Town halls on homelessness

Community town halls on homelessness will be held across Central Oregon. Those interested in learning more about the Point-in-Time count results and discussing local implications and solutions can attend the following town halls:

Warm Springs: 5:30 p.m. May 31 at Family Resource Center Conference Room Health & Human Services Branch

La Pine: 5 p.m. June 1 at Mid State Electric Community Room, 16755 Finley Butte Road

Bend: 8 a.m. June 2 at Downtown Library, Brooks Room

Sisters: 5:30 p.m. June 5 at Sisters-Camp Sherman Fire Department Community Hall, 301 South Elm St.

Redmond: 5 p.m. June 6, location TBD

Madras: Noon June 15 at Madras St. Charles, Metolius Conference Room (hosted by the Faith Based Network)

Prineville: TBD

The annual one-day count of homeless people in Central Oregon released Tuesday showed a striking increase, but the number could have been even higher.

Volunteers tallied 778 homeless people during the Point-in-Time Count on Jan. 25, in the midst of a historic winter in the region. Despite the harsh weather, the count was still a 31 percent increase over the 594 homeless recorded in 2015.

The Point-in-Time Count is part of a national effort by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to identify the number of people struggling to find adequate housing across the country.

Each count defines homelessness in two categories — sheltered and unsheltered. Sheltered homeless are those in transitional housing, hotels or emergency shelters. Unsheltered homeless are those living outside, in their cars or in an abandoned building.

The counts have also alternated each year between the categories. Last year, only sheltered homeless individuals were tallied. This year, sheltered and unsheltered were counted, as they were in 2015.

Of the 778 homeless counted this year, the number of unsheltered homeless in Central Oregon rose 35 percent — from 405 in 2015 to 548 in January.

Cody Standiford — co-chair of the Homeless Leadership Coalition, a group of partners in Deschutes, Crook and Jefferson counties that oversees the homeless count — said volunteers could have counted even more homeless on a milder winter day.

“That was a tough time to be out even for the volunteers,” Standiford said. “It was cold and nasty. If we had different weather, we would have had even higher numbers.”

Standiford said it is important to remember the Point-in-Time Count is just a snapshot of homelessness. The Homeless Leadership Coalition does a separate count that includes people who are sheltered in friends’ homes. When expanding the definition, the coalition found 2,087 homeless in 2015.

During the January count, the most common reasons for becoming homeless were an inability to pay rent followed by unemployment. More people become homeless before losing their jobs, Standiford said.

“We all kind of assume people lose their job and then become homeless, but more often people lose their home and then are unable to maintain their employment,” he said.

Another troubling fact from the Point-in-Time Count is the number of homeless children, Standiford said. Volunteers counted 163 homeless children, a 26 percent increase since 2015. Of those children, 129 were unsheltered, which is a 30 percent increase from 2015.

“We have a lot of families and children,” Standiford said. “I can tell you personally from all the families and children I spoke to, they don’t choose to be homeless. The overwhelming majority would prefer not to be homeless.”

The number of homeless children counted Jan. 25 is only a fraction of what Bend-La Pine Schools sees each year. In the 2014-15 school year, the most recent year that data is available, the district had 680 homeless students, according to an Oregon Department of Education report. The school district defines homeless students as those who lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.

Dana Pedersen — principal at Ensworth Elementary School in Bend who oversees education of homeless students and works with the Family Access Network for Bend-La Pine Schools — said most homeless students are living with other families, what she calls “doubled-up” living.

“Obviously, affordable housing is problematic for our community and for many communities,” Pedersen said. “Typically we see families living with other families for economic reasons. Our doubled-up count has been the largest group of students.”

Bend-La Pine Schools has a homeless liaison and a group of advisers with Family Access Network, a nonprofit that connects children and their parents with services such as food, shelter, health care and clothing. The liaison and advisers work to ensure students are able to stay in school, answering questions they or their parents may have.

“We take a broader view of homelessness because we are more worried about kids accessing education,” Pedersen said.

Along with children, the Point-in-Time Count saw an increase in all categories, including families, adults, the chronically homeless and sheltered and unsheltered.

Curt Floski, executive director of the Shepherd’s House in Bend, said he also worries about the elderly and disabled who live on fixed incomes. As the cost of rent continues to increase, that could affect those vulnerable communities, he said.

“Their rents continue to go up and they don’t have the capacity or ability to make some additional money for their situation,” Floski said.

Overall, the swell in homeless numbers should be a wake up call for local groups to continue to work together, Standiford said.

“We have numbers that are rising and rising by double digits over a two-year period,” Standiford said. “We need to see that for what it is and use it as a call to action.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7820, kspurr@bendbulletin.com

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