A one-night count of homeless people in Portland and Multnomah County in February found that homelessness continues to grow, but local leaders have made progress getting people into temporary shelter.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requires communities to periodically count people living on the streets or in emergency shelter on a single night. 

The Portland count took place a month later than in past years, on Feb. 24, due to rough weather.

Volunteers surveyed homeless people at more than 120 sites that provide services, including meal programs, libraries and clinics. They also counted people found camping in parks, in cars and on sidewalks.

Counters tallied a total of 4,177 homeless people sleeping outdoors or in homeless shelters, a 10 percent increase in homelessness since the last count in 2015.

But the count showed a big increase in the number of people sleeping in shelter beds as opposed to outdoors and a small decrease in the population outdoors.

The point-in-time count found 2,509 people in shelters or transitional housing, a 31 percent increase since the 2015 count, and 1,668 people sleeping outdoors or in cars, a 11.6 percent decrease since 2015.

In a memo to Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury and other members of the city’s “A Home for Everyone” initiative, Marc Jolin, director of the Joint Office of Homeless Services, speculated the decrease in the street count, despite rising housing costs, was a result of the city’s recent investments in temporary shelter. 

“The decline,” he wrote, “likely reflects our community’s significant expansion of prevention, housing placement, and emergency shelter capacity over the past two years.”

By contrast, Jolin said, Los Angeles and Seattle reported significant increases in their homeless street counts this year.

But in the memo, Jolin cautions that the point-in-time count is a fundamentally limited method of tracking changes in the homeless population, and that people living outdoors are almost certainly undercounted.

Other Oregon cities and counties have reported increases in both their overall homeless populations and in the number of people sleeping on the street this year.  

In Eugene and Lane County, for example, the overall homeless count grew by 5 percent, and the number of people counted without shelter jumped from 716 in 2015 to 1,003 this year.

In Central Oregon, in a survey area that stretched from La Pine to Warm Springs, the homeless population counted grew by 31 percent between 2015 and 2017, though some of that jump could be a result of a change in the survey methods.  

Central Oregon also reported a particularly high percentage of homeless children living outdoors, as opposed to in shelters. There, more than 80 percent of the homeless children counted by volunteers were sleeping outside.

By contrast, in Portland and Mulntomah County, where the family shelter capacity has recently expanded, less than 15 percent of homeless families identified by the count were living outside.