County among top in state for homelessness

Areas near the Astoria Riverwalk and the Astoria Transit Center are popular with the homeless during the summer months.

Clatsop County is among the top five counties in the state for homelessness.

The county ranks just under the much­ larger Multnomah, Lane, Marion and Deschutes counties, with an estimated 682 homeless people out of a total population of 38,632, according to a federally mandated point-in-time count completed across the country in January.

But local social-service advocates say the numbers collected only tell one part of the story.

First of all, the county’s homeless population is much larger.

Clatsop Community Action, a nonprofit based in Astoria that provides food, rental assistance and housing, estimates the county has more than 1,000 homeless people at any given time.

Many of these people are “the invisible homeless,” said Elaine Bruce, executive director of Clatsop Community Action. They are not on the street corners or sleeping under bridges; instead, they may be doubling-up with families and friends.

“It’s not a true picture of what we have,” Alan Evans, director of Seaside’s Helping Hands, said of the point-in-time count. Last year, Helping Hands alone served nearly 700 homeless people and is on course to exceed that figure this year, Evans said.

The point-in-time count occurs every two years during the last 10 days of January. According to this year’s survey, the number of homeless people in Oregon increased by 6 percent, jumping from 13,176 individuals in 2015 to just under 14,000 in 2017.

The survey acknowledges there are gaps in the count, saying the purpose is to provide “a snapshot of homelessness in the United States.”

But the difference in numbers from what the survey reports and what Clatsop County organizations see exists in part because of definitions.

The federal government defines homelessness as “sheltered and unsheltered,” meaning a homeless person is using a service like a shelter or is living somewhere not typically considered habitable: their car, for instance, or a sleeping bag in a doorway.

Oregon’s organizations, and Clatsop Community Action, however, also include people who are “precariously housed,” couch surfing or doubled up with friends or family or in danger of losing housing, people who are not “traditionally homeless,” in Bruce’s words.

Clatsop Community Action and Helping Hands also draw on data collected by school districts.

Evans and Bruce say it is difficult to count a population that is constantly shifting. The point-in-time count provides a fairly accurate base number for who is using services during what is often the coldest time of the year in Oregon.

Lack of housing, higher rents, decreasing median incomes and a population boom across the state contributed to Oregon’s increase in homelessness, this year’s point-in-time survey suggests. According to recent Census Bureau data, Oregon was the sixth fastest-growing state in the nation last year, while also experiencing a “critically low housing supply,” an Oregon Housing and Community Services summary of the point-in-time findings states.

“Tens of thousands of people are simply unable to afford these rising housing costs and have had to sleep in shelters, in their cars, or on the street,” the summary said.

In Clatsop County, this is certainly the case, Bruce and Evans said. They see where this has hit families in the community.

Fifteen years ago, social-service groups served mostly homeless men, Bruce said. “Now you’re seeing whole families.”

Evans said Helping Hands has also seen an increase in senior citizens needing assistance.

“And those numbers are growing,” he said.

Multnomah County tops the list for this year’s point-of-time survey with an estimated 4,177 homeless, about 30 percent of the state’s entire homeless population.

The majority of the homeless statewide are white, but minorities are overrepresented. “For instance,” the survey summary states, “African Americans make up just 2 percent of the population in Oregon, but make up 6 percent of the homeless population in Oregon and Native Americans make up 1.1 percent of the total population and 4.2 percent of the homeless population.”