In December 2015, Corvallis city councilors opened up a work session on homelessness by asking what would appear to be a simple question: How many homeless people live in the area?
Nearly 15 months later, the League of Women Voters Housing Committee has released a 48-page report offering the closest estimate to date of homelessness in Corvallis and Benton County. The report collects data from 13 separate social services agencies serving Benton County and uses two separate methodologies.
While researchers noted that each methodology had flaws, including varying data collection methods from social services agencies, privacy laws restricting other data, and minimal data on unsheltered homeless, their best estimate is that roughly 800 to 1,200 people experience homelessness in Corvallis and Benton County in a given year. That’s roughly 1.5 percent of the total population.
“In order to have productive discussions, we really need data, not one number,” said Judy Ball, a league member and the report's lead author. “The reason one number isn’t appropriate is because homelessness isn’t necessarily a permanent condition. When you have people becoming homeless, then becoming housed, and maybe becoming homeless again, you're going to get inconsistencies in the data.”
Ball said instead of a firm number, researchers sought a range in their report. To determine a minimum, they used the so-called point in time count from the Oregon Housing and Community Services (which aims to count all the homeless people in one locale on one day) and combined that with data from social services agencies.
To develop maximum estimates, researchers used two main methodologies.
One methodology combined the sheltered homeless at Community Outreach Inc., the men’s cold weather shelter, the Room at the Inn women’s shelter and Jackson Street Youth Services with the unsheltered students of the Corvallis School District and patients with Linn and Benton County Community Health Centers.
Using those numbers, this methodology arrived at an estimate of 855 people who experienced homelessness in the 2015-16 fiscal year.
The second methodology used the ratio of unsheltered to total homeless persons (42 percent) from the 2015 point in time count and combined it with the 729 sheltered individuals reported at the various service agencies. That method estimated that 1,257 people experienced homelessness in the 2015-16 fiscal year.
Co-author and league member Karen Rockwell said both counts are going to be subject to a margin of error and flaws.
“We recognize that, because the homeless population fluctuates daily, it is really tricky and problematic,” Rockwell said. "And we recognize this report is not a stopping point for us, but a starting point. And I think this illustrates the complexity of this problem in general."
Rockwell, who also serves as the executive director for Benton Habitat for Humanity, said the report emphasizes the need for consistent data and a larger, more comprehensive study of the factors that lead people to homelessness.
“This community has a severe shortage of housing,” Rockwell said. “We need to be able to identify all categories of homelessness and understand all of the issues affecting all of them — not one specific group that we see in the shelters. There are men, but there are also families and children who are becoming homeless. They don’t all have the same needs, and we don’t have to have one solution for every population.”
Corvallis Mayor Biff Traber called the report a good first step.
“It’s eye-opening; I think this is the most comprehensive look we’ve had at this problem,” Traber said. “At the same time, given the difficulty of gathering the data, the challenges in gathering the data, it’s got flaws.”
Traber noted that the study relied on data primarily from Corvallis and may have not included enough information about Monroe and Alsea to be considered complete.
“Not to criticize the report; it’s an impossible number to count accurately,” he said. “It’s transient and fluid. Transient with (people moving) in and out of town. Fluid with (people moving) in and out of housing. I sure do appreciate the care they went into to develop these numbers and I think having background data needs to be done and continued.”
Brad Smith, president of Housing First, agreed.
“They freely acknowledge and admit it’s not a perfect set of counts, but it’s the best estimate I’ve seen so far,” Smith said. “It’s the first time I’ve seen a comprehensive report that tries to pull it all together. You start adding up the number of individuals and it’s a pretty sobering number.”
Ann Craig, executive director with Jackson Street Youth Services, said the report could provide the starting point for organizing data more consistently.
“It’s been something that’s long overdue,” Craig said. “Those numbers will be useful but we can’t only focus on them. It gives you an idea of the problem, but we’re still not counting individual people. It is an indicator, and I think we need indicators so we can finally see what the problem looks like.”