The day shelter at Origins Faith Community in Ontario sees anywhere from 20 to 40 people daily. (The Enterprise/File)

ONTARIO – The number of homeless residents in Malheur County shot up to 377 according to the recent annual “point-in-time” count. Last year’s number was 198.

The point-in-time count is conducted yearly by volunteers in counties across the U.S. While it doesn’t provide a clear picture of homelessness, said Heather Echeveste, housing programs manager at Community in Action, the count done in January and recently compiled gives the community a snapshot of the issue.

“The numbers alone were shocking,” Echeveste said. “The other thing that surprised me was how many families with children are experiencing homelessness.”

January’s count included 147 homeless families.

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It’s not uncommon for family members to be sleeping in cars or on someone’s couch or floor, in makeshift camps or on the street, Echeveste said.

Several factors could have driven up this year’s number, said Barb Higinbotham, executive director of Community in Action.

It could be due to higher visibility of the homeless population and organizers having an easier time locating people on the streets, she said.

“Some people don’t want to participate [in the count],” Higinbotham added. “Maybe there were people last year who potentially were homeless but didn’t participate. That could be part of it.”

Organizers this year also had more time to compile data, Echeveste said. Historically, the yearly count is conducted on one day toward the end of January. But Echeveste said organizers this year were given more time.

Accurate counts are important. The data collected informs funding that goes toward homeless services and prevention efforts.

Echeveste said information gathered from those counted is confidential, but the survey is designed to avoid duplicates. Initials and dates of birth are compared to ensure that folks aren’t counted twice.

This year’s count also used technology, whereas in year’s past, volunteers relied on pen and paper.

“I think homelessness is just compounding in our area as well as the rest of the state,” Higinbotham said. “It’s a national crisis at this stage, it’s not just our state.”

The New Hope Day Shelter at Origins Faith Community, an Ontario church, sees about 20 to 40 people per day, according to Pastor James Vogt.

Vogt said they see people in all circumstances. Some folks are chronically homeless, others are transitioning into housing and some are just passing through town.

“We have seen a fair number of families at the Day Shelter,” Vogt wrote in an email.

The shower facility at the shelter is often booked, he said, and added the shelter has a continuous need for consistent volunteers to staff the place.

Around town, there’s a need for something else, too, added Higinbotham.

“There is very little housing that is safe and affordable in Malheur County,” she said.

Have a news tip? Reporter Yadira Lopez: [email protected] or 541-473-3377

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