Homeless study turns up disturbing results

POLK COUNTY -- A survey conducted earlier this year identified more than 2,000 homeless individuals in urban and rural areas of Polk and Marion counties.

POLK COUNTY -- A survey conducted earlier this year identified more than 2,000 homeless individuals in urban and rural areas of Polk and Marion counties.

More than a quarter of those who participated in street interviews with volunteers said they had been homeless for more than a year. And one in four said they are homeless because of mental health issues.

The exploratory study was sponsored by the Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency (MWVCAA) and coordinated by William Brown, director of the Pacific Policy and Research Institute and a professor at Western Oregon University.

Brown stressed that the count doesn't represent a definitive number for regional homelessness - "this is an underestimate; there are obviously homeless we didn't see."

But it does serve as a first step, by providing direction in evaluating and improving programs meant to aid the homeless, said Diane Merry, a MWVCAA program manager.

The organization plans to create a 10-year plan to end homelessness in Polk and Marion counties. Similar initiatives are underway in other states as part of a nation-wide effort.

"This gives us a baseline for making changes," Merry said.

About 50 volunteers fanned out across several cities and rural sites in the two counties on Jan. 30 to conduct the count.

Tallies were taken at one-night shelters, within five school district boundaries, on the streets, through the Department of Human Services and at the Marion County Jail.

The total, using a formula in which Marion prisoners had no permanent housing following their release, showed 2,006 people who could be characterized as homeless.

To gain more detailed demographic information, 508 Marion inmates participated in a survey.

Volunteers also did street interviews with 360 people. Two-hundred and eighty-eight males, 67 females and five who identified themselves as trans-gender, participated.

Chronic homeless - those who have been without a permanent place to live for more than a year, have a disability and are alone - numbered 89.

"California has been a leader in reports like these, but in Marion and Polk counties, this kind of information didn't exist before," Brown said. "At least the data I had access to prior to the survey ... before, they just went into shelters."

The following information was gleaned from the street interviews:

* Asked about the causes of their homelessness, 24 percent of participants said mental health issues, 23 percent said jail and prison records, and 15 percent said they had no other options.

* Almost 24 percent said that trying to interact with regular people was the most difficult part of being homeless. Another 24 percent said being harassed by police was hardest.

* Eighty-five percent said they eat regularly two or less times a day. Regarding sources of income, 28 percent of participants said their money comes from part-time work, followed by panhandling (25 percent) and scavenging (20 percent).

* More than 40 percent of Marion jail inmates who completed the homeless survey said they didn't have a permanent place to live prior to incarceration; almost 60 percent said they wouldn't have a place after their release.

Merry said getting information in Polk County - particularly outside West Salem - was problematic because there are no shelters. The Polk County Jail also did not participate in the survey.

Still, 57 people were being sheltered through the Dallas Resource Center, and five through the Independence Resource Center, according to the report.

Volunteers also counted 13 students in Central School District as homeless.

Brown noted that the timing of the count affected the results. The Salem Police Department conducted a sweep throughout the city on Jan. 30 which shifted people from usual congregation spots.

Brown also said it would have been easier to find people during the summer months, including migrant laborers.

"Many migrant workers don't live in traditional housing, you've whole families living along the river in Polk County, he said. "During farming season, the racial configuration would undoubtedly have changed."

Brown said one item that resonated with him was that nearly a quarter of those interviewed on the street were military veterans. Thirty percent of those were of an age consistent with troops serving in the current Iraq war.

Brown said potential causes for this segment could be difficulty accessing military benefits and post-traumatic stress issues.

"They probably have some form of permanent living situation...and families to go to," he said. "But when probed about their war experience, they want to get out of there."

Brown also said six of those veterans surveyed were female: "I was a counselor at a vet center in Las Vegas, and in the three years that I worked there I never once found a homeless Vietnam veteran who was female."


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