Houseless and Unknown: Inaccuracies in Multnomah County’s Point-in-Time Count


Cory Elia leads a team of volunteers helping gather feedback about a new program being planned for the homeless.

Photo credit: Greg Townley

When the 2019 Point-in-Time count which determines the number of houseless came out on Thursday, August 1st, it had been long anticipated by advocates throughout Portland.

According to the Joint Office of Homeless Services, there was about a 4 percent decrease in the number of houseless individuals counted from 2017 (4,177 counted in 2017) but there was a 22 percent increase seen of those living without a sufficient form of shelter from 2017. 

“This year the Count identified 2,037 people who were unsheltered, 1,459 people sleeping in emergency shelter and 519 people in transitional housing. In all, the Count found 4,015 people who met HUD’s definition of homelessness,” it states in the official report.

2,037 people are the most unsheltered houseless individuals recorded in the last ten years during a count.

The definition of homelessness by HUD, however, doesn’t actually capture some of the states of houselessness. HUD’s definition is simply an individual that “lacks a fixed, regular, or adequate night-time residence,” this doesn’t include those in vehicles or who might be sharing a living space meant for a single individual. 

There are multiple ways to define homelessness, however, and HUD’s definition is the most narrow. The McKinney-Vento Definition of Homelessness is broader than the HUD definition and only applies include children. 

PSU’s Research Center took this into account and according to the executive summary for the 2019 PIT count, “PSU staff also conducted a separate count of neighbors whom the community would still consider homeless, but who do not meet HUD’s definition,” this included students living doubled up, couch surfing, or living on floors, in basements, or any other form of unconventional dwelling.

The Doubled Up Count conducted by the PSU’s Research Center pulled information from the Department of Human Services SNAP program and found that 9,546 households received food stamps from the program and identified as homeless.

However, during a recent event by Human Solutions called “Community Conversation: Solutions to Homelessness”, Andy Miller, the non-profit’s executive director, said that “under the Oxford dictionary definition of homeless around 15,000 households are living in a state of homelessness in Multnomah County.”

In a research paper of my own which I later added to my blog, I explored the inaccuracies of the Point-in-Time count. I also covered PSU’s research center’s involvement with the count in PSU’s student newspaper, and recently helped gather feedback from the homeless about a new program being proposed. So I have spent a fair amount of time studying the count and its methods. 

Village Portland’s Cory Elia reports: “Reflection: conducting the survey for the Portland Street Response

When the numbers were reported I saw all the publications in town declare them like they were the definitive numbers like those numbers actually including everyone struggling with housing. Well, spoiler alert… they don’t.

Along with acknowledged limitations in its counting methods, more than half the houseless individuals I talked to personally stated that they were never approached or surveyed for the 2019 count. 

The count was conducted in two ways: one was a shelter count conducted on the night of January 23, 2019, at city-operated, emergency, and private warming shelters across the city, while the other part was done over a week by volunteers surveying with PSU’s Research Center going camp to camp in the different neighborhoods during the day. 

Even during the harsh winter weather Portland can experience in late January when the count was conducted, there was a limited amount of shelter and emergency warming shelters available for the houseless of the city. So the number of homeless from that party of the count would have reached a limit based on how many beds were available.

While volunteering at the emergency shelter hosted at Portland Central Church of the Nazarene near Powell Boulevard and I-205, I saw multiple people turned away due to already meeting at capacity, or not having enough volunteers to offer more beds.

There are also houseless individuals who will do nearly anything to keep themselves indoors, warm, and relatively safe during the winter, that includes squatting in abandoned buildings.

Then there is another theory I’ve heard multiple times since the count: that houseless individuals could have been away from their camp during for the week of the count. They could have been seeking out resources or working and not utilizing the shelters during the night of January 23rd.

Due to things like these during the count, some of those houseless went uncounted. 

This was the most through PIT count so far due to the efforts of Tiffany Conklin and the PSU Research Center, but the 2019 numbers are only a partial capturing of the houseless population of Portland.

The number generated from the Point-in-Time count will be used to identify the amount of federal funding the City of Portland will receive from HUD to address the houseless crisis in Portland.

Cory Elia is a journalist, photographer, videographer, documentary director & producer, radio personality & podcaster. His journalistic focus is on politics, protest, and poverty. 

Contact Cory:

Facebook: Cory Elia 
Twitter: @therealcoryelia

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