A couple of years ago, Tony Boyd was a sheet metal fabricator in Arizona.
On Tuesday, he was the guy with a long beard and a knit hat, holding up a cardboard sign at the intersection of Third and Division in Bend, hoping to get enough change, food and propane to make it through another cold night.
Today, he'll be one of the people that volunteers hope to meet as they fan out around Central Oregon for the area's one-day homeless count. The survey, organized each year by the Homeless Leadership Coalition, aims to track the number of people living in camps, motels, vehicles and other temporary shelters.
Last year, the count found 2,237 people identified as homeless, up from 1,736 in 2008. However, the definition of homeless varies between the state and the federal government, and critics argue that the state's view is too broad.
Still, with the recession continuing to spark layoffs and belt-tightening, the event's organizers — and some of the people they plan to count — say they expect this year's numbers to be even higher. And because many people who have fallen on hard times don't consider themselves homeless or don't want to be counted, they say the survey is only a snapshot of the bigger picture of homelessness in the area.
Boyd, 43, said he lost his job about a year ago and then got by for a while on day labor work. But when that dried up, he found himself on the street.
These days, he said, his story is a common one.
“There are a lot of people who had jobs and places to live who are out here just like that,” he said, snapping his fingers.
The new faces of homelessness
Standing outside Bethlethem Inn, a homeless shelter on North Highway 97 in Bend, smoking a cigarette, Amy Gilcrease said she came to Sunriver from Salem to live with her boyfriend after losing her job as a housekeeper. They scraped by until her boyfriend lost his job and they fell behind on the rent for one month, and then another.
On Tuesday, Gilcrease, 41, said she'd been living at the shelter for two days. She's working hard to get out, walking for miles to put in applications at any place that might need a housekeeper.
“I'm determined,” she said. “I've gone to Burger King, McDonalds, wherever I can get a paycheck.”
Chris Clouart, managing director of Bethlehem Inn, said the economic downturn has created a dramatic change in the local homeless population.
“A few years ago, when the economy was good, the core type of person who came to homeless shelters might be considered mentally ill or people with rather severe substance abuse issues,” he said. “What we're seeing now is more people saying, ‘I've got no idea what to do for the next week and a half, I never expected to be here.' And people being released from jail — those are the ones coming here.”
At Bend's Community Center, Executive Director Taffy Gleason said she's seen people who once donated to the center's programs come in asking for help.
“We see people (in a situation where) both spouses were working and they both got laid off,” she said. “We've seen people that had nice homes and were living a nice lifestyle that are now looking for low-income housing because they've lost their house and have nowhere to go. Families going from low- to middle income that have dropped below the poverty line between six months to a year.”
A tough count
The count aims to find homeless people in Crook, Deschutes and Jefferson counties with the help of volunteers traveling out to camps and motels. They also will be at designated centers where people can turn up to be counted — and, in some cases, get a free meal.
Local agencies use the numbers from the count to assess the level of services they'll need to provide and apply for grants to help fund their work.
Getting accurate numbers, however, is tricky. A particularly snowy or cold day can keep people from showing up at the count centers and can make it difficult for volunteers to hike out into wooded camps.
Many homeless people live in camps around Central Oregon — Gleason estimates that there are more than 50 — often in wooded areas or along railroad tracks. Bend has two permanent shelters, Bethlehem Inn and The Shepherd's House, a faith-based organization that provides beds for men.
Even if they're contacted by volunteers, many people don't want to be counted.
Bud Forler, 46, said he's been homeless off and on for the past couple of years. He lives in a tent and said he knows several people in similar situations who avoid the count because they worry they'll be kicked off their campsite.
“I believe they're not finding a lot of homeless,” he said. “People will hide.”
With many people finding themselves on the street for the first time or trying to get by while staying on a friend's couch or in a shelter for a few days, identifying who is homeless is particularly challenging.
Gleason said the count misses many people because they are at work, at school or simply don't consider themselves homeless.
“On any given Sunday, people will come in here refusing to label themselves as homeless,” she said. “They are very proud, very determined that they are considered maybe low-income or whatever, but not homeless. They've got a job and they're living in their car, they've got a job and they're living in a garage, they've got a job and they're living in a nice tent, and they will tell you they're not homeless.”
For the Central Oregon count, volunteers include people who are living in camps and shelters along with people who are temporarily staying with friends and relatives, often doubled or tripled up in a space meant for one family or person. Last year, 1,193 people included in the count were living with friends or relatives.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development defines a homeless person as “an individual who lacks a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence,” and mentions people living in shelters, but not specifically people living in homes or apartments with family or friends. The state of Oregon, meanwhile, has a broader definition of homelessness that includes people in those situations.
Under the state's definition, nearly 1,100 students in Central Oregon were considered homeless during the 2008-09 school year, according to the Oregon Department of Education.
The results from the count are typically not available for several months.
Don Senecal, a volunteer helping to coordinate the event, said organizers know the count has its limits — but also know that it's an important measure of the community's needs.
“We know that this count is absolutely essential for us to plan on being able to provide services,” he said.