There are only 367 homeless individuals in Coos County according to the Oregon Housing and Community Services (OHCS).
However, none of the local services agree with the point in time count results, instead showing skepticism that the decreased numbers don’t reflect reality.
“This is not even close to the numbers we have,” said Mike Lehman, executive director of Oregon Coast Community Action (ORCCA). “At best, those numbers should be even with 2015, which were about 600 because every program we run show that homelessness has gone up dramatically over the years. The numbers don't reflect reality.”
Lehman argued that people are usually skeptical of the homeless count, but more so this year. He pointed out that the annual homeless count, done at the end of January each year, attempts to count people who typically don't want to be counted and often stay sheltered in camps due to bad weather. Of course, this year's homeless count in Coos County was done under clear skies and moderate temperatures.
“Even if they do want to be counted, we have to find them and have them be willing to spend time to put their information into a system,” Lehman said. “It's not like going into a classroom and counting students or collecting the number of meals being served or cars on the highway. These are folks living all over the place so they are just difficult to count.”
Statewide there was a six-percent increase in those living in shelters or on the streets, with nearly 14,000 people in Oregon without a place to call home, but locally that number decreased.
The county’s unsheltered population went from 612 in 2015 to 397, while its sheltered population was listed at zero.
Eric Gleason, health promotion director for Coos Health and Wellness, didn't believe the numbers either and was especially skeptical that the report showed zero homeless in local shelters.
“The fact that the count on the site showed that there are zero in the shelters is clearly not the case because our shelters are full,” Gleason said. “Based on what we know and looking at the numbers, the homeless population is underrepresented. After analyzing the data, I would say there are gaps in it.”
Devereux Center's director, Tara Johnson, was baffled by the numbers as well. She and her employees keep track of those who come through the center. What they call “unique individuals” are in fact homeless persons who arrive at the center that have never been there before and are only counted once each month.
“We have 200 unique individuals a month and we've had 1,000 unique individuals come through our door in one year,” Johnson said. “Keep in mind, if a homeless person filling out a form during the count doesn't complete that form, it gets thrown out. So yes, these numbers are wrong.”
Tammie Berg, director at the THE House in Coos Bay, also keep track of who comes through her door.
“I'm a 19-bed facility and between myself and the Gospel Mission we've counted probably 400 in our area in one year,” Berg said. “There are some folks that don't come out at all to our shelters, not counting those who have been to our facilities. This is the highest population we've seen in years, so these report numbers couldn't possibly be true.”
In neighboring Curry County, homeless numbers increased by 85 percent. In Douglas County, the homeless population also grew, from 404 to 463 sheltered/unsheltered homeless.
The county containing the state’s metropolitan hub saw an increase in the number of sheltered homeless and a decrease in the unsheltered population. Multnomah County went from 1,887 unsheltered homeless to 1,668.
Ariel Nelson with OHCS said there’s a variety of factors that could be influencing the count in any particular county. Whether it be those who are squatting in homes or camping in backyards going uncounted, officials are unsure.
“It’s not necessarily going to capture folks that are seeking shelter on a friends couch,” Nelson said.
She said the count is just one tool to help gauge the number of homeless.
“It’s a snapshot. It’s one way to measure homeless populations in Oregon, but it certainly doesn’t tell the whole story,” Nelson said.
Not only that, but the homeless count results from 2016 were never released.
“People said it's done every two years, but no, it's done every year,” Lehman said. “Something happened to the data last year and so it wasn't counted and we don't know why. I look back at our rough data for 2016 and it looked very close to 2015. Curry County numbers stayed flat, but that's not being shown.”
The numbers are ultimately used by the Department of Housing and Urban Development to determine funding priorities.
When asked if some would argue that the decreased numbers are representative of less homeless in the area, Coos Bay City Manager Craddock demurred.
“I think you’d have few people taking that stance,” Craddock said.
Homeless youth numbers increased
Joann Zimmer with the Oregon Balance of State Continuum of Care, which provides OHCS with the data, said the Department of Health and Human Services and HUD wanted to make this a benchmark year for homeless youth counts, encouraging counties to make an extra effort to get those numbers.
“A lot of youth, they just disappear, they don’t want to be counted, they don’t want to be a statistic,” Zimmer said. “It’s harder to build trust with our homeless youth than our homeless adults.”
Although the number of unaccompanied youth in the county decreased, from 239 to 211, those findings don’t reflect those reported by the Department of Education.
Last year, Myrtle Point ranked in the fourth-highest percentage for homeless students in the state.
Not only that, but the Coos Bay School District reported that over 85 percent of its students are on Free and Reduced Lunch. In previous interviews, Superintendent Bryan Trendell nodded to that statistic as an indicator for a high population of impoverished and homeless youth in the schools.
In fact, Lehman acknowledged that ORCCA should have strived to work with local school districts during the homeless count in January.
“In Coos County, I don't think we had a good relationship with the schools,” Lehman said. “When I say that, I mean we should have established ourselves with them to work with each other during the count. It would have changed the numbers we're seeing now.”
For Coos and Curry counties, ORCCA orchestrates the homeless count by recruiting volunteers to set up counting stations at places like the local libraries. Lehman acknowledged that perhaps even those stations weren't at the right places, or that there weren't enough volunteers.
“This count went out statewide and six or seven counties had numbers drop with no justification, like ours,” he said. “In Klamath, on the day they did their count it was minus four with snow on the ground. So people were hiding out, staying warm, and the volunteers you use are less anxious to go stomping into every snow drift. It could be that in our case, we need to do more.”
One of the issues with comparing counties is that each continuum of care has a different method of counting homeless populations. That, and volunteers have various levels of experience when conducting the counts.
“One of the inconsistencies is the skill level of a lot of the volunteers,” Zimmer said.
The ORCCA representative who ran the count in Curry County is expected to come up to Coos County this January to help run next year's count and share successful ideas that she employed during this past event.
Megan Bolton, senior research analyst with OHCA, echoed Lehman that the winter had an effect on the count this year.
“It was much harder for volunteers to get out,” Bolton said, “People were less likely to be on the street, more likely to be doubled up with friends.”
She said some of the state increases, specifically with the youth populations, could be from improvements in methodology rather than increases in homeless.
“Is it because you’re seeing an increase in homeless youth or you’re doing better at outreach?” Bolton said.
While the county’s overall numbers went down, those identified as mentally ill went up by more than triple.
City Manager Rodger Craddock said those numbers reflect the state’s push for more community-based programs for the mentally ill.
“We’ve seen across the state since the ratcheting down of mental health services through the state and the pushing of people out of state centers and onto the streets, we’re just seeing more and more of them,” Craddock said.
The OHCS report pointed to a critically low housing supply as one of the contributors to increased homelessness.
“They painted a very nice picture in there about the reality of our situation given the downturn in economy, the fact that less homes are being built than before and the decreased average income versus the increased amount of rents all play factors into that,” Craddock said.
Lehman pointed to the housing issue in Coos County has related to homelessness, but also being its own problem in the local economy.
“They are somewhat connected and really not,” he said. “Yes we have a housing issue, but our homelessness issue is getting worse because we don't provide services to get them off the streets. Those services are like mental health and substance abuse treatment. Once we address those core issues, nothing will be solved. We spend a lot of nickels and dimes taking care of the population, but we are patching things together. We don't have a solution. We're just putting patches on a tent that has more holes.”
Johnson encouraged readers to petition state representatives to review the point in time count.
“Again, if people didn't fill out the form completely, the whole thing is thrown out,” she said. “Let's look at the raw data and compare that with the data they just released.”