A Winters Night in Portland

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Continuing my exploration into Portland’s homeless community I came across a survey completed in January documenting the homeless in Portland’s Multnomah County on a single night.  First off, this struck me as an ambitious project knowing how big the city is and the all the out of the way places you are likely to home homeless people.  That said, they seem to have done a thorough job and so to the results.

There were about 3,000 people documented and classified as homeless, of which 1,900 were unsheltered.  These numbers have risen by about 10% since 2011 when the last survey was completed.  Just under 500 of this group are made up of families including just over 250 children, which I see as the saddest part of this whole picture.  Children in this context are noted as below 18 years of age.

As I spend more time at Nightwatch, I have noticed more couples, perhaps not a change but just an increase in my own awareness of the population demographics.  I have not come across any children although one couple were expecting and I can’t imagine living with a baby on the street.  I hope our social support structures will not fail to provide temporary housing.

The survey noted that a number of deaths in the homeless community had been reported in the months before the survey and the average age of the deceased was 46 vs the average life expectancy in Multnomah County of 71.  This reminds me of the Omo Valley in Ethiopia where the average life expectancy is between 45 and 50, the result of an equally hard life.

Unemployment and depleted savings were noted as common reasons for homelessness.  Depleted savings can result from a number of underlying issues such as substance abuse, gambling and health issues.  Over 50% were suffering from serious health issues including mental illness.  Greater than 50% reported some level of alcohol or drug abuse.

The last part to catch my eye relates to a the question I mentioned in a previous blog, “What does it take to escape the world of homelessness”.  About half have been homeless for greater than a year  and 52% were classified as chronically homeless, defined as being homeless at least four times during the past three years.  This says to me a large population move in and out of homelessness.  I wonder why efforts to escape fail?  Perhaps the topic of a future blog after some more research.

After sharing a depressing survey, I do have some brighter things to share.  My family and I have been capturing portraits of the homeless in a makeshift studio environment at the shelters and printing pictures for them to share with friends and family.  More to come on this.

The headline picture (also below) shows a volunteer at St John’s with one of Operation Nightwatch’s guests.  These expressions illustrate the importance of reaching out and helping in our communities.  The effort is much appreciated.

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