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Multnomah County report reveals COVID-19′s impact on homelessness

By Chandler Watkins

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    BRIDBEPORT, Connecticut (KPTV) — This week, Multnomah County released its Full 2022 Point in Time Count.

Earlier this year, it released the top-line numbers for the metro area.

For the first time since the pandemic began in 2020, Multnomah County says the 2022 county reports on COVID-19′s impact on homelessness. According to the count, taken on the night of January 26, 2022, out of the over 2,000 people that were asked, roughly one in four said the pandemic directly contributed to their homelessness.

For Blanchet House Executive Director Scott Kerman, the report confirmed something they already knew: the number of homeless people in the Portland metro area continues to increase.

“There’s really nothing in the data that necessarily surprises any of us at Blanchet House,” said Kerman. “We have been experiencing these numbers for the last two and a half to three years.”

According to the report, overall, based on the federal government’s limited definition of homelessness, 5,228 people were counted as experiencing homelessness in Portland and Multnomah County on the night of Jan. 26, 2022, including 3,057 people without shelter, 1,485 in shelter and 686 in transitional housing.

Among the over 2,000 people that were asked, roughly one in four said the pandemic directly contributed to their homelessness. The over 500 people who said yes accounted for nearly half of the overall increase of homeless individuals between 2019′s count and this year’s count.

Kerman says one of his main takeaways from the report is the 50% increase in those who are chronically homeless.

“We understand that we are serving a lot of people who are chronically homeless,” said Kerman. “The fact that the report showed a 50% increase in people that are chronically homeless, and just so everyone understands that means the person has at least one disabling condition and has been homeless for more than a year, either all at once or over a three year period. Those individuals are often the hardest to rehouse. There’s quite a few people in this report who say they’ve been homeless for longer than 24 months can become institutionalized to being homeless. They can become very wary of being inside and feel like they are not going to be successful. It does increase the challenge that we have as a community into placing these individuals into housing successfully.”

He says an area of concern for him if affordable housing.

“I want to point out that there is another report that in Old Town specifically, 54% of tenants, these are people paying rent and who are housed in Old Town, are rent burdened,” said Kerman. “That means 30-49% of their monthly income is needed for them to sustain housing. 32% qualify as severely rent-burdened. That means more than 50% of their monthly income is required to pay rent. Why are these statistics troubling? As rent relief and relief caps are being phased out or eliminated altogether, I think we are going to see a lot more people having their housing threatened because they are no longer able to pay rent. I think we need to be thinking about the numbers of our chronically homeless and how we are going to tend to their needs, but we are never going to get our arms around this problem if we don’t keep people who are housed in their housing.”

A few notable findings in the report:

Overall people counted as HUD homeless increased 30.2% during the pandemic COVID-19 is a reason that many people are experiencing homelessness The increase in people counted as HUD homeless was primarily driven by an increase in people identified as unsheltered. Racial disparities grew somewhat There are continued high rates of disabling conditions reported in the HUD homeless population Chronic homelessness number is up significantly during the pandemic Chronic homelessness number is up significantly during the pandemic Number of veterans identified as HUD homeless held steady Inclusion of Coordinated Entry data changes the picture of HUD homelessness among families Only 10% of those surveyed for the PIT Count reported coming to Multnomah County already homeless and in search of services

Earlier this year, Kerman and other executive directors at local nonprofits published an op-ed saying their organizations are being pushed to the limits with the increased need for homeless services and are requesting help from Portland and Multnomah County.

“There are a lot of amazing nonprofits in our community who have just been doing terrific work serving in an unprecedented crisis,” said Kerman. “Many of the nonprofits, some may be surprised to learn, are not funded by the city or the county or the state. In fact many nonprofits, including Blanchet House, provide services that don’t necessarily qualify for funding. There’s just not funding for hot, prepared meals; that’s what we do. There’s not a lot of funding for the kind of transitional housing programs that we offer. Nonprofits that provide a lot of community space, service, showers, places to rest, maybe some light meals don’t qualify for funding as well. The point of the op-ed is that for all of these nonprofits serving to the extraordinary numbers that we are seeing in our community has come at a financial cost. Our budget next year is going to be close to $3 million. It was just over $1 million three years ago. We’ve more than tripled our staff at Blanchet House just to serve this crisis. The point of the op-ed was to communicate to our public officials that it may be time to rethink what might necessarily qualify for funding because we could use a lot of help.”

Last month, a town hall was held at Blanchet House ahead of a vote on Mayor Ted Wheeler’s homeless plan resolutions. The plan bans camping in unsanctioned areas and opens “campuses” for sanctioned camping, including access to services. The town hall was co-hosted by AfroVillage PDX, Blanchet House, Ground Score Association, Hygiene4All, JOIN, Impact NW, Northwest Pilot Project, Operation Night Watch, Oregon Kids Read, Our Just Future, Portland State University Homelessness Research & Action Collaborative, Rose Haven, Sisters of the Road, Street Books. Urban League PDX and Welcome Home Coalition.

The organizations called on Mayor Wheeler and Commissioner Dan Ryan, who oversees the Portland Housing Bureau and Joint Office of Homeless Services, to talk with people who experienced or are currently experiencing homelessness before they cast their vote. In the end, the Portland City Council voted to pass all of Mayor Wheeler’s homeless plan resolutions with some amendments last Thursday following several hours of testimony.

“It was a great event,” said Kerman. “It was essentially a listening session. Our café space was filled with people who are unhoused or are living in shelters of various kinds and they just told their stories. They also gave feedback on some of the proposals. People had a lot of hard feelings about those plans and to Mayor Wheeler and Commissioner Ryan’s credit, they listened. I’m not sure how much of an impact it had on the vote since all the measures passed, but we were glad people who are unhoused had the opportunity to share their opinions.”

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