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Jan-24-2010 21:51printcomments

OR 2010 Homeless Count: A Sad but Significant Tally (AUDIO REPORT)

Last year's one-night tally counted just over 17,000 Oregonians, including 4,300 children.

Homeless man
Photo by Bonnie King

(SALEM, Ore. ONS) - This week, an army of volunteers visits shelters, food pantries, tent cities and even jails in an attempt to count the number of homeless people in every state. In the 2008 survey, Oregon topped the list for the highest per-capita number of homeless people, at just over one-half percent of the population.

Tonight in Salem, about 100 people will attend an orientation to learn to do the surveys in Marion and Polk counties.

Janeen Baker, who directs the Resource Assistance Program at the Salem YWCA, has seen a record turnout of volunteers - and says for many, assisting with the count will be an eye-opening experience.

"One of our outreach teams actually found a woman and her family in the briar bushes behind Salvation Army, near the river. That's where they were staying. I don't think people really understand that it's the children who are homeless. The average age of a homeless person is nine years old."

Last year's one-night tally counted just over 17,000 Oregonians, including 4,300 children. The information is used by the federal government to develop housing policies and allocate money for service providers to the homeless.

In Portland, the street count is done every other year. This year, they'll do a shelter count instead, focusing on those who show up at warming centers and homeless shelters. Marc Jolin, executive director of the homeless outreach group JOIN, says many shelters in the Portland area are full.

"One of the things that we count with a shelter count is all of the people who came and wanted shelter, and couldn't get it. So, one indicator of whether the situation has gotten worse for people out there would be that a higher number of people were turned away this year, than were turned away last year."

Neil Donovan, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, says the one-night count is a valuable resource, but it won't reflect a growing category of homeless people: those staying with relatives or friends temporarily, because of foreclosures and job losses.

"Right now, the indicators are much more episodic: The homeless people are gonna be homeless for a month, and then they're not homeless; homeless for a month, not homeless. To take a snapshot on one day is not going to count the true impact of what's happening."

The homeless counts have been criticized for being unscientific and even political, but Donovan says they give social service groups an opportunity to find out more about the populations they serve. In most communities, the counts are taking place this Wednesday or Thursday.

Special thanks to Oregon News Service


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Sean Flynn was a photojournalist in Vietnam, taken captive in 1970 in Cambodia and never seen again.