Washington

Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties are coordinating to improve the accuracy of homelessness data

Jacen Greene, left, and Dr.  Marisa Zapata views point-in-time count data at the Regional Incident Command Center in Portland, January 25, 2023. This year marks the first time the region's three counties have used a common analysis and methodology.

Jacen Greene, left, and Dr. Marisa Zapata views point-in-time count data at the Regional Incident Command Center in Portland, January 25, 2023. This year marks the first time the region’s three counties have used a common analysis and methodology.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

Every two years, local authorities travel through their jurisdictions, counting people living under bridges, on the sidewalk or in public parks, among other things.

This is called point-in-time counting.

Officials from Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties have been working together for years to try to increase the accuracy of the census. And this year they’re trying something new: they’ll all use the same methodology and coordinate through the same organization, the Homelessness Research and Action Collaborative at Portland State University.

“HRAC is able to see a real-time, global three-county picture of where survey respondents are going and getting work done,” said Denis Theriault, communications director for Multnomah County. “They can better customize where people go to make sure no areas are missed.”

Every day and night through Tuesday, January 31st, assessors will work to reach out to as many people affected by homelessness as possible and ask them where they slept on the night of January 24th. Authorities plan to cross-check this count with records of services received – to make sure everyone is counted. Records are also deduplicated, so no one is counted twice.

Over 400 surveyors will be spread out across the tri-county area to take stock of the number of homeless people in the area, many of whom are using a new phone app that can collect and share real-time information.

Over 400 surveyors will be spread out across the tri-county area to take stock of the number of homeless people in the area, many of whom are using a new phone app that can collect and share real-time information.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

Theriault said a more reliable regional census and more thorough regional coverage would mean counties collecting data in the same way.

“This year’s point-in-time count reflects our values ​​in creating a broader, data-driven response to this crisis,” Multnomah County Chairperson Jessica Vega Pederson said in a statement.

The collaboration coincides with calls from Vega Pederson to create a regional Incident Command Center for homelessness and Gov. Tina Kotek’s declaration of a state of emergency.

Theriault said a similar effort last year helped identify hundreds more homeless people.

Accuracy issues have affected counting in the past. Part of the problem is how the survey is structured. For example, someone sleeping on a friend’s couch is not included. Authorities say homeless people of color are underrepresented as statistically they are more likely to double with a friend. People staying in emergency shelters are counted.

Even the count is only a snapshot of one night. Experts note that the number of homeless people is significantly decreasing and falling over time. It is said that the count is not a reliable way of finding out how many people need services over the course of a year.

The census also relies on polls that ask people about sensitive issues. Surveyors ask people about demographics such as age, race, ethnicity, length of time they have been homeless, whether they have a disability, and whether they are veterans or have experienced domestic violence. Some people may not feel comfortable discussing their personal life with a stranger, so the survey is prone to human error.

Lori Kelley of the Multnomah County Joint Office of Homeless Services, left, Project Manager Carolyn Niehaus and Jacob Grigor, both of HRAC, look at the data in the command center.

Lori Kelley of the Multnomah County Joint Office of Homeless Services, left, Project Manager Carolyn Niehaus and Jacob Grigor, both of HRAC, look at the data in the command center.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

But for all its shortcomings, the semi-annual point-in-time census is important because without it, the federal government won’t allocate federal funds and grants designed to help states provide services to combat homelessness.

“I’m proud of the collaboration between counties as we strive to ensure the census captures the complex needs in our area,” Washington County Chairperson Kathryn Harrington said in a statement.

There are some concerns that efforts to clean up Portland’s Old Town Chinatown ahead of the Lunar New Year celebrations could alter the count.

But Theriault of Multnomah County said nonprofit workers and government employees knew who was homeless in most areas, “we couldn’t use someone’s impression for official purposes,” he said. “But people generally know where people are, especially outreach staff. They do the rounds. you see people You know who’s there.”

Jason Greene of the Portland State Homelessness Research Center said pandemic policies affected last year’s count.

“I think at this point it’s really hard to know how the numbers are going to come out of the pandemic — with the end of emergency rental assistance and other similar programs,” Greene said.

The results of this time count are expected this spring.

In this 2018 photo provided by Multnomah County, a surveyor speaks to a man on the street during the point-in-time census, which provides a snapshot of the area's homeless population.  The evaluators will spend the next week talking to as many homeless people as possible to get an accurate picture of the homeless population in the border triangle.

In this 2018 photo provided by Multnomah County, a surveyor speaks to a man on the street during the point-in-time census, which provides a snapshot of the area’s homeless population. The evaluators will spend the next week talking to as many homeless people as possible to get an accurate picture of the homeless population in the border triangle.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

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