Countywide statistics on homelessness reveal vast housing insecurity
Homeless camps are hardly unusual during times of economic turmoil, but this one, hidden as it is in plain sight in Tualatin, serves as a reminder that Washington County’s 1,354 homeless people account for 6.1 percent of the statewide total.
That number might be even higher were it not for an extensive network of housing assistance resources available throughout the county. Even so,Community Action’s Pat Rogers, who serves as manager of housing and homeless services, says the waiting list for a spot in one of Washington County’s three family shelters is currently 40 to 45 households long. On average, families stay at such shelters for about five weeks.
The big tally
These counts take place statewide on a single night, generally in the last week of January. The survey includes homeless Oregonians staying in transitional housing, as well as those classified as “unsheltered.” In the future, complete homeless counts will be conducted only in odd-numbered years, said the agency’s research analyst Natasha Detweiler.
Known as Point in Time Homeless Count, the comprehensive study collects data on a number of factors, including the ages of homeless individuals, the cause or causes of an individual or family’s homelessness and whether homeless youth are attending school. Results are released as statewide summaries and as county-by-county breakdowns of the data.
The next homeless census will be published after January 2013.
This kind of census is required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which awards funding for housing resource programs through the Continuum of Care Program. Any state wishing to apply for such funds must complete identical surveys.
According to the 2011 Washington County report, 31 percent of the homeless people counted were 17 years old or younger. Emergency shelter was provided to a total of 23 individuals, while 73 individuals were placed in transitional housing.
Among the county’s homeless population, 17 percent reported having a mental or emotional disorder. Approximately 10 percent had a physical disability.
The top three contributing factors to homelessness in Washington County were identical to those identified statewide the same year: Households and single adults both reported that unemployment, unaffordable rent and substance abuse were the most common causes of housing loss.
Countywide homeless culture
Since 2008, Washington County has seen an 18 percent increase in homelessness, but it has fared far better than Oregon as a whole, which saw a staggering 76.5 percent rise in rates of homelessness during the same period.
Comparing Washington County’s homelessness statistics with those of neighboring counties emphasizes the differing resources and fortunes of each region. Multnomah County has seen a 60 percent increase in homelessness since 2008, likely due to its greater offering of shelters and services. Columbia County’s homelessness rate increased by 78 percent during that same time period, due in large part to massive layoffs at Boise Inc., the county’s largest private sector employer. But unlike Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties, substance abuse was not named as one of the major contributors to homelessness in Columbia County. Instead, “eviction by landlord” took its place in the top three.
Catherine West is the director of the Tigard-Tualatin Family Resource Center, which coordinates resources for families that reside within the Tigard-Tualatin School District. The center is funded largely by the Washington County Commission on Children and Families to offer a range of services and resource referrals.
“We estimate we serve about 2,000 families per school year,” said West.
This can include helping families obtain food bank access, rental assistance, affordable housing, enrollment in the Oregon Health Plan, transportation and gas vouchers, furniture and personal hygiene items.
A telling indicator of homelessness in the area is the number of students enrolled in the free and reduced lunch program. During the 2011-12 school year, West reported that 37.9 percent of the district’s school children were enrolled. During the 2001-02, the number was closer to 20 percent of the district’s students.
Now in its 19th year of operation, the center publishes a yearly resource guide to direct families to a variety of assistance and support programs.
The Tigard-Tualatin Community Resource Guide is made available at schools throughout the district, and enables school staff to offer help, West said, without having to do extensive research on their own.
Advocacy begins at home
Since 1987, a federal statute has guaranteed homeless youth equal access to public education. The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act requires every school district in the nation to appoint a homeless liaison to ensure children lacking “a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence” are immediately enrolled in school and offered a consistent educational experience. By this definition, children living in transitory housing — residences like emergency shelters or motels, tents or trailers — are considered homeless. Youth who reside with friends and non-guardians are also classified as homeless.
Erin Lolich acts as homeless liaison for the Tigard-Tualatin School District, while also acting as associate director of curriculum and instruction for the district.
“I’d say one of the primary reasons we get contacted by schools is because a student has become homeless and is residing out of our school district and needs transportation to ensure they can stay at the school,” Lolich said.
Consistency is key.
“Students have to be emotionally ready to learn, and if their basic needs are threatened, it gets tricky,” Lolich said.
She credits the center with not only providing a comprehensive range of resources, but also with publicizing its services so the community knows what is available. This means that aid to housing-insecure families becomes preventative.
“The goal is always to catch families before they become evicted because there are so many supports out there,” Lolich said. “Once they lose housing, it’s a harder and slower process.”