POLK COUNTY -- A plan is circulating to better understand and end homelessness in Polk County within the next 10 years.
Teresa Cox, the executive director of the Mid-Willamete Valley Community Action Agency, recently released data about homelessness in Polk and Marion counties.
"We're in some serious economic times and we're headed into winter," Cox said. "It's critical for us as a community to address the causes of homelessness."
Homeless counts were conducted in January in both counties. The totals show there are 2,610 homeless people living in the area -- 1,101 are students.
The highest percentage of homeless students living in Polk County was in the Falls City School District, where 12.2 percent had no home. That number was 1.3 percent in the Central School District and 1 percent in the Dallas School District. There are no homeless students in the Perrydale School District, according to the Homeless Student Report by the Department of Education in 2007.
Sara McDonald, senior policy adviser for the Marion County Commissioners, said gathering consistent information about homelessness is difficult as some counts include those living in substandard housing and some do not. Weather is also identified as a factor that can affect the counts as fewer visible homeless people will be on the street.
McDonald said agencies collect data differently so the picture of homelessness may not be clear.
Cox said Falls City is an identified common area of homelessness in Polk County. These people are living in cars or camping outside, she said.
She said she believes the homeless are living in rural areas in Polk County including Falls City to avoid being hassled. Others are suffering from health problems such as Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome and feel safer in secluded areas.
"For some people while they're moving farther away from services, they're moving farther away from people who don't understand them," Cox said.
In the Falls City area, Cox said the homeless community is very tight-knit and each looks out for one another. Sixty-three percent of homeless surveyed in both counties said they had experienced discrimination because they were homeless and 40 percent had experienced violence because of it.
"People have a tendency to think of the homeless as the ones under the bridge or on the street corner," Cox said. However, this is not the case and she said she is seeing more homeless families than ever before.
The Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency has developed a plan to end homelessness in Polk and Marion counties within the next 10 years. Part of the plan is to de-stigmatize homelessness and gather public support to help end it. Other goals include creating a venue for the homeless to access needed services, identify more resources, and find ways to prevent homelessness and educate the population.
A large part of ending homelessness hinges on the ability to find work. According to the survey, the greatest reason people are homeless is a loss or lack of work, and more than half are currently seeking employment.
Not being employed leads the homeless to depend only on panhandling, recycling cans, Social Security, disability, veteran's benefits or nothing at all. Cox's plan also includes working with employment agencies to provide jobs and training for the at-risk homeless population.
"(We want to help) so they get out of that revolving door of homelessness," Cox said.
For more information about homelessness in Polk County, call 503-585-6232.