If you look at the Homeless Leadership Coalition’s most recent point-in-time count, do so with a grain of salt. Given the way the count is done, there’s no real way to determine just how accurate it is, or is not.
That said, the count is well worth the effort, and its findings shouldn’t be dismissed.
For one thing, the count, which takes place on a single day, never was intended to be anything more than a snapshot. It doesn’t pretend to offer a complete picture of homelessness in Central Oregon or anywhere else similar counts are held.
I do think its numbers reflect, if not the full homelessness problem in the region, at least a slice of it. While some people may be hesitant to say they’re living in a shelter or a car or tent, I can’t imagine why they’d lie about the fact that they do have housing that’s not threatened by rising rent or some other catastrophe. The count, then, probably understates the homelessness problem in the area.
Counts are done at the behest of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, which uses the results when doling out McKinney-Vento Education of Homeless Children and Youth Assistance Act money, among other things. Participation is voluntary, and respondents’ answers are taken at face value.
While the count may not be foolproof, it does have plenty of valuable information.
Among the findings in the 2018 count for Deschutes, Crook and Jefferson counties, completed in January, there’s information about homeless children (under age 18) and youth (18-24) in the region that may surprise you.
As you might expect, the number of “literally homeless” children in our communities is small, but real. They may be living in camps, or in cars or somewhere else where they’re unlikely to draw attention to themselves. For those who go to school, the challenges are likely to seem enormous: Can you imagine sleeping in a tent at night, then going to school the next day without benefit of running water to brush teeth, shower or do the other things that make up most morning routines?
Yet, thanks in no small part to the Family Access Network in Crook and Deschutes counties and the homeless liaisons in each school district in the tri-county area, required by McKinney-Vento, a whopping 72 percent of homeless children in Central Oregon are in school. That’s an unusually high number.
Moreover, it was recognition of the number of homeless kids in the community that helped spur the creation of the Sisters Cold Weather Shelter in that community last winter, says George Myers, a Sisters resident who contracts with the Homeless Leadership Coalition to help it strengthen its services.
There’s another bit of good news in this year’s report. At least 81 percent of those taking part in the survey said they’d been able to get the health care they needed within the past 12 months. That number reflects, but outstrips, statistics from the Kaiser Family Foundation, which looked at the problem of health care access and homelessness in 2014, not long after the Affordable Care Act really kicked in.
In 2013, a year before the ACA, some 57 percent of homeless nationwide were uninsured. In Oregon, that number was a bit higher at 60 percent. By 2014, when Oregon’s dramatically expanded Medicaid program, the Oregon Health Plan, was up and running, that number had fallen to about 13 percent. In states that did not expand Medicaid, the percentage of uninsured homeless remained virtually unchanged.
Even with its flaws, the point-in-time count is a valuable tool, it seems to me. It does provide a snapshot of what’s a real problem, not only in Central Oregon, but across Oregon. That snapshot can be used to shape new programs or reshape old ones to better fit the needs of those who use them, which is, after all, what those programs are all about.
— Janet Stevens is deputy editor of The Bulletin. Contact: 541-617-7821, firstname.lastname@example.org