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A talk on 2023's Point In Time Count for Lane County

 Tent and cart in Eugene.
Brian Bull
A homeless person in Eugene with their campsite on a sidewalk.

Lane County has just released this year’s Point In Time, or “PIT” Count, which surveys the unhoused population on one day of the year. And while the latest numbers were similar to 2022’s, they show a 72% increase in homelessness across the area.

KLCC’s Brian Bull talked to Carly Walker, who’s the Homeless Management Information Systemsupervisor. Bull began by asking Walker for the PIT Count figures for 2023.

Note: The audio provided is a condensed version of the conversation, and runs roughly four and a half minutes. Below is a transcript of the extended interview which ran longer. While we strive for accuracy in our transcriptions, there may be errors or lapses.

Walker: This year, we counted 2,824 individuals who are experiencing homelessness and 2,110 of those individuals were unsheltered. 491 of those people were in sites like safe sleep spots, rest stops, microsites, sanctioned camping spots, but the other 1,600 or so were just sleeping outside in some form or fashion.

Bull: Any sense what might be behind that increase?

Walker: The increase it's actually fairly similar to the numbers that we saw last year. Really, our count is so much based on who we're able to see and who we're able to encounter on that day. Folks have mixed feelings about doing the Point In Time Count in January, but it's when HUD tells us to do it and when the whole country does it. The last Wednesday of January, is always when the PIT Count is performed.

At the same time, that may not be the best time for counting some folks because it's winter time. So last year, when we did the PIT Count in 2022, it was cold. And so Egan (Warming Center) was open. And so we had a lot of people who may not have otherwise been seeking services on those days who came in to get warm and so we were able to count them. This year, Egan was not open. We were open I think 31 times this year, but this is one of the days we were not and so we just didn't quite see as many folks presenting for services.

So last year, I believe our (PIT) count was 2,880 and this year, it's 2,824. But really about the same as what we saw last year.

Bull: The release I saw from (Lane) County said that homelessness has jumped 72% over the last five years.

Walker: Yes, in the last five years it certainly has and I think there's many reasons that that is the case. All sorts of factors we could think about including the pandemic, inflation, rising housing costs. I think it's harder for everyone to pay their bills right now. Just the whole nation has seen those types of increases. I've had family call me from other states and say that they saw their point in time count has raised a lot and asked me why that was. It's the same all over the country.

Bull: You mentioned that January is not the most ideal time to do a Point In Time Count. If you had HUD's ear, what time would be the best time to count people who are without shelter?

Walker: For us, probably a good time would be sometime in the summer and or fall. I can see why in other communities that doesn't make sense, (or) in other states. But for us, that's when we're more likely to see people. Also we have more daylight hours, so it's easier to physically see people than it is in the winter., when especially with how far north we are the day is so short.

Bull: What was the methodology used for this Point In Time Count?

Walker: As far as I'm aware, we're the only folks who do this, although I'm sure there's another community out there. They treat this more like a census. So this is something that we used to do in the county, rally up a bunch of volunteers, send them out, see who you can find. Ask them this, ask them if they're willing to participate in a survey and then get them to answer these survey questions.

It's just a really poor method for a count. I know we do that for the national census, but that's by sending things to people's homes. And these are people who don't have homes. So where do we find them? Especially in a county like ours, where we have so much forested land? How do we even see them?

When the weather is poor, also, just visibility, did we get enough volunteers? Were folks willing to engage with people that they don't know? So what we have been doing in our county instead for the last three years, is using the primary basis of the count to be our Homelessness Management Information System, which is a database that agencies all across our county use, not just for homelessness services, but also for anti-poverty services. So things like they access, centers, and food pantries.

We're really fortunate in our community that all of those programs get funneled through HMIS. And so what that means is, when someone comes to a food pantry, one of the questions they're asked is, “Where did you sleep last night?” And based on that question, we're able to see, --are they considered homeless or not? And we can count all of those folks in our counts.

The other thing is, the HMIS is a great primary basis for the account, (a) great place to start, but it's not where we stopped. So also engaging with service providers that we know are not in the system, and also working with trained street outreach workers who are used to encountering folks every day and asking them questions.

Having them go throughout the county and areas where we think maybe individuals were less likely to engage in services. So we were able to add 163 people to our count. That's part of that 2,824 that we counted total. But less than 8% of our account came from those street outreach surveys. Most of it I just pulled a report one day and we got that primary count so much easier, both on our community and also a much more accurate count. I know it wasn't perfect.

We have the ability to see how many people are experiencing homelessness and move through any of our programs, like any day of the year. We also published numbers each month on how many people we think were our estimate, in the month of how many people were experiencing homelessness that month in the county. It's called the Homelessness By Name List, and it's available for anyone to click on it and peruse through that dashboard. But during the month of January, it was over 4,200 people so definitely there's some folks that we did not see on the day of the PIT Count, but we know we're experiencing homelessness in that month.

Bull: You had mentioned that there are people sometimes who are not necessarily open to being surveyed during a point in time count. Why do you think that is?

Walker: What is the purpose of us asking them those questions? I think my experience and certainly what I've heard provide from providers is that often people who are experiencing homelessness have had negative experiences with other service providers before or they've had needs that other providers weren't able to help them with. Or they have had some sort of traumatic experience that involved one of these social systems. So I think there are people who are wary of talking. “Why do you want to know that information of me? What are you going to be doing with that information?”

