Every other year the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) requires communities that receive its funding, which we do here in Multnomah County - to conduct a count of people experiencing homelessness according to its definition (in short, people living on the street, in shelters, or transitional housing). It is not a perfect tool to understand the state of homelessness in our community, but it does generate useful data that we can learn from. The 2019 count was conducted in January and released in early August. You'll find the report here. We reviewed it and have some thoughts about what it says:
- Families are homeless in unique (hard to count) ways. We work with mostly with families, so the fact that homelessness among families with dependent children is down in this year’s count is of course great news. However, the data is limited in a variety of ways, so while we find it useful, we rely more on our day-to-day experience working with families who are either experiencing homelessness or on the verge of it. The demand for our services among those two groups remains very high. The 211 wait list is a fair indicator of need for services among families, and it is hovering around 600 right now. And with families in particular, they tend to double up with friends and family when they are homeless, which makes them very hard to count in a count like this. When a report like this comes out, it’s important to remember how hard it is for so many families to stay afloat with housing costs so high and wages not keeping up. They may not show up in a count like this, but they are struggling.
- People of Color are over-represented. In many ways this report proves what we know, especially when it comes to the demographics of who is experiencing homelessness in our community. People of Color have been and continue to be over-represented among those experiencing homelessness, for reasons we know all too well: historic (and ongoing) racism, sky-high wealth inequality, long-term barriers to housing, unequal pay, and the list goes on. Many providers, like Human Solutions, are (and have been) very aware of this and, as a result, tailor our programs and staffing to meet the specific needs of marginalized, historically oppressed communities. We’re also focusing on policy change that removes barriers, like updating rental screening barriers and enabling more justice record expungement.
- What you see on the streets. Those of us working in this area have long known that our community lacks enough permanent supportive housing for people experiencing chronic homelessness, which translates to the many people we all see every day living in places unfit for human habitation. The good news is that voters and our local governments have recently prioritized this type of housing, so in time we think fewer of our neighbors will be unsheltered. This investment comes too late, but we’re hopeful about its impact.
- Programs are working, but aren’t sufficient. Human Solutions’ programs to help people find housing security are working, but to solve the problem we need more funding to meet the current need (we routinely turn people away for assistance due to insufficient funds) AND we need to stop the inflow of NEW people becoming homeless by addressing the region’s housing affordability crisis.
- Heartbreak and triumph. On this issue, it’s important to remember that there is both heartbreak AND triumph. What you see everyday as you go about your business may seem only like heartbreak. But in our line of work, we see a lot of triumph, too, where people who are homeless find a path back to housing security, and people who are at risk of homelessness hang onto their housing. Human Solutions’ role is to help folks through crisis moments and, increasingly, to fix the broken systems that send them there in the first place.
This report is both limited in its methodology and scope, but also rich with useful data. If you are interested in getting involved in our work to help people avoid and move past homelessness, please reach out to Christina, our Shelter Donations & Volunteer Coordinator: 503.278.1637 or via email.