MAYBE IT'S JUST that we're getting better at finding and counting the multitudes living on Portland's streets or biding their time inside shelters and other places.
That would be a tidy way of explaining why—for the third time since 2007—the city and Multnomah County's one-day snapshot count of the homeless has continued to climb. The number of unsheltered people now sits at 1,895—close to a 10 percent jump since 2011. Some 2,500 more were listed as sleeping in shelters or in transitional housing.
Maybe new efficiency is helping that increase. But providers on the ground see the same thing they've been seeing for years: a lousy economy still dumping people onto the streets faster than nonprofits and government can pick them up and dust them off.
Almost half of those counted—48 percent—said they'd become homeless only within the past year. Almost 10 percent dropped from housing within the past month. Most, the survey shows, wind up on our streets and sidewalks where they earn the opprobrium of tourists and businesses.
Of note, more families than ever showed up in the count, 72 more people compared to 2011. And the report says the number of unsheltered people of color—where poverty looms as an ever-present threat—went up 38 percent in the past two years. Persistent homelessness remains a problem, but something else is happening here.
"The increase in people who are newly homeless," says Sally Erickson of the housing bureau, "is a pretty direct result of the ongoing recession."
Government hasn't completely stood pat. The housing bureau and Portland city commissioners like Nick Fish and Amanda Fritz have worked hard to hold the line on spending. So has Multnomah County. And both governments this year decided to "reset" their 10-year homelessness plan in hopes of better spending limited cash and focusing anew on women, families, and veterans.
The study points out that some 4,832 people receiving "rent assistance or permanent supportive housing on the night of the count" would have "most likely" been homeless if that money had not been there.
But even that's a struggle. As Portland's rental market tightens, driving up rents, rental assistance—among the most efficient weapons against homelessness—doesn't go as far. High rents also make it harder for people who've been out of housing to compete for limited spots.
Officials have had to get clever, soliciting federal grants and vouchers. But federal money, which also helps the city build affordable housing when private developers won't or can't, has slowly been drying up.
New revenue in the form of a dedicated levy would be a godsend. Advocates, for the past two years, fought city hall hard to preserve housing money. Those efforts would be a fine base to build from.
The housing bureau's new commissioner, Dan Saltzman, is temperamentally suited to social services needs—he's an advocate for domestic violence funding and helped pass the Children's Levy (which voters renewed in May). Saltzman says he hopes to tap urban renewal funding and wants to raise shelter capacity in Portland.
But he also tells the Mercury he's reticent to ask voters to help.
"Someone's got to raise the money and make it happen. I'm not prepared to do that," he says. "It's not that I couldn't be persuaded."
It's an honest answer. And not much different from that of his predecessor, Fish. But when the numbers of the unsheltered climb again, in 2015, I wonder if that might be persuasion enough.