In Oregon and Douglas County, homeless numbers rise

ROSEBURG — When Peggy's daughter sent her a dozen long-stemmed roses for Mother's Day, the flowers were returned.

A couple days earlier, Peggy, her long-term companion and their beagle had been forced to leave their Glide home and were living out of their van. The couple had found places to stay in exchange for yard work, but those arrangements hadn't worked out.

Now Peggy, who declined to give her last name, spends a good part of her days at United Community Action Network's main office in Roseburg. She's able to shower and do laundry there. At night, she and her partner are allowed to park in the lot of a Roseburg church. He sleeps in the back of the van and Peggy rests across the front seats.

The two of them are part of a growing homeless population in Douglas County and Oregon. Homelessness is on the rise in both the county and the state, according to the results of an annual statewide count conducted in January.

Results of the count were recently released by Oregon Housing and Community Services. The agency uses the data to bring state funding to programs that help the homeless in the areas needing it most.

Partnering agencies in all 36 Oregon counties helped tabulate results. UCAN handled the Douglas County count.

The survey showed 19,207 people were homeless in Oregon in January, up from 17,122 the previous year, according to a Oregon Housing and Community Services news release. In Douglas County, the homeless population increased from 818 people in 2009 to 989 this year. The county's 2008 results tallied 501 homeless people.

"Part of it is that we've gotten better at doing the counting, but most of it's real," UCAN Executive Director Mike Fieldman said of the population increase. "It's an eye-opener to the extent of the problem."

Libby Shoopman, lead case manager at UCAN, said the number doesn't reflect those who didn't show up to be counted.

"That's not all," she said. "Keep in mind that our count has to happen in January ... and in January, who wants to go out?"

In January, UCAN set up 12 sites throughout Douglas County where the homeless could eat a warm meal and get supplies such as toiletries, sleeping bags, tarps and pet food. As they came in the door at the various sites that day, each person was asked a series of questions used to compile the homeless count data.

Fieldman said this year's numbers confirmed what UCAN had been seeing on the ground. There are a lot more homeless families with children in Douglas County than many realize, he said. This year's count tallied 542 families with children in Douglas County.

The 335 homeless Douglas County children were among 5,866 homeless young Oregonians. According to Oregon Housing and Community Services, the results of the count mean that children now account for 31 percent of the state's homeless population.

People counted in the survey were asked what had caused them to become homeless. Statewide, more than a third of households attributed homelessness to unemployment. In Douglas County, unemployment was the second-highest cause of homelessness, following an inability to afford rent. Drug and alcohol abuse was the third-highest cause of homelessness.

Fieldman said the two top causes are interrelated. Not having a job certainly contributes to being unable to afford rent, he said.

Affordability is certainly an issue as well, Fieldman said, and that is one reason why UCAN is committed to providing affordable housing complexes throughout the county. The agency also has been able to help those recovering from alcohol and drug addictions by providing transitional housing, he said.

UCAN's Second Chance Runners program teaches people who have been evicted how to be better renters, Fieldman said. This has also helped keep more people housed, he said.

Peggy said she's thankful for UCAN's help.

"Nobody ever puts me down here," she said.

She looks forward to the day when she'll no longer have to sleep in a van.

"I'd die for a real bed," she said.

Results from the homeless count will help UCAN and partnering agencies further shape ways to combat homelessness in Douglas County, Fieldman said. In particular, the homeless count will aid in a 10-year plan created by the Douglas County Housing & Homeless Coalition, of which UCAN is a member.

"I think the good data that we're getting from the homeless count is really timely and presents some good guidance for the 10-year plan to end homelessness," Fieldman said. "I think our community has done a real good job in responding to homelessness, but I think there's more to do."

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