And so (they) are hesitant to sort of do that. I will say this year, we had about 35 people decline to be surveyed, so a pretty low number. And a lot of that is in part, the choice to use trained street outreach workers who are used to doing this work and really meeting folks where they're at.

Bull: You had mentioned Carly that that the pandemic had had an effect on previous counts and this this new Point In Time Count in late January came as the pandemic began to wane across Oregon and the U.S. So how do you think COVID affected the previous year's counts?

Walker: Definitely it affected the shelter counts quite a bit. In the 2020 account, COVID had started but it really hadn't hit the U.S. in the way that you know we're thinking of things. When it came to 2021, we had far fewer shelter beds available. And that's because there were so many restrictions on congregate shelters which is what we're used to, putting a lot of people in the same building.

We did have some funding to to open up non-congregate shelters so that folks could be sheltered and we were having less spread of COVID but there just weren't as many beds available. So at this point - 2023 - we've seen those beds return. We've also seen some additional beds or a growth in beds. And that's because we've had projects that took a long time to set up but that have been in the works for a long time finally came to fruition.

So one of those is the River Avenue Navigation Center, which is a shelter that is run by a service provider but funded by the county that has 75 new beds. There's a few new programs like that, that have come available in the past year, and that have led to more permanent congregate or non-congregate shelter options.

Bull:  With this new data that's out in Point In Time data, how would you like this to be used by a number of individuals and groups? For instance, lawmakers and officials. How would you like them to use this data?

Walker: Sure, I know that they use it all the time. And in part the way that the PIT Count is used. Well, it's not a perfect number. Everybody does it. So we did it in our county. All of the other areas of Oregon did the count. And I sent our numbers to the State of Oregon and they're going to publish something at some point. We also sent our numbers to HUD and there will be a federal publication at some point. So being able to see how do our trends compared to the nation's trends are really helpful.

One thing that happened based on not this year's PIT Count because the numbers weren't out yet, but because our PIT Count numbers had increased so much from 2017 to 2022, we were included in the Governor's emergency order, where she declared an emergency on homelessness and we have received a huge a pretty significant amount of money to work on homelessness this year.

Locally we're calling that the All In Initiative and we received over $15 million for homelessness response services.

And so there's more than I - you know, I could spend 40 minutes talking about that alone. We've got some good things up on our website that show which programs were funded and for what. Those programs are just getting off the ground today. But really, I think the governor has taken note particularly in how much our unsheltered count grew. And the focus of most of that All-In funding is that we're focusing on individuals who are unsheltered, not just experiencing homelessness but who are sleeping outside.

Bull: I guess also just to clarify when we say "unsheltered" that may still apply to people who couch-surf or live in their cars, is that the distinction?

Walker: Almost. And this I think this gets really confusing for folks. The HUD definition of homelessness is very, very narrow. And so when we're talking about those 2,824 people, they either had to be in a place not meant for habitation which means sleeping outside, sleeping in their car sleeping, sleeping in an RV that didn't did not have any hookups, or they had to be in emergency shelter. Folks who are couch-surfing or have someplace to stay tonight are not counted as homeless.

So how many more people really might not have a place to go tonight or might not have a place to go next week, and are experiencing that housing instability that we don't even have a count on. So that's just the number of people who are sleeping outside was that 2,110.

Bull: Carly, that takes care of the majority of my questions. Was there anything else you wanted to share about this year's Point in Time Count, that you think would be important to share?

Walker: Yes. I think I am asked most, “Why are so many people experiencing homelessness and what are we doing about it?” And we have really tried to make the data more accessible for folks to access to see what's going on in the community. A few weeks ago, we published a new dashboard that shows all of the alternative shelter, which is those outside camping sanction camping options, emergency shelter, transitional housing. And then our permanent housing options, where folks can see every single month, how many beds were available, how many of them were used.

And that's even by program. So what types of things are going on in the community? What are we already doing? And how much of a need we still have. That information is accessible for folks. It's not in real time, but we publish each month's information. And so, you know, we're talking about January right now, and it's July. If people want to see what our inventory looked like in June, that you know, it's very easy, easy for folks to access online, and I think making that data easier for folks to see and to know about would be really helpful.

Bull: Would you say that the June data and all the months after January are just as reliable as the official PIT?

Walker: Yes. And that's really something that's nice about the way that we do the PIT Count in our community, is using our data in our day-to-day records, it's the primary way of doing that. And then sort of checking by sending folks into the community to see what other individuals they can find. You know, 92% of our count came from just a system report. So while it's not a perfect encapsulation of what's going on, it's pretty close, and so we feel pretty confident in those numbers.

Bull:  Carly, I really thank you for your time and your information and I wish you the best and all your future efforts going forward. Hopefully we'll soon see a downward trend for homelessness here and elsewhere.

Walker: Yeah, I hope so too, thanks.

Brian Bull is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Oregon, and remains a contributor to the KLCC news department. He began working with KLCC in June 2016.   In his 27+ years as a public media journalist, he's worked at NPR, Twin Cities Public Television, South Dakota Public Broadcasting, Wisconsin Public Radio, and ideastream in Cleveland. His reporting has netted dozens of accolades, including four national Edward R. Murrow Awards (22 regional),  the Ohio Associated Press' Best Reporter Award, Best Radio Reporter from  the Native American Journalists Association, and the PRNDI/NEFE Award for Excellence in Consumer Finance Reporting.
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