How many homeless folks are in Portland?

Last week when I was downtown, for the first time in a long time, I saw people sitting on the streets asking for money, sleeping on the sidewalk in the sun, atop their sleeping bag or blanket, at a level I have not seen before in Portland. That evening while talking with some neighbors I brought it up. One of them thought that there were somewhere around 70,000 in Portland. The other said that we have about the same number of homeless people as we have always had – between 2-3,000 but because of the mayor’s decisions about camping on the sidewalks, we are seeing the people who were previously not so visible.

When I came home, I started looking for a correct number.

I used this definition of homeless, taken from the 2015 Point-in-time count of Homelessness in Portland, Gresham, and Multnomah County [www.portlandoregon.gov/phb/article]: people who are unsheltered (e.g. sleeping outside, in a vehicle, a tent, or other place not intended for human habitation) and the One Night Shelter Count, which tallies people sleeping in emergency shelters and transitional housing for the homeless. Here are questions I would like to ask you to try to answer, based on what you have seen, heard, or read:

How many people meet this definition?

How many of them have lived in Portland less than two years?

How many children are in this number? Is an unaccompanied person between 18 and 24 an adult or a child in your mind?

Where are the unsheltered people sleeping–what parts of town?

Is someone who is couch surfing with their family or their friends homeless?
Here’s what I found: 1,887 people were unsheltered, 872  were sleeping in an emergency shelter, and 1,042 were sleeping in transitional housing. In all, 3,801 people met HUD’s definition of homelessness on the night of January 28, 2015. 70% had lived here more than two years. It is actually a bit more complex, so read the report.

To me, a real crisis happened in the Reagan years when the earmarks for all the federal money that was promised to help de-institutionalize the folks in mental institutions was suddenly given to the states to use where ever they wanted, when funding for community mental health was suddenly drastically cut, when the housing that was going to be the foundation of bringing mentally ill folks back into their communities failed and the social workers and nurses who were going to help these folks stay on their meds, find jobs and exist outside the institutions were no longer funded adequately. It led to a lot of changes in our cities and in the lives of the mentally disabled. Not all changes were bad but all have contributed to this “crisis” that has been declared this year, almost 30 years later. And a crisis mentality NOW that justifies rapid changes and permitting may well lead to continued crises in the coming years.

A Sunnyside resident