By Marina Starleaf Riker • The Bulletin

Despite working with homeless veterans for years, Cody Standiford came face to face with the magnitude of Central Oregon’s homeless problem when he was tasked with counting and surveying the area’s population in 2015.

As part of conducting the point-in-time count, which provides the community and federal government with a snapshot of the region’s homeless population, Standiford was tasked with locating and interviewing people in areas ranging from the Warm Springs Indian Reservation to irrigation ditches in Deschutes County.

He said he had almost never come across people living in a such an extreme level of poverty.

“To see these folks who are suffering, and talk to them about why it’s important that they talk to us so we can count them was a very challenging experience for all of us,” said Standiford. “That was an incredibly eye-opening and powerful experience.”

Standiford is one of dozens of service providers in Central Oregon who are gearing up to count as many homeless in the region as possible, which is then used to help local agencies ask for federal funding. But counting Central Oregon’s homeless can be especially difficult with people scattered across miles of rural land in Jefferson, Crook and Deschutes counties, outreach workers say.

“You have folks that are spread a little farther and particularly in the remote camps, just simply being physically able to access those camps can be very, very challenging,” said Standiford, co-chairman of the Central Oregon Homeless Leadership Coalition, which oversees the count.

For instance, after receiving a tip from a people camping in Prineville, volunteers tracked down a camp more than 20 miles east toward Ochoco National Forest, Standiford said.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development sets rules about who can be counted as homeless and requires the count to take place a single day in the end of January. Local agencies across the nation use the same process, which helps to ensure that someone who qualifies as homeless in Bend would not be counted as homeless in New York.

Homeless service providers then use that data when applying for federal grants. This year, HUD gave out approximately $1.9 billion to local agencies across the nation to fight homelessness — about $500,000 of that went to Central Oregon programs, which include NeighborImpact in Bend.

“People who don’t know anything about Central Oregon are judging the grant applications,” said Standiford. “Even though it’s not a true representation of the need in the community, it at least gives us a starting point.”

But outreach providers say homelessness in urban and rural areas looks vastly different, which leads to challenges when attempting to count an area’s homeless population.

In a metropolitan area like Portland, volunteers may scour streets, camps and shelters where hundreds of people may be living close together in a dense, urban area. But in rural Central Oregon, surveying homeless can mean driving down dusty, dirt roads to camps spread across miles throughout three different counties. While some volunteers set out to find camps set up on vacant land outside of Redmond, others comb through campgrounds in the region’s national forests.

“There’s lots of factors at play, but it’s easier to do a metropolitan area in my opinion,” said Molly Heiss, associate director of housing stabilization at NeighborImpact in Bend. “There are so many different places that people can be counted without actually having to go somewhere.”

In rural areas, homeless populations are often more transient, moving between areas that are deliberately hard to find, she said. Meanwhile, some people are wary of being surveyed, fearing that it could lead to being kicked off land they’re living on, she said.

“Instead of people coming to us, we’re going to have to go out and find these populations,” said Heiss. “And that can be a challenge because they don’t want to be found.”

For example, Standiford said getting some people to participate in the survey was particularly difficult in 2015 after the city of Bend cleared out homeless encampments at Juniper Ridge, a 1,500-acre city-owned property.

“Anyone who had been associated with Juniper Ridge was pretty hesitant to talk to us because they were afraid that they were going to get kicked out again,” Standiford said.

This year, outreach workers are trying to contact the homeless ahead of time to build trust before the count in January, he said. During the count, people are asked questions about why they became homeless in the first place. That information helps organizations figure out whether they’re providing the right kind of services and how much funding they should request from HUD.

The Central Oregon Homeless Leadership Coalition has been counting all unsheltered and shelters individuals every two years, but it’s planning to do the count every year going forward, said Standiford. That will provide a more accurate picture of the homeless population and show HUD that Central Oregon is taking the problem seriously, he said.

The last full count was conducted in 2015 — about 100 volunteers tallied up about 594 homeless people, said Standiford.

This year, the coalition is organizing the count differently than previous years, Standiford said. The three counties will be divided into nine areas, with a volunteer to represent each area. Those 27 people will be in charge of recruiting people to count and survey as many homeless as possible.

“The goal is to really saturate our communities with eyes, ears and clipboards so we can get as many people counted as possible,” said Standiford.

­— Reporter: 541-633-2160,

mriker@bendbulletin.com

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