For most of the year, my encounters with Central Oregon's homeless population are limited to seeing them on street corners, in parks and at Mirror Pond Plaza. Sometimes I give them a bit of change or say hello, but for the most part, I look away. While I'm ashamed to admit this, I know I'm not the only one.
But last Thursday, I couldn't look away. I spent the day at the One Night Homeless Count, which serves as a sort of snapshot of how many of our neighbors have slipped through the safety net. Each year during the last week of January, more than 40 organizations band together to count as many homeless people as they can in one day. While it's not a completely comprehensive count, the 2,000 or so homeless who complete the homeless count survey allows Central Oregon to receive funding from HUD (U.S. Department of Housing and Development) for transitional housing. It also puts a number, if not a face, on the region's growing problem of homelessness, which has more than doubled in the past five years as a result of the recession.
The One Night Homeless Count, in its sixth year, takes a tactical approach to counting homeless Central Oregonians in motels, homeless camps, shelters, common gathering spaces, churches and soup kitchens.
My first stop was the First United Methodist Church on Bond Street where the Homeless Leadership Coalition had set up camp with bags of donated canned goods and toiletries, blankets, pet food, canteens, water bottles and propane. A distribution center of sorts, charity workers and volunteers collected surveys, handed out bags of food and dispatched vans carrying donations to other Homeless Count locations throughout the tri-county region.
According to HUD, homelessness is defined as an individual who lacks a regular, adequate nighttime residence, or whose nighttime residence is designed for temporary living. In 2010, the Homeless Leadership Coalition counted 2,402 homeless in Central Oregon. That's a seven percent increase from the year before, but up from 1,334 individuals in 2006, before the brunt of the recession. In last year's survey, two out of five were children, one out of five were disabled and almost half cited unemployment as the cause of their homelessness.
Racheal Baker, staff attorney for Legal Aid Services of Oregon, says she's noticed homelessness becoming more visible in the region.
"There used to be a lot of invisible homelessness - people staying with friends and family, working and still not making ends meet. Now it's more visible. They're not working and staying with friends and family has become more difficult," she says.
In addition, the mortgage crisis and foreclosures have forced many families out of stable housing.
After the Methodist church, I headed down to Mirror Pond Plaza where volunteers were counting homeless teens.
Icon City, a local awareness group, comes to Mirror Pond Plaza every week to distribute food and supplies. Today, they brought a box of men's and women's jeans in addition to food and other supplies.
Icon City's truck pulled up and the volunteers greeted the small crowd of teens and adults who assembled. The volunteers knew the members of the group by name and ribbed them, like older siblings. Still, it's easy to tell it's a strained relationship. Many of the people in Mirror Pond Plaza have been offered housing or rehabilitation services, but haven't been successfully reintegrated into society.
Drugs and mental illness are often factors that keep many adults on the streets.For teens, it's not necessarily drugs, but tough family situations that lead to homelessness. I talked with Samantha, a slight 19 year old wearing baggy sweats and carting around her six-month-old pit bull, Dana. Friendly and gregarious, Samantha tells me that she was raped and beaten by her adoptive father daily from the age of four to eight.
After that, she says she moved in with her birth father. "I found out that he was a druggie and an alcoholic, and I said I'd rather be on the streets than live here," she says.
Right now, she's couch surfing at a friend's house. She doesn't know when she'll have a permanent place to live, but she plans on going to college soon. "I'm going to sign up for college and go through classes to finish my GED," she says.
Many of the others gathered at Mirror Pond Plaza live in homeless camps, saving money for motels when the weather is excessively cold or snowy.
Later that day, I accompanied Kenny La Point, Director of Housing and Resident Services at Housing Works, the region's low-income housing provider, and a few of his employees on the motel count. We loaded a van with bags of food and toiletries and headed to some of the cheap and by-the-week motels out on 3rd street. The managers have been alerted to the count and call the rooms occupied by homeless men, women and families when we arrive.
"There are a couple hotels where you get a lot of drug use," LaPoint says, "But for the most part the people are friendly and welcome the donated food."
Handing out bags of toilet paper, canned fruit and beans to victims of foreclosure, disabled veterans and families who just had too many hard knocks was more powerful than I expected. Not only did it put my personal problems in perspective, but it showed me just how many of our community live precariously close to the abyss, not knowing when their next meal will come or where they will sleep each night. On a practical level, the One Night Homeless Count helps our region receive federal funds for transitional housing. But on a human level, it helps the community open its eyes to homelessness. I know that after today, I won't look away.