What to Know About Counting Portland's Houseless Population

The biannual tally helps secure state and federal dollars for homeless services. One outreach worker takes us through the process.

By Karly Quadros February 1, 2022

Point in time count data collectors speak with houseless Portlanders while doing a census, the first of its kind in three years.

It doesn't take a stretch of the imagination to suspect that there are more people in Multnomah County sleeping in tents, in cars, and in emergency shelters right now than there were pre-pandemic.

But there was precious little data to back that up, until last week, when more than 100 community outreach workers and volunteers took to the streets, underpasses, and makeshift tent communities of the Portland metro area to conduct the first point-in-time count of the region’s homeless population in over three years. The count concludes on February 1.

The biannual count, which provides a demographic snapshot of who is sleeping on the streets and in the county’s shelters, was delayed last year due to the pandemic, when COVID began dramatically impacting the living situations of many.

Data from the point-in-time count—age, race, gender, veteran status, and more—helps secure state and federal dollars for city, county, and nonprofit services that address the needs of the region’s homeless communities. For instance, Multnomah County has room for roughly 1,400 people per night in motel shelters, traditional shelters, and village-style shelters. According to 2019’s point-in-time count, 1,459 individuals were sleeping in emergency shelters, with 2,037 more sleeping on the streets.

If this year’s point-in-time count, the results of which are set to be released mid-summer, has similar or higher numbers, it won’t just reflect a need for more shelter beds, it may also impact the way the city polices homeless encampments, per a 2018 Supreme Court ruling that bars cities from enforcing anti-camping ordinances if there aren’t enough shelter beds available. 

To learn more about the logistics of the count, and what outreach workers are finding as they canvass the streets, we spoke with Casey Culley, a community health outreach worker with Central City Concern. He has been involved in the point-in-time count since 2019. When he’s not helping conduct the region-wide count, he works as part of the Navigation Team, a collaboration between Central City Concern and Transition Projects and contracted through the Joint Office of Homeless Services. As someone with lived experience with homelessness, Culley says he has watched the city’s homeless population change over the years, even before the pandemic. 

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.  

Portland Monthly: How has the point-in-time count survey changed this year compared to previous ones? 

Casey Culley: We're asking questions in this survey like, “Did you sleep on the street?” “Did you sleep in a car?” “Did you sleep in a shelter?” “How long have you been in Multnomah County, and where [did you come] from?” 

This year’s a little bit more intensive. Obviously, there’s the whole additional piece around COVID-19, which asks about if [the pandemic] contributed to your homelessness. And then it also has [questions like], “Have you been vaccinated?” “How many shots and if you've had one, what type?” “Have you had more than one?” 

What do things look like on the ground when you’re conducting the survey? 

I do this Monday through Friday for my regular job as part of the Navigation Team and [as] an outreach worker. So, I feel like a duck in water. I'm boots on the ground, doing the work, connecting with and engaging with folks but in a different way. It's trying to talk to folks to get these surveys completed. We have some really good folks out there that are conducting these surveys who, much like myself, have that experience. Plus, we give out incentive packs and hot coffee, some breakfast treats, and people appreciate that. 

We explain it’s for data collecting purposes and for funding for agencies and expansion of services to be able to help more people. And that's why I love being a part of this. We won't know what we need more of unless we do something like this. We need to know who folks are, or what their needs are.

What are the biggest changes in how things look and feel out there because of the pandemic?

I’ve got to say that the homeless population, the folks that we show up for work every day to help, they are hands down survivors. They have been tough as ever, trying to just keep where they're at, or the ones that are motivated or willing to change. All across the board, in one way or another, they continue to make the best of it, it seems.  

Things have gotten really tough out there. But that's been happening for a while now. In my opinion, it just seems to get a little more intense and dangerous every year.... Years ago, a lot of the homeless population didn't have any weapons at all. If they did, it was a bat or a knife or something. Now, you're hearing about guns everywhere. There are also the patches of severe weather that we experienced. 

Are there other ways that life has gotten harder for the houseless since the last count?

One of the blockers with COVID, in my opinion, has been having the amount of shelter space, due to social distancing, decrease to keep everybody safe. Another factor has been with public spaces intermittently being not accessible. And that includes the libraries around because a lot of homeless people would go and check emails or try to get on the internet if you don't have a phone. People can't go into McDonald's or Starbucks as openly as they were before COVID to utilize the bathroom. A lot of things with accessibility have changed for the homeless population, I believe. 

What kinds of obstacles might you encounter when you’re conducting these surveys? Are people resistant to interacting with you? 

Some are, but it’s on the much lower side of things, percentage-wise. If someone tells me “No,” then we say, “OK, it was nice to meet you.” Being respectful of that space is a super big key to doing this work. It's mindfulness and awareness around the fact that you're the visitor when you're walking around, and these people consider this space where they're at their home and you're entering that. I think that that carries a lot of weight.

I find a lot of people, especially in the COVID-era, appreciate the fact that there's outreach workers that are still doing this. Sometimes, just knowing that you're not forgotten or that somebody cares can catch somebody at the right time to be like, “Hey, I don't need to give up. There is hope. There are people that care.” I think that speaks volumes, just the continued boots on the ground and pushing through this together. I think that's been a big, big thing. 

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