HOWARD BALSHEM is looking for homeless people. Standing in the crowded lobby of homeless shelter and resource center Transition Projects on NW 5th and Glisan, he is surrounded by homeless people who are waiting, shouting, eating, and talking. But he needs specific homeless people—the ones who haven't already taken the city's Homeless Street Count survey and will give up a minute of their day to answer a stranger's personal questions about their lives.
Since 2002, the Portland Housing Bureau has attempted to take a census of the city's shelter and street dwellers every other year. It's an imperfect count and the difficulty of tabulating every homeless person reveals the impossibility of fitting the reality of "homeless" into a survey box.
On the night of Wednesday, January 26, and the following afternoon, 50 volunteers fanned out across the city along with staffers from 200 nonprofits. The results won't be released until April, but the 2009 count showed a dispiriting trend: From 2007, the number of homeless in Portland increased 11 percent, to 1,591 people, while the percent of chronically homeless people jumped from 27 percent to 34 percent.
In Transition Projects' tiny lobby, Balshem works his way among the crowd. A middle-aged man agrees to take the survey, so Balshem launches in with the first question, "Where did you sleep on Wednesday night?"
"On a friend's sofa," the man replies and Balshem smiles sympathetically.
"Sorry, I'm only counting people who slept outside," says Balshem. Next he tries an older woman with a walker who blinks her eyes constantly.
"Where did you sleep on Wednesday night?" he asks.
"I forgot," the woman says. Balshem heads outside and stops a slow-walking man who sports a tweed jacket. The man says he slept on a bus coming from Seattle and hasn't had a house in 20 years, but before Balshem can ask the last of the survey's 13 questions, the man says, "I'm going!" and walks off.
The scene in Transition Projects Development Director Tony Bernal's office is much more peaceful. Through his office window, Bernal can see the steel frame of the new $46.9 million Resource Access Center, which will consolidate homeless services downtown and provide double the space (though the same number of beds—90) as the NW 5th and Glisan shelter when it opens this summer. The current waiting list for a Transition Projects shelter is 8-12 weeks.
"There will be lots more room for living," says Bernal. Whether the new building and services will actually reduce homelessness, though, is uncertain. In his shelters, Bernal has seen two main driving factors of homelessness—unemployment and mental illness—rise during the recession.
Back out in the lobby, recent transplant Mallory Knox complains that she feels unsafe every day on Portland's streets, since the YWCA shelter won't let residents in during the day.
"We're at risk out here!" she says, and then with a sadder tone, "I can see the other side of it, too. People get tired of helping us."