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Agencies search for rural homeless in Oregon

ALICE MARTIN, left, Karen Holm, Don Wick, right, all of Pasco join other members of the Pasco First Lutheran Church Bible study group Tuesday Jan. 27, 2014 to assemble snack packs for the homeless. People can also buy the snack packs for $2 from the church and hand them out to the needy as they see fit.

ALICE MARTIN, left, Karen Holm, Don Wick, right, all of Pasco join other members of the Pasco First Lutheran Church Bible study group Tuesday Jan. 27, 2014 to assemble snack packs for the homeless. People can also buy the snack packs for $2 from the church and hand them out to the needy as they see fit. AP Photo/Paul T. Erickson

PENDLETON (AP) — Gary Brown approached the dilapidated yellow station wagon in the Walmart parking lot slowly.

A dog peered through the smudged glass, barking loudly, and Brown glimpsed a man sleeping on the front bench seat. He rapped gently on the window.

“Good morning,” Brown said, after the man rolled it down. “I don’t want to intrude or bother you.”

He explained he was participating in an annual survey to count homeless people. The point-in-time survey would reveal approximate numbers of homeless in the county.

Each January, agencies across the nation take a day to help the Department of Housing and Urban Development count the nation’s homeless population.

On Tuesday, teams scoured Pendleton, Hermiston and surrounding areas. Brown and Steve Nelson, both from Veterans Affairs in Walla Walla, headed to Walmart, where they located the sleeping man, and then hiked Pendleton’s River Parkway.

Jennifer Richards, who organized the local point-in-time count, searched parks and known camping spots along the river. She said she knows they didn’t capture everyone.

“Some people are just off the grid,” she said. “We make a really big effort to capture everyone we can.”

She said the numbers of homeless appear to be dropping, though that may be a matter of better data collection and not double-counting people. Last year, the count revealed 171 homeless people in Umatilla County, down from 195 in 2012.

On Tuesday, the mercury had dropped to 29 degrees. Most homeless people evidently were couch surfing or hanging out at the library or other warm spots.

Brown and Nelson strolled the parkway anyway, carrying data sheets on clipboards. They would gather basic information about each homeless person — their age, situation, amount of time they’d been without stable housing and other details.

Brown, an Air Force veteran with a long goatee, wore a leather jacket and knit cap to ward off the chill.

He hailed a passing walker to ask if he’d seen anyone who might be homeless. The man shook his head, but suggested checking Stillman Park up the path.

Brown and Nelson both work in outreach to homeless veterans so they also looking for that subset. They said VA programs such as Housing First and Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing are steadily whittling away at veteran homelessness. Even so, the National Coalition for the Homeless estimates between 130,000 and 200,000 veterans are homeless on any given night in the U.S.

“Vets are twice as likely as non-vets to be homeless,” said Ron Opsal, supervisor of the Health Care for Homeless Veterans program at the VA. “Female veterans are four times as likely.”

He estimated about 40 homeless veterans in Umatilla County. The 2013 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress said Oregon had one of the highest populations of homeless veterans at about 1,500 — others were Hawaii, California, Montana and Florida.

Brown and Nelson followed the River Parkway past an empty Stillman Park looking for any homeless person, veteran or otherwise. Brown noticed dilapidated trailers and recreational vehicles across the river.

“There’s not a unit here that could be considered permanent housing,” Brown said.

He chose an RV that had a windshield covered by a blanket and knocked on the door. They chatted with several people living in various trailers — most described their situation as temporary.

Later, they learned that HUD’s definition of homeless is rather narrow and doesn’t include such living situations, unless there is no electricity or water.

The definition also doesn’t include people living with relatives or in a motel — basically just those living in parked cars, abandoned buildings, outside or in emergency shelters.

Richards and her partner didn’t find any homeless in parks or popular camping spots on Tuesday. Though weather had likely chased them inside, Richards said she was confident most would end up on someone’s radar.

“There is a network of agencies helping us capture people — the warming shelter, Domestic Violence Services, food pantries and others,” Richards said.

This year’s numbers won’t be available for a while. In 2013, HUD’s point-in-time count identified 13,822 homeless persons in Oregon.


Information from: East Oregonian, http://www.eastoregonian.info

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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