From Amanda Waldroupe of Willamette Week, May 1, 2008

In a May Day action event, advocates for the homeless are calling attention to the number of homeless people counted in the City of Portland’s biannual street count.

Today in the South Park Blocks, activists with nonprofit homeless services provider Sisters of the Road planted 1,438 white flags to symbolize the number of people counted by the City of Portland un-housed and living on the streets on any given night in Portland.

“We hope that everyone sees that it is still a significant number of people,” says Patrick Nolen, community organizer at Sisters of the Road.

The City’s 2007 one-night shelter count totals 3,018 people living in shelters, motels with vouchers, with rental assistance, and people in transitional housing.

In addition, 1,438 people who were turned away from shelters, sleeping on the streets, in cars and abandoned buildings, were counted in a one-night street count.

All together, approximately 4,000 people experience homelessness on any given night in Portland, according to the Bureau of Housing and Community Development.

“We think that number is low,” Nolen says. He says the actual number of homeless may be twice the city’s figure.

Nolen faults the City for not counting people who are couch-surfing (staying at a friend’s house), families or individual who are doubled up in sub-standard housing (for example, more than one person living in a one-bedroom apartment), and people in jails or hospitals who would otherwise be homeless.

Nolen says if those people are counted, the number of homeless people in Portland would be closer to 8,000.

At the same time, Nolen admits it is difficult to pull off an accurate street count.

“It would be very hard to get an accurate count anytime you are dealing with thousands of people over a city the size of Portland,” says Nolen. “Especially when you have no real budget to get that count.”

The street and shelter count is used by the City and Bureau to determine the types of services homeless individuals and families need. Additionally, the counts are also used as a way to track the success of the City’s 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness.

“It’s always going to be something of an undercount,” says Sally Erickson, homeless program coordinator at the Bureau.

Erickson says that doing the street count is not as high a budget priority for the City or Bureau as compared to providing services and housing to homeless people, and admits that in an “ideal world,” the populations that Nolen and other Sisters’ activists bring up in their protest today would be counted.

“If you want a comprehensive cout, it would cost money,” Erickson says. “[And] I think it’s almost impossible to count every single person who is homeless and on the street on any given night, unless you had thousands of volunteers and lots of resources.”