Initial results from the 2023 Portland region’s homeless point-in-time count are out and data from this year is promising. Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties all showed a drop in chronic homelessness. That number is down 17 percent, compared to 2022.
Multnomah County also reported a record number of people using the county’s shelters and a disproportionate amount of BIPOC people experiencing homelessness. The count is just a one-night snapshot of the people experiencing homelessness in the tri-county region and a full report with in-depth analysis is expected to come in the summer.
OPB’s Tiffany Camhi recently spoke with Dr. Marisa Zapata, director of Portland State University’s Homelessness Research and Action Collaborative, about this year’s count. The following transcript of their conversation has been edited for clarity.
Tiffany Camhi: This year’s point-in-time count asked people experiencing homelessness in the region where they slept on the night of January 24th, 2023. What are your initial reactions to the numbers?
Marisa Zapata: I think we see some positive trends. All three counties saw a decrease in the number of people experiencing chronic homelessness, which tells us that we are either resolving homelessness for people experiencing chronic homelessness or we’re preventing people from becoming chronically homeless by housing them faster. We also see some really great numbers coming out of Washington County — a really significant decrease across the board for them.
There are some potentially more complicated interpretations also. Multnomah County’s numbers are up, but the county greatly expanded its shelter capacity. So that is part of the explanation for the number increase.
Camhi: Point-in-time count numbers can sometimes be really confusing for people. What should the public take into consideration when they see this report?
Zapata: For me, it’s understanding that there is a context in which these numbers exist. The other thing to really keep in mind is that these numbers aren’t really comparable in the way that people would want them to be. Every year things change, methodologies change.
This year, we used an app. The weather can be different and there can be pressures on people to hide more. We did have a sweep this year in the middle of the count in downtown Portland. Normally there aren’t any sweeps going on during the count. All of those things can impact what is going on. This is a one-night count and it’s never going to get us the full portrait of people experiencing homelessness.
Camhi: PSU’s Homelessness Research and Action Collaborative helped organize the count this year. What was the reasoning behind this coordination?
Zapata: We’re a region. Housing markets and homelessness do not know jurisdictional boundaries. It was an opportunity to be more efficient in how we do the count.
The other opportunity that came up was the ability to de-duplicate all of the data across all three counties. Before, you couldn’t figure out if a person who reported experiencing homelessness in Multnomah County on the night of the count was in shelter system data in Washington County.
Camhi: How should the general public view these numbers when they come out?
Zapata: It’s really thinking about the context that the numbers go with. Why does Washington County have such a significant decrease in homelessness? Well, there actually has been a massive expansion of housing and sheltering opportunities there. That’s proving that something’s working.
So I think it’s more of a question. Not this went up or down. It’s asking, “What does this tell us about how our system is performing and what are the plausible explanations for that?” It’s really boring. People just want to know if we are ending homelessness.
Camhi: There’s an acknowledgement now that these counts are imperfect, that it doesn’t encapsulate everything happening with a homeless individual. Should point-in-time counts still be used as a measure of how well homeless services are working in an area?
Zapata: I don’t think the point-in-time count actually tells us how well we are doing. It tells us if something is going on in our system, like what is allowing people to become homeless or what is forcing people to become homeless.
The counts don’t actually help policymakers understand what we need. What we need is more housing. There is a need for behavioral health workers and other kinds of support services. It actually doesn’t change the policy solutions and it doesn’t actually change the overall funding because we’re already talking about hundreds of millions of dollars to meet the need for housing. We already know the solution to ending homelessness is housing.
Camhi: So what should people take away from this report?
Zapata: The counties are going to say we are more effectively responding to homelessness: that we’re serving more people and that we’re resolving chronic homelessness at a certain rate. I’m inclined to support that at this point. But I do want to see some more digging, particularly when I look at these racial disparity numbers. What’s really happening there? We don’t want to lose sight if there is something acutely impacting our communities of color in a negative way.