With people camping outside, families living in cars and hundreds staying in shelters, homelessness can be witnessed throughout the Salem area — with anecdotal evidence it is on the rise.
But to truly put a number to how many people in the region are living unsheltered, volunteers and community partners undertake the annual Point-in-Time count during the last week of January.
Like the 2021 survey, this year's count will look different from previous years. Volunteers are in short supply, and safety measures like masking, smaller groups and social distancing remain in place.
Also, actions taken by local and state officials during the pandemic have shuffled homeless encampments from city parks to highway underpasses to undeveloped land and back to some parks — making it difficult to keep track of who is where.
Officials are abstaining from further homeless camp sweeps until the PIT is complete in the hopes of obtaining a more accurate count.
Officials are still seeking volunteers to help with the survey.
Here are answers to commonly asked questions about the Point-in-Time Count and instructions on how to volunteer.
What is the Point-in-Time Count?
Those experiencing homelessness are surveyed each year to collect data for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The data is used to determine the need in each region and is directly tied to how much federal money is given to help.
Due to COVID-19, HUD did not make the Point-in-Time count mandatory last year. Many regions, like Multnomah County, delayed or opted out of the count over coronavirus concerns.
Despite a shortage of volunteers, the Marion-Polk County region underwent a count last year and will do so again this year.
The goal of the count is to meet and interview every homeless person in the Mid-Willamette Valley region. This includes rural parts of the counties, Woodburn, Salem, Silverton, Dallas and the Santiam Canyon.
Robert Marshall, program manager with the ARCHES Project, said volunteers and staff will go out on Jan. 25, Jan. 26 and Jan. 29 to ask people where they slept on the night of Jan. 24.
Interviews will include basic information like age, gender and veteran status, and interviews will try to gather background on whether someone is chronically homeless or recently homeless and whether their unsheltered status was caused by the COVID-19 pandemic or a natural disaster like wildfires.
Why is it important?
The results of the count are directly tied to how much federal and state funding and services the region will receive to help address homelessness.
More people counted means more potential funding.
Salem homelessness liaison Gretchen Bennett said camp sweeps were stopped temporarily because officials understand the importance of the PIT Count.
Having people gathered in known areas make it easier for volunteers to connect with unsheltered people and make sure they are included in the count.
"This count results in vital resources to reduce hardships that lead to homelessness, provide services to those living unsheltered in our community, and increase access to affordable housing for our residents including families with children who are unsheltered or at-risk of becoming homeless," Bennett said.
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Marshall said the count allows providers to look at the present state of homelessness in the region and plan for the future.
"It's to give us an idea of the current challenges that the community is facing in terms of homelessness," he said. "It also gives us an idea of how do we prepare for the future ... changing the services that we're providing to meet the needs of their current population or planning for more services to bring on in the event that something does happen that would increase the amount of people experiencing homelessness in the community."
Interviewers also bring items like socks, water, food and hand warmers to hand out to people and use that time to point them to needed treatment, housing and shelter services.
What are some challenges this year?
Like last year, volunteers for the count are in short supply. Many people stepped back during the pandemic, especially older and more vulnerable populations.
Marshall said they will continue with prevention measures like masking and distancing.
Instead of going out in groups, volunteers will be going out in pairs and meeting at check-in points throughout the county that are most convenient to them.
Those pairs will preferably have one volunteer new to the count paired with a more experienced person.
Marshall said recent sweeps of large encampments, like the sites near Market Street and the Kroc Center, have brought along another challenge.
Encampments are smaller and more hidden. Instead of just going to one site, interviews might have to search undeveloped areas or travel further to find as many people as possible.
Interviewers will conduct their count in certain boundaries and work from a list of "known" locations — spots where people typically park or camp to sleep.
Marshall said he recommends people walk around and check in with businesses to find other known spots.
How do you volunteer?
Marshall said no specialized experience is needed to volunteer.
"Anybody that is willing and able to," he said.
People will need to walk on sometimes uneven terrain and put in a four-hour shift.
Those interested in volunteering can sign up online at mwvhomelessalliance.org/point-in-time-pit-count-2021/.
A list of items needed for donation, including socks, underwear and hygiene items, is also available online at that same address.
Marshall said he's seen many volunteers walk away from the count with positive experiences. People address their fears and answer questions they have about those living outside.
Many people fear those experiencing homelessness or have preconceived ideas about what led them to their situation, he said.
"We're wanting to talk to those people, and we're wanting to ease their fears and their anxieties and have them get involved," Marshall said, adding that this shift in thinking is one of the most important things the community can do to help.
"It's not just a fight to end homelessness because of the funding, but it's helping end homelessness because of the voices that are being heard," he said.
This article originally appeared on Salem Statesman Journal: 2022 Mid-Valley homelessness count: What to know and how to volunteer