COVID helped fuel rise in Portland homelessness

Across Multnomah County, nearly 25% of unhoused people said the pandemic directly contributed to their homelessness, according to a federally mandated survey.

In total, 5,228 people, including unsheltered people, those living in temporary shelters and those in transitional housing, were counted as homeless on a single day in January. That represented a nearly 50% increase in unsheltered homelessness and a 30% increase in overall homelessness since 2019, when the last full count was conducted.

The Point in Time Count is a federally mandated physical count of people experiencing homelessness across the country, conducted by local surveyors in each county. Multnomah County’s 2022 count was the first one in the Portland area since before the pandemic, because 2021′s was delayed due to public health concerns.

The count is made up of in-person surveys of those living unsheltered plus tallies of those staying in shelters on a single night in January. Of the 2,000 people who completed the in-person surveys, nearly one in four said the pandemic contributed in some way to their homelessness. That number was slightly higher, 27%, for those who were unsheltered.

“Whether COVID-19 caused them to become homeless or was preventing them from getting off the streets, for many people COVID-19 created both an immediate and potentially fatal health risk,” the report’s authors wrote.

The pandemic compounded failures an already frayed web of resources that crisscrosses between the housing, education, employment, health care, criminal, legal and social services systems, the report said.

While homelessness has increased significantly across the country, county officials said at least some of the increase locally was due to a better tracking system that allowed workers to get closer to a truer count, though they said it is likely still an undercount. For years, point in time counts have has been criticized as capturing just a small portion of those who are homeless.

The full report on Multnomah County’s January count, released on Wednesday, gave deeper glimpses into who is living on the street and what services they might need than initial results made public in May.

Those included racial disparities, highlighting the need for many more culturally specific services. While Black, Indigenous and other people of color make up about 34% of the county’s population, they account for 39% of those who are homeless.

Actual “disparities are likely even higher than what’s captured in the count,” according to a press release from the county.

And despite what people might say in Facebook or NextDoor groups, the data shows that 90% of people who are homeless in the Portland area lived in the county prior to becoming homeless, as opposed to traveling here to seek homeless services.

Just 10% of those surveyed reported arriving in Multnomah County without a home and searching for supportive services. And of those 10%, 40% came from neighboring counties or from the rest of state, where services for unhoused people are far harder to find.

The count was conducted just six months after Clackamas and Washington counties, along with Multnomah, began receiving funding from Metro’s homelessness services measure. Those funds, the press release said, will soon start helping those suburban counties build and sustain more robust service systems and will likely lead to a decrease in people coming to Multnomah County for services in the coming years.

“Services in those communities, along with more funding for services statewide, would help ease pressure on services funded right now in Portland and Multnomah County,” the press release said.

Nicole Hayden reports on homelessness for The Oregonian/OregonLive. She can be reached at or on Twitter @Nicole_A_Hayden.

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