless population in the last two years, from 3,801 in 2015 to 4,177 this year.
At the same time—and amid ever-more visible encampments throughout town—officials say their plans have paid off in a meaningful way: The number of unsheltered homeless people in the city has decreased by nearly 12 percent.
The 1,668 individuals accounted for as part of a single-night count in late February is the lowest number of people found in tents, cars, abandoned buildings, and other unsheltered living situations in the last 8 years. It would be lower still if federal rules allowed officials to omit the people living in sanctioned organized encampments like Right 2 Dream Too, Hazelnut Grove, and Dignity Village.
The number of people in shelter the night of the count doubled, not surprising given the huge number of beds officials have created.
The long-awaited data was released Monday afternoon, when the city/county Joint Office of Homeless Services (JOHS) unveiled preliminary findings from an every-other-year "point-in-time" homelessness count carried out earlier in the year. The count—by its nature imperfect and under-representative—combines computer system data about people staying in homeless shelters with findings from an army of volunteers who fan out to survey people living without shelter throughout Multnomah County.
The picture the findings paint is equal parts dispiriting and hopeful. On one hand, it shows that the most comprehensive and data driven approach to reducing homelessness in the city's history hasn't been able to fulfill its promise. People are simply falling into homelessness at too great a rate, officials say, to stem the tide as they'd hoped in 2015.
"Part of that model assumed the rate at which people were coming homeless would stay the same," says Denis Theriault, a spokesperson for the JOHS (and former Mercury employee). "Very clearly that did not stay the same. The inflow has apparently gone up, gotten worse. Housing has gotten more expensive. That impacts everything our service providers do."
Even homeless veterans—a population for whom officials claimed to have "functionally ended" veterans' homelessness for late last year—were up from 2015. The data showed 446 self-identified homeless vets, compared to 422 two years before (though changes in methodology prevent a precise apples-to-apples comparison).
The number of homeless women, people with disabilities, and chronically homeless individuals have all increased.
But the data also shows that the Portland region's efforts—and the tens of millions in public dollars put toward this problem—have helped a lot of people. Officials are heartened that the count shows an 11.6 percent decrease in unsheltered Portlanders, marking the first time since Portland began counting in this manner that there were more people in emergency shelter than living on the streets.
That's possible because the city and county have increased shelter beds by roughly 630 since January 2016, creating more space for homeless families, women, people with pets, and others. They're also placing record numbers of people in permanent housing—more than 3,500 from July to March alone—and helping thousands more avoid homelessness through prevention services like rent assistance (which stretches less far than it used to, what with the city's rising rents).
“The decline in the count of unsheltered individuals, despite ongoing challenges such as rapidly increasing housing costs and stagnant incomes for low-income households, likely reflects our community’s significant expansion of prevention, housing placement, and emergency shelter capacity over the past two years," reads a memo by JOHS Director Marc Jolin on the findings.
Some other takeaways from the study:
•The number of homeless families, a point of concern in the 2015 count, remained roughly the same this year, but many more were sheltered this time around. The county saw a nearly 50 percent decrease in unsheltered families.
•The number of chronically homeless Portlanders has increased by 24 percent. The vast majority of those people, 71 percent, are unsheltered.
•There are fewer African Americans experiencing homelessness—positive news for another group that generated particular concern in 2015. This year's count found
187 185 fewer Black people, including a 57 percent reduction in those without shelter.
•The number of Native Americans who are homeless ballooned—from 82 in 2015 to 424 in 2017. Officials chock that up to an "unexplained issue" in the 2015 count they believe resulted in the Native American population being undercounted. People of color as a whole are overrepresented in Portland's homeless population, but Native Americans see a particularly stark disparity. Their rate of homelessness is roughly four times their percentage of the population.
•The number of homeless women also increased, from 1,161 in 2015 to 1,355 this year. Again, though, the number of homeless women without shelter had decreased.
•Fewer people reported being homeless for a short period of time, and more reported being homeless for a long period of time. Of people responding to a survey given to unsheltered Portlanders, 36 percent said they'd been homeless for less than a year, compared to 41 percent in 2015. In addition, 32 percent of people said they'd been homeless for two years or more, compared to 23 percent in 2015. "It's harder to get people into housing," Theriault says.
The data comes as Portland is once again planning to spend record amounts of money on addressing homelessness. Between them, the Multnomah County and the City of Portland have budgeted more than $50 million in the next year for the Joint Office of Homeless Services, to continue its work of placing people into housing, preventing people from becoming homeless in the first place, and providing emergency shelter.
But the homelessness data also points yet another bold arrow toward the severity of the city's housing crisis, showing the city needs solutions that help people from falling into homelessness. As we reported this week, the state legislature is considering a proposal that would provide for new tenant protections. But that legislation, House Bill 2004, has already been watered down due to concerns from some legislators, and it might have to be weakened further to earn the crucial vote of one skeptic, East Portland-based Senator Rod Monroe.
Here's the full data, shared in a memo from Jolin to the executive committee of A Home For Everyone, the community-wide task force that strategizes on fighting homelessness. Jolin is scheduled to lay out the findings at a meeting Monday afternoon.