Overall homelessness number falls in 2019 despite tough housing market — but most extensive street count yet finds more without shelter

Despite a housing market that continues to fail people with disabilities and push neighbors from their homes, the number of people counted as homeless in Multnomah County has fallen over the past two years, according to results from the 2019 Point in Time Count. 

Overall, data released by the Joint Office of Homeless Services on Thursday, Aug. 1, shows some 4,015 individuals were counted this year in emergency shelter, in transitional housing or without shelter. Two years ago, the number was 4,177.

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The drop included reductions among groups the City of Portland and Multnomah County have continued to prioritize. Among women, the count fell by 10 percent. The number of people counted in families with children fell by more than half. The overall reduction also included work to reprogram transitional housing units into more-effective permanent housing.

“Homeless counts have remained stable in Multnomah County during the past decade despite a growing population and tight housing market. More people and higher rents should have led to more homelessness than exists today. They didn’t, and for that, the region’s public and nonprofit homeless agencies deserve credit.”
— John Tapogna, president of ECONorthwest

But notably — in part because this year’s street count was the most extensive yet — the number of people found and counted without shelter has climbed. This year, 2,037 individuals were counted as unsheltered, up from 1,668 two years before.

“The results of this year’s Count aren’t a surprise. We are helping more people than ever prevent and end their homelessness, but tens of thousands of our most vulnerable neighbors still struggle, day after day, to find safe, stable and affordable housing,” said Marc Jolin, director of the Joint Office of Homeless Services and the A Home for Everyone (AFHE)(link is external) community planning initiative.

The rise in the unsheltered count was driven by a significant increase — 479 people, or 37 percent — in people considered chronically homeless. That means 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. Roughly two-thirds of those counted without shelter fit that description.

What’s more, the share of people without shelter who reported first-time homelessness grew at a faster rate this year, 35.1 percent, than the overall unsheltered population.

Those results largely confirm what providers have seen for years. People living with fixed incomes and who face disabilities continue to bear the brunt of the region’s housing crisis.

“These numbers confirm what we’re seeing every day. Too many of our neighbors with disabilities are having to live on our streets,” said Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury. “Disability checks and other fixed incomes just can’t cover rising rents, and this is exactly why we are prioritizing not just affordable housing, but the type of affordable housing that comes with a case-worker for people to stay housed. We know it works and we need to do a lot more of it.”

Snapshot from the 2019 Point in Time Count report

Snapshot from the 2019 Point in Time Count report

Racial disparities persist

People of color also remain overrepresented in the count — a product of institutional, systemic and interpersonal racism affecting almost every sector of life for communities of color.

The number of people of color counted was essentially unchanged, even as the overall count of people experiencing homelessness declined. People of color now make up 38.1 percent of the count, even though they are only 29.5 percent of Multnomah County’s population.

Among African Americans, the count identified a significantly larger number of people experiencing chronic homelessness. Even as the total number of African Americans in the count declined, the number of people who were counted as chronically homeless increased by 98 people, or almost 74 percent.

Native Americans, meanwhile, saw their overall numbers increase, and they remain the most overrepresented community in the homeless population. In 2019, people who identified as Alaska Natives and American Indians made up 11.6 percent of the count, despite making up only 2.5 percent of Multnomah County’s population.

“We have made investments in culturally specific and responsive services. But we know that racism in all its forms continues to push disproportionate numbers of people of color into homelessness and is a major obstacle to their efforts to return to permanent housing” Jolin said. “Our work to end homelessness must continue to address this by expanding access to services that meet the unique challenges faced by each community of color.”

Comprehensive street count helps identify more people

In a continuing effort to increase accuracy in the count, this year’s unsheltered count was the most comprehensive ever.

Led by Portland State University’s Regional Research Institute, a record number of professional outreach workers (130) and volunteers (142) divided the County into sectors and spent a week looking for people without shelter. They visited places people are known to camp — walking sidewalks and greenspaces, checking vehicles — and they engaged people at more than 80 locations where people experiencing homelesness are known to visit (libraries, meal programs, clinics, etc.).

Portland State also worked closely with culturally specific outreach providers, including in particular agencies that work with the African American and Native American communities. The outreach efforts of culturally specific organizations helped improve the accuracy of the unsheltered count in these communities.

Responding to chronic homelessness

But the data also underscores the urgency around Portland and Multnomah County’s ongoing and expanding efforts to better address chronic and unsheltered homelessness.

That work includes:

  • Supportive housing: Portland and Multnomah County are moving toward their goal of creating 2,000 new affordable and services-connected apartments by 2028. More than 600 units are in place or in development. The number of unsheltered people who reported a substance use disorder increased by 303 in this year’s count. People in treatment who also have housing are 10 times more likely to succeed in their treatment than those without housing.

  • Rent assistance: The Joint Office is making historic targeted investments to help chronically homeless people move through shelters and back into appropriate housing more quickly.

  • Hygiene amenities: Portland is investing in hygiene facilities and trash collection to help people address the consequences of having to live their private lives in public.

  • Downtown behavioral health center: Multnomah County’s behavioral health resource center — offering peer-run services, a day center, and shelter and transitional housing — is out for bid and could open by summer 2021.

  • Evolving shelter system: Two new services-enhanced, navigation focused emergency shelters are set to open this summer: the River District Navigation Center in the Pearl District and the Laurelwood Center on SE Foster Road.

  • Specialized outreach: The Navigation Team launched this spring. It brings intensive engagement, service connections and mental health expertise to the highest-impact encampments.

“We’ve proven that focused, aggressive investments in support services can generate positive outcomes for thousands of people in our community who would otherwise be homeless. That success is reflected in the strides we've made helping families and women,” Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said.

“We also see that our chronic homeless population is getting older and sicker. With our commitment to supportive housing, we believe we can bring positive changes. We will also continue working with our partners in this work to maintain our progress preventing homelessness in the first place." 

Responding to the housing crisis

This year’s smaller overall number underscores the importance of Portland and Multnomah County's continued efforts to respond to the housing crisis — policy changes like tenant protections but also major investments in services like rent assistance that help people stay in housing or regain it as quickly as possible. 

The number of people helped by our homelessness response system to stay in permanent housing — or return to it and then keep it — has grown dramatically in response to the ongoing housing crisis.

Looking at snapshots taken at approximately the same time as the Point in Time Count, that number has grown 50.5 percent since 2017, reaching a total of 12,480 people. 

Without those additional investments, it’s likely many community members receiving housing services would otherwise find themselves on the streets and be part of the Count. 

That’s because high housing costs, compared to incomes, continue to put vulnerable people at risk of homelessness.

In Multnomah County, more than 21,000 disabled people rely on federal Supplemental Security Income benefits that top out at $771 a month. The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment, meanwhile, has climbed to $1,200 in Multnomah County. 

Even people working full-time jobs are at risk. Last fall, consulting firm ECONorthwest found some 56,000 low-income households across the metro region who pay so much for housing — more than half their income — they could land on our streets on any given night.

"Homeless counts have remained stable in Multnomah County during the past decade despite a growing population and tight housing market,” said John Tapogna, president of ECONorthwest. “More people and higher rents should have led to more homelessness than exists today. They didn’t, and for that, the region’s public and nonprofit homeless agencies deserve credit."