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Homeless count nears

In 2013, the annual “point in time” count of homeless individuals living in Wasco County amounted to 133. However, Jim Slusher, director of the Mid-Columbia Community Action Council, said that number will be up for re-evaluation in less than a week.

On Jan. 29, Community Action, a nonprofit organization, along with its multiple partner organizations, will conduct a new count of individuals currently living homeless somewhere in the region.

The Action Council also covers both Hood River and Sherman counties, where a combined total of 160 people were included in homeless counts last year.

Counts are held all across Oregon during the month of January, and because the definition of homelessness was narrowed in 2013 by the Department of Human Services, Slusher said last year’s count ended up being one of the lowest they’d had in years.

“The tough part is that you can’t say it’s necessarily more accurate than the previous ones because of that,” Slusher said. “It’s difficult to locate every single person that should be included in the count simply because they’re just all over the place. They may be out on the street or sleeping in the park, couch surfing or otherwise and therefore don’t necessarily get included in our records.”

Although instances of duplication, or recording one homeless individual as two or more on the official count, have been significantly reduced as a result of the revamped definition, those people who live more “off the grid” are still unlikely to be included in the final numbers.

“In the city, you’ve got tent cities and big shelters where you can hand out the forms you need to and get a pretty good idea of who’s out there. But here, in a rural community, people get pretty scattered and can be hidden almost anywhere across the map.”

Community partners in the Action Council’s count, which include the Department of Human Services, Community Meals, HAVEN from Domestic Violence and Wasco County School Districts, combine efforts in order to produce the most accurate numbers they can and to cover the most territory possible.

When it first went into practice, Slusher said, the count was used as a purely informational tool. However, now that the final number of homeless people in a given area can have the power to determine important funding factors and whether or not particular grants can or will be awarded, it’s “in everyone’s best interests to locate and record as many of the region’s homeless as possible.”

However, one obstacle to accuracy is that homeless individuals sometimes do not wish to be approached or to participate in the count.

“They back away sometimes,” he said. “When you approach them, they say, ‘Oh, don’t bother with me. I’m fine, I’m getting by.’ The problem with that, however, is that it means we may get less funding, money which could eventually come back around to helping them in the future.”

“It’s also important to understand,” Slusher said, “that when we say ‘homeless,’ we don’t just mean the people that are forced to sleep outside during the coldest months of the year.”

“Homeless,” according to standards used by the Department of Housing and Development (HUD), can also mean a displaced family that has been evicted from their home with nowhere to go, or a woman who has fled a domestic violence situation and is being lodged at a temporary safe house.

“With these kinds of variations,” Slusher said, “you can imagine the difficulty of accurately locating and recording all of these cases. However, with the help of our community partners, we do the absolute best job of it we can.”

Slusher reported that the way this year’s count will be conducted will mirror that which was done in 2013. The “point in time” form has already been distributed to the Community Action Council’s partners and on Jan. 29, it will be up to each organization to “do their part” in the recording process.

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