St. Vincent de Paul Society Lane County photo
Travis Casto and Brook Donnell with their daughter Kasiah at a SVDP-sponsored car camping spot in Lane County.
St. Vincent de Paul Society Lane County photo
Travis Casto and Brook Donnell with their daughter Kasiah at a SVDP-sponsored car camping spot in Lane County.
When a job goes away, sometimes housing turns out to be the next loss.

Many organizations working with homeless populations in Oregon have noted a new trend: While the traditional homeless population has stayed fairly stable over the past few years, the number of newly homeless has been on the rise.

“With the poor labor market and low wages and, ironically, increasing rents costs, people are being squeezed out of housing,” said Terry McDonald, executive director of St. Vincent de Paul Society of Lane County. “To save dignity, they are trying to hold on to personal processions.”

For many, that means a vehicle.

“When you move toward a homeless lifestyle, you lose your normal housing, then you lose other types of housing, like other people’s couches, and then you have a choice of camping or sleeping in a vehicle,” McDonald said. “It’s safer to sleep in a locked vehicle.”

A “point-in-time” count taken in January in Multnomah County, coordinated by the Portland Housing Bureau and more than 200 local agencies, provided a snapshot of the county’s homeless.  The data is collected to figure eligibility for state and federal funding for government agencies and non-profits. The