Just How Big is Portland’s Homelessness Problem?

What’s tricky about quantifying homelessness is that it depends a lot on your definition. Do people living in temporary shelters count as homeless? What about people who are couchsurfing? Or living in cars? It can get confusing in a hurry, but here’s what we know:

The federal government’s official definition of homelessness includes anyone who’s unsheltered (i.e. sleeping on the streets or in cars), living in transitional housing (such as drug treatment centers), or using emergency overnight shelters.

The last official count, in 2017, found that 4,177 people fit that description in Multnomah County — up from 3,801 in 2015 but down from the record high of 4,655 in 2011. (The next count will happen in early 2019.)

The official numbers don’t include people who are doubling up with friends or family, but reports by the Oregon Department of Education do, and it’s a very big number.

ODE estimates there were 9,522 students and family members living doubled-up in Multnomah County in 2015-16 — and there are likely thousands more who aren’t reflected in those stats because they don’t have kids in public schools.

So, what’s the city doing about it? Let’s start with the good news.

The Portland area now has a region-wide housing strategy and collaboration — known as A Home for Everyone — and it’s making some progress. The group’s latest analysis found that local agencies are getting 33 percent more people placed into permanent housing than just two years ago, and they’re serving 25 percent more people in emergency shelters.

Those are big improvements, but most Portlanders aren’t seeing the impact in their neighborhood or on their block. One big reason why: Our city’s homelessness problem is growing faster than our response to it.

According to the 2017 count, almost a third of Portland’s unsheltered homeless population was living on the streets for the first time — and it’s no mystery why. The average cost of rent in Portland has spiked more than 30 percent since 2010, while incomes have stayed nearly flat.

Homelessness prevention programs try to limit the impacts on low-income Portlanders, and last year alone they helped more than 5,000 people stay in stable housing.

But the problem is bigger than that. In the Portland Metro area, there’s a deficit of 47,000 affordable homes for people making less than $25,000/year — and even Metro’s proposed $652 million housing bond won’t be enough to fully address the shortage.