Oregon got a spot of bright news in an otherwise grim report on the nation’s homelessness crisis released Thursday.
The review, conducted annually by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, found Oregon had the largest one-year decrease in the absolute number of people experiencing homelessness of any state in the country.
According to the analysis, the state’s homeless population declined by about 1,200 people between January 2019 and 2020.
The numbers themselves are not new — they’re based on annual point-in-time estimates from January of 2020. The review found 14,655 people experiencing homelessness across the state.
But the comparison with other states is novel. According to the report, no other state had a larger one-year decrease.
The numbers have likely shifted dramatically in the following year, however. The economic fallout from the pandemic has put hundreds of thousands on the brink of eviction. Experts predict a sharp rise in homelessness once local eviction moratoriums expires — if this hasn’t already happened. Many regions, including Multnomah County, put the annual point-in-time count on hold this year due to public health concerns.
“What makes these findings even more devastating is that they are based on data from before COVID-19, and we know the pandemic has only made the homelessness crisis worse,” Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Marcia Fudge said in a video that accompanied the report’s release Thursday.
The report painted a dark picture for the homelessness crisis nationwide with the number of people living on the streets or in shelters increasing for the fourth year in a row. A disproportionate number were people of color.
According to the report, Black people made up 39% of the 580,000 people experiencing homelessness across the country during the yearly count, despite comprising about 12% of overall population. About a quarter of people experiencing homelessness identified as Hispanic or Latino.
Nationwide, the report found a 2% increase in the size of the homeless population. Meanwhile, Oregon saw an 8% decrease.
The significance of that single decrease, however, is up for debate. Those numbers are reported by Continuums of Care — local entities tasked with coordinating homeless services in an area — to the federal government through the annual point-in-time survey. Dr. Marisa Zapata, director of the Homelessness Research & Action Collaborative at Portland State University, said the count is not comprehensive and all sorts of factors could be driving a decrease that doesn’t necessarily mean Oregon leaders tackled the homelessness crisis in 2020 any more effectively than they did in 2019.
“The PIT count is about who you find, and so if you don’t try hard to find people one year, you have a lower count. And if you had people move over to another state, like move over the line from Oregon to Washington, your rate goes down. And if you had people just start doubling up more, for HUD, your count goes down,” she said.
Zapata said this leads to an inevitable undercount.
“The point in time count is not going to give us the full count of who’s experiencing homelessness,” she said.
While Oregon saw a dip in the right direction, the rate of people experiencing homelessness was still unusually high compared with nearly every other state in America.
The federal review found 35 people in Oregon experiencing homelessness per 10,000 people. Only three states had a worse rate, New York City (47 people per 10,000), Hawaii (46 people per 10,000) and California (41 people per 10,000).
Oregon also had one of the highest rates of unhoused people who were living unsheltered, tied for second place with Nevada. Both states saw 61%of their homeless population living outdoors. Only California had a higher rate.