Lane County Homeless Point-in-Time Count 2016: Programs are working but homelessness is still a major problem

Photo of a homeless man. He has a gray beard and is wearing a hooded sweatshirt and a baseball cap. He is looking at the camera and smiling.

The numbers are in from Lane County’s 2016 Homeless Point-in-Time Count and they offer a sign of hope for what remains a serious issue. This year 1,451 homeless people were counted, but that was a 1.5 percent decrease from 2015 numbers—suggesting that initiatives like ShelterCare’s Supported Housing Program are having a positive impact.

But what exactly is the Point-in-Time Count and why is it important?

Lane County, as a participant in the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Continuum of Care Program, is required to do an annual count of homeless persons. The count takes place on a single night in January and provides valuable data revealing both the size of Lane County’s homelessness problem and how well programs to fight homelessness are working.

To conduct the count, teams of trained county employees and volunteers fanned out across both urban and rural areas to locate unhoused people. They visited legally designated places where homeless people gather, including emergency shelters, food pantries and transitional housing programs, as well as parks, bridges and other places not meant for human habitation. When encountering an unhoused individual, workers asked the person a series of questions to learn more about his or her situation.

Critics argue that the effort undercounts the true number of homeless people because many are hiding or camping in difficult-to-access locations. Regardless of the accuracy of the count, the data gathered reveals meaningful year-to-year trends about unhoused people in our community. The results of this year’s count are a case in point.

“We have learned that moving people from homelessness to permanent supportive housing makes a huge difference,” commented Pearl Wolfe, Lane County Human Services supervisor, upon release of the 2016 data. “The upside for this year is that 644 homeless people could be found living in permanent housing designated for homeless people on the night of the count.”

About one-third of those formerly homeless people are living in permanent housing thanks to ShelterCare’s Supported Housing Program, which now serves more than 200 Lane County clients. The program is expanding in 2016 because of 30 new housing units financed by an Oregon Health Authority rental assistance grant, but with 1,451 people still unhoused, much more work must be done to address homelessness in Lane County.

Consider some of the other information revealed by the Point-in-Time count: 574 chronically homeless people; 434 people suffering from a mental illness; and 232 people with chronic alcohol or substance use issues. Another 224 people were members of homeless households with children and 13 were unaccompanied homeless youth. These sobering figures reveal that homelessness reflects a variety of problems and cuts across all parts of our community. It is an issue that will take a coordinated collaboration of nonprofits, government agencies, businesses and private citizens to solve. But the good news revealed by this year’s Point-in-Time data is that efforts by ShelterCare and other organizations to house and support homeless individuals are leading to positive results.

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