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App aids Point in Time homeless count in Clark County

Annual census of unsheltered population frustrated by cleanup of camps near Share House

By , Columbian Social Services, Demographics, Faith
Published: January 24, 2019, 7:44pm
4 Photos
William Silva, left, speaks to Blake Hauser, an outreach case manager with Share, in January for the annual Point in Time count. By midmorning Hauser said he’d seen many familiar faces as he helped conduct a census of Clark County’s homeless population. (Nathan Howard/The Columbian)
William Silva, left, speaks to Blake Hauser, an outreach case manager with Share, in January for the annual Point in Time count. By midmorning Hauser said he’d seen many familiar faces as he helped conduct a census of Clark County’s homeless population. (Nathan Howard/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Outreach teams counted Clark County’s homeless population Thursday as part of the annual Point in Time count. This year, they were armed with cellphones rather than clipboards.

For the first time, the county used the mobile phone app Counting Us to collect data instead of paper survey forms. The app, designed specifically for the Point in Time count, allows jurisdictions to customize their surveys and GPS track the exact location where each survey takes place. Areas across the United States conduct a one-day census of their homeless populations in January, and many use the Counting Us app.

Willie Hurst, an outreach case manager with homeless service provider Share, said the app made the survey-taking process faster than past years. He, along with outreach case manager Blake Hauser and lead outreach case manager Katelyn Benhoff, spoke with people living outside on Vancouver’s west side.

They gathered demographic information from people such as their gender, race, age, veteran status and length of homelessness.

Required by state law and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Point in Time is used to help guide the distribution of funds. Clark County will spend about $5.3 million on homeless services this year. That doesn’t include Vancouver Housing Authority initiatives targeting homelessness or Vancouver’s Affordable Housing Fund.

Outreach teams canvassed the county to count homeless people. Those staying at shelters and using soup kitchens were included. The count can get complicated, though. People using their own money to live out of a motel would not be considered, but households getting financial assistance to stay in a motel would be. It does not include people who are couch surfing, doubled-up with family or friends, or homeless but incarcerated.

Homeless advocates generally consider the Point in Time an undercount. It’s a single-day snapshot of homelessness. Council for the Homeless, which oversees the count, prefers using the tally of people who tried to access shelter or housing assistance as tracked by its Homeless Management Information System.

Benhoff said stricter enforcement of Vancouver’s camping ordinance has made it harder to find people and will lead to more of an undercount this year.

“We’ll see,” she said. Results from the Point in Time are typically available in the spring.

Tent campers have to break down more frequently and may be more mobile or more hidden as a result of increased enforcement, Hurst said. He said some people began camping on Jantzen Beach on the other side of the Interstate 5 Bridge.

Portland bans camping on public property and rights of way, but Hurst said the city doesn’t enforce this law as much as Vancouver, which has had a modified camping ordinance since 2015. Camping is legal on most publicly owned property between 9:30 p.m. and 6:30 a.m.

Benhoff said her stomach dropped as they approached Share House, a men’s homeless shelter and hot meals site on the west edge of downtown. She was not aware that city crews and contractors would be cleaning up all of the campsites in the area earlier that morning.

When cleanups happen, campers pack up their belongings, and many leave the area. Benhoff said they had planned to count the people who typically camp there.

“We’ve only got 20 percent of the people we normally have,” Hauser said.

They were frustrated because it’s more difficult to find and survey people after they’ve dispersed from a known camp.

Aware of event

Vancouver Police Department Lt. Greg Raquer, who covers the west side of Vancouver, said the police department was aware that the Point in Time count was happening Thursday. He said that prior to Thursday’s cleanup, the city had not cleaned the streets around Share House since the beginning of December. The cleanups are usually done more frequently, and the agency’s bicycle officer unit regularly patrols the area enforcing the camping ordinance.

As a general rule, the Portland Police Bureau does not move camps within a week of the Point in Time Count, said Lt. Tina Jones, the bureau’s public information officer. Jones said the bureau still cleans up trash in collaboration with the city’s Homelessness/Urban Camping Impact Reduction Program but does not actively force campers to move during the count.

The idea behind conducting Clark County’s count early in the morning is that it’s easier to find people when they are likely to be stationary. Benhoff’s team began their work at 6:30 a.m., aiming to catch people before they woke up and left their campsites.

She said when she worked in Nashville, Tenn., the count was conducted at 11 p.m. because outreach workers surmised that locating and surveying people would be easier as they hunkered down for the night.

Hurst interviewed people remaining near Share House, such as Barbara Dalton, who was biking through the area.

“How long have you been homeless?” Hurst asked.

“Sixteen years,” replied Dalton, who’s 40.

“Do you have any developmental disabilities?” Hurst asked.

“I’m autistic,” she said.

Dalton said she slept under a bridge the previous night, and this is the first and only time she’s been homeless.

Despite the hurdles to locating and counting people, Hurst thinks the number of homeless people will be up this year.

People at the Vancouver Navigation Center that opened in November will be counted, along with those participating in the growing SafePark program that allows people to stay in their cars overnight in church parking lots. Also, people were counted at Project Homeless Connect, a resource fair that happened Thursday at St. Joseph Catholic Church, where people got haircuts, teeth cleanings and signed up for services or benefits.

Andre Provost stopped at Share House on Thursday morning to shuttle people to Project Homeless Connect. He said by midmorning he had already done three trips in his 12-seater van driving people from the Navigation Center and shelters to St. Joseph in central Vancouver. Transportation is the largest issue with this annual event that coincides with the count. This year, the organizers set up shuttles and a ride-hailing system to transport people to the resource fair, including those in Clark County’s outlying areas, such as Battle Ground and Washougal.

One couple who’d packed their belongings onto carts and trailers outside Share House decided to switch off attending the resource fair; one of them took the shuttle to the resource fair while the other stayed with their stuff.

Last year, 795 homeless people were counted during the Point in Time, an overall increase of 6 percent from 2017. The unsheltered population, however, had increased 39 percent from 2017. Cities along the West Coast have driven the overall spike in homelessness nationwide in recent years, according to a recent federal report.

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