Feb. 5, 2020 — Lane County has approximately 2,200 unhoused individuals within its boundaries on any given day. This number is determined in part by using data gathered during a yearly count conducted by trained volunteers and overseen by the county.
This effort is known as the “Point in Time” (PIT) count, and generally takes place the last week of January, which it did again this year.
Florence is one of the locations involved in sending actual volunteers out into the field to contact, interview and count individuals that are unhoused.
On Jan. 30, the Florence operations center for the local count was the Bromley Room of Siuslaw Public Library, supervised by local resident Sandy Todd. The day’s organizers worked with the volunteers to clarify anything that may have been unclear in training sessions that took place the week before.
Volunteers met at the library at 7 a.m. to review the electronic process used to archive and transfer the respondents’ information. The option of paper ballots was also mentioned as a way to collect information. The volunteers were then sent out in teams of two, to assure safety, to predetermined locations, where there was a likelihood of locating unhoused individuals.
For PIT Count organizers, safety was the primary consideration when approaching individuals.
While the threat of violence was remote for PIT volunteers, the leaders acknowledge the feeling among some of the region’s unsheltered that there is a concerted effort to diminish services for the homeless in order to decrease their numbers.
One unsheltered individual, who only wanted to be identified as Steve, shared his take on the situation in Florence.
“We have hemorrhaged services for the homeless for the last five years,” he said. “We lost the showers at the port, Helping Hands lost its building and are doing a lot less than they were, and SOS has less funding, so they are doing less. We have been losing lots of services as the homeless population has skyrocketed.”
One of Florence’s most active voices for the consideration and support of those who are unsheltered is Brenda Gilmer. On a regular basis, she speaks at Florence City Council meetings on the subject of the unsheltered.
According to Gilmer, while the ideas behind the PIT count are worthwhile, she believes the methodology employed is almost completely ineffective in ascertaining the actual number of homeless in Florence.
For proof of her position she points to last year’s count, which stated that there were 14 homeless people in Florence. One of the reasons she believes the count was so low has to do with caution on the part of those being counted.
“It is absolutely inaccurate,” Gilmer said. “It is simply ridiculous to believe we have that few homeless in Florence. The numbers just don’t add up and that is because one of the biggest fears that most homeless people have is being targeted. Once you are targeted, you are on their radar, you are known, and it becomes an ever-spreading circle of problems for them.”
Before volunteers headed out, they looked over large, laminated maps laid out on tables in the Bromley Room. The teams were consulted on the areas they would like to canvass. These locations included public places that are used by the unsheltered when it is cold or rainy, as is often the case on the coast. The Florence Emergency Cold Weather Shelter only opens when it is below freezing or when rain is forecast along with near freezing temperatures, as it was on Monday night.
As of yet, Florence does not have a long-term solution for sheltering the unhoused.
“I think in law enforcement, generally there is empathy for people who have no shelter, but there is no empathy for people using drugs or alcohol, because that can lead to offensive behaviors,” Gilmer said.
The PIT required that volunteer counting teams ask questions to get an idea of demographics of the people they interviewed.
The purpose of the count goes beyond tallying numbers; it is connected to funding for the services needed to assist the unhoused. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) requires that communities receiving federal funds from the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Grants program conduct a count of the unsheltered every two years, although most communities do so every year.
Locally, Siuslaw Outreach Services (SOS) and Florence Food Share are the main recipients of the funding that stems from the count.
These counts are used as a basis for fund allocation, but also as a tool that allows local, state and the federal government to approximate the extent and scope of the challenge of homelessness. This allows organizations and social service nonprofits that work closely with the unsheltered to create plans for dealing with the costs and logistical challenges inherent in assisting the unsheltered.
In 2018, 51,977 people were served by agencies in Lane County’s Client/Homeless Management Information System (HMIS). Of the 51,977 people served, 13,070 households were homeless for at least one night in 2018.
The final totals for the 2020 PIT count will be tallied and published on the Lane County website, lanecounty.org/government/county_departments/health_and_human_services/human_services_division/point-in-time__pit__homeless_count.