Multnomah County’s homeless numbers surge

Jeremy Karvonen, 39, has been homeless since October and is living at a men's shelter downtown. He made $35,000 a year as a welder before losing his job, and his efforts to find work have been unsuccessful.

Jeremy Karvonen, 39, has been homeless since October and is living at a men's shelter downtown. He made $35,000 a year as a welder before losing his job, and his efforts to find work have been unsuccessful.

From the Oregonian, April 15 2009

Jeremy Karvonen’s slide into homelessness started two years ago when he lost his job as a welder. He used up his savings, then his girlfriend’s student loans. They lost their storage unit, then their apartment. For months, they slept on sidewalks, under bridges and beneath overpasses.

In February, Karvonen found a bed at Transition Projects, which runs several homeless shelters. He spends his days applying for jobs as a welder, a fast-food worker, a stock boy and a day laborer. Nothing’s worked.

“I don’t want to live like this, but there’s no one out there willing to help us,” he said. “I’ve got a nice resume and letter of recommendation. Most jobs don’t want to look at you if you’re homeless.”

Karvonen’s story echoes that of hundreds of homeless people counted in a January survey that found their overall numbers have jumped 13 percent since 2007 in Multnomah County.

According to the Jan. 28 street count, 2,438 people were homeless that night, including 1,591 who were sleeping outside — on the street, in an abandoned building or in a car.

The overall number is equivalent to the entire population of Estacada, or all of the students at Grant and Franklin high schools.

“That sort of increase is just terribly alarming to us,” said Tony Bernal, director of development for Transition Projects. “We’ve seen recessions come and go, but we haven’t seen anything along these lines before.”

The count is a snapshot that tallies people sleeping outside, in shelters or in hotels using federal Section 8 housing vouchers. Officials believe the actual number is much higher because it’s likely that not everyone sleeping outside was counted.

Portland Commissioner Nick Fish, who heads the city’s housing efforts, said much of the increase is due to the deepening recession that has boosted unemployment and bankruptcies. Twenty-one percent of the people contacted reported that they had been homeless less than six months. And the number of people who identified themselves as military veterans is up 75 percent.

“We think this is just the tip of the iceberg,” Fish said. “In our analysis, this is the result of the one-strike-and-you’re-out economy, and it’s going to get worse.”

Other cities, Fish said, have reported as much as a 30 percent jump. He credited the city’s aggressive 10-year plan to end homelessness with lessening the problem here. Portland and Multnomah County have found homes for about 6,000 people in the past four years under the initiative.

The city’s $33.75 million housing budget faces a $6.7 million hole — just under 20 percent — with the new fiscal year that begins July 1. Much of that is what’s called “one-time money,” paid from a current year general fund surplus that’s expected to disappear with lower tax revenues in the coming year.

During recent budget hearings, Fish asked the City Council to find the money for housing programs, and there is some support on the council for closing the gap. Without the money, Fish predicts the numbers of homeless people will increase.

Fish also is seeking about $28 million to build the Resource Access Center, a $50 million homeless shelter and service center planned for Old Town / Chinatown. The money was supposed to come from the River District Urban Renewal Area, but the city’s redrawing of the boundaries of that area is tied up in a lawsuit. City finance managers are looking for another source of money.

Meanwhile, the number of people on the waiting list for a bed at Transitions shelters has almost doubled in the past year, from 286 in October 2007 to 434 in October 2008.

Those numbers are likely to soar if the city can’t find money for programs such as rental assistance, Bernal said. And the recession also has affected shelter donations, which were down 30 percent from 2007 to 2008.

“What makes it worse is most of us doing this work are nonprofits,” he said. “And I don’t know anyone who didn’t take a hit.”

READ – Report: More homeless people on Portland’s streets, Portland Tribune, April 14 2009
READ – Portland’s 2009 One Night Homeless Street Count, Bureau of Housing and Community Development
READ – Shelters: who stays, who goes, Portland Tribune