PORTLAND – Emily Nelson veered around potholes while her boss decoded a map spotted with orange triangles where homeless people have been reported over the last two years.
They headed to Kenilworth Park, where people had been seen sleeping near the park in a van or car. Not Thursday morning.
Nelson patrols Southeast Portland as an outreach worker for JOIN, a nonprofit that helps connect people to housing and runs a day center with laundry vouchers, meals and showers in the meantime.
The day was filled with strikeouts like that.
Nelson typically would swing back around in another few weeks to check again, but this time she needed to find as many as possible. Every two years, the federal government surveys homeless people throughout the country to decide how to distribute money for housing, mental health services and other help.
The homeless count – also called the Point in Time Count – is a snapshot only. For a week ending Tuesday, outreach workers like Nelson, employees with social service agencies and volunteers divvy up Multnomah County and walk streets and search parks.
The workers fill out a survey – Where did you sleep last night? How long have you been homeless in the last four years? Identify your gender, age and race.
In 2015, the counters found 3,800 people sleeping on the streets, in shelters or in temporary housing. About 12,000 more were squeezed into homes with other families.
The number was about the same compared to the last count in 2013. The fear of many in the homeless services community is that this year’s count will be the same or higher again, despite progress in preventing people from becoming homeless, getting homeless people into permanent housing or moving them through shelters.
To keep up, Multnomah County will conduct the survey every year from now on.
The results are expected in spring
The work is slow. Once out of downtown, people are harder to find on the street, usually on purpose so they won’t get hassled by neighbors or police.
Some the questions prompt people to divulge their life histories – one man tried to answer a question about how long he had lived in the area by explaining how he had moved between Multnomah County, Arizona, Washington and back several times.
Others need help right then. Nelson handed out blankets, socks and gloves from the trunk of her Honda Civic on the spot and explained other ways JOIN could help them.
She left a purple card with her phone number and JOIN’s information on an old camper van jacked up on Southeast 34th Avenue and Powell, a half-eaten doughnut on top of a gas station coffee cup in the window but no one home.
Then, Nelson and her boss, JOIN Executive Director Shannon Singleton, found success in the jug-handle parking pullouts along Powell Boulevard.
Anne Stopper, 50, answered the door to her white-and-yellow Minnie Winnie Winnebago. She had to stand in the doorway, though, because the step was broken off and a huge puddle under the camper prevented her from reaching the pavement without getting wet. A power cord dangled over the puddle, connecting the camper to a small white van in the next parking space.
Stopper was in the midst of making toast, about all she can bring herself to eat since her husband died on Feb. 9, her birthday. They had hunkered down during the snowstorms and cold snaps of early winter, her husband trying to keep their generator running inside.
Yet, she thinks the lingering cold and rain prompted his weak heart to give out. “Living like this wears on your health,” she said.
It’s even harder now. Stopper wryly smiled as she listed the things she didn’t realize her husband took care of until he was gone – keeping the car running, making sure they were warm. “I thought he didn’t do anything, but I guess we all think that of our spouses,” Stopper said.
Now, she’s alone, she said, without a job or anywhere to go.
They’d been living in the Winnebago about two years and spent a few years in another camper before that. Stopper had managed a gas station at Cesar Chavez Boulevard and Division Street for 15 years, then a few others for the same company, she said, before working as a certified nursing assistant for five years.
Eventually, she said, she couldn’t be on her feet all day anymore. Her husband lost his job, too, and they had to move out of their apartment.
Stopper is on some waitlists for housing, but isn’t optimistic. The idea seems too good to be true, and she knows there are many people in her same position.
“It just seems like I had a really hard string of luck, so it screws with me mentality,” she said.
Another man a few cars down greeted Singleton by proclaiming he was a veteran. His hat and a bumper sticker on his car said the same thing. Nelson gave him the address of the Veterans Affairs office downtown.
Later, Singleton remarked that veterans seem to offer that information more freely than before. “Which is good, because there are a lot more resources there,” she said.
“For now,” Nelson said.
Portland, and many other cities, received an infusion of cash for homeless veterans in the past few years as part of a federal initiative to end homelessness for veterans. Portland proclaimed in 2016 that it was the first West Coast city to do so, meaning that the city had enough resources for veterans who wanted to take advantage of them.
But it’s a new White House administration and social service agencies and budget-setting officials tend not to take for granted federal help for homeless services and affordable housing.
Both the Portland City Council and Multnomah County commission face tough budget decisions this year. Mayor Ted Wheeler and Chairwoman Deborah Kafoury have pledged to make homeless funding a priority, but could find it hard to maintain the $30 million between the two governments that enabled nearly 550 permanent shelter beds to open this fiscal year.
The data that the count collects also help inform local initiatives. Nelson is shifting to a new position soon to make sure JOIN is offering more culturally specific help to people of color, after the 2015 survey showed a sharp rise – 48 percent in two years – in African-Americans on Portland streets.
Singleton is on a board of social service agency workers who help shape the language on the questionnaire. One of the questions the surveyors now ask is how long someone has lived in Multnomah County.
Often, Singleton said, she faces accusations from residents that homeless people are moving to Portland from other places to live on the street. Nearly everyone that she and Nelson talked to Thursday grew up in the area or had lived here more than two years. Some had lived in Portland for years before moving away and coming back for family or health reasons.
“Being able to actually show people that data has changed the dialogue,” Singleton said.
After lunch, Nelson and Singleton found a cluster at Southeast 94th Avenue and Pardee Street.
Raymond Runninger owned a house in Portland for 28 years. He moved to the city after his mother died to dance in its nightclubs, he said.
He owned a drywall and painting business and did construction on the side sometimes. Eventually, he retired and lost his house over $300,000 in back taxes. He started living in a van, but that got towed.
Now 78, he’s been living out of a car he shares with a friend for about seven years. He stores his belongings in a tiny beat up teal car farther up the street. Thursday, he was taking advantage of the sunshine to work on some engine parts.
He said neighbors leave him mostly alone because he worked on some of their houses before and acts as a neighborhood guard and trash crew. But he suffers from a degenerative bone disease and is tired of being in the cold and snow.
“I’m getting ready to figure out what I’m doing next,” Runninger said. “But I can’t figure it out without that dollar amount.”
Before moving on to survey some people in tents nearby, Nelson repeated her spiel about how JOIN could help him and gave him her card.
She still had lots of spots to check and only so much daylight.
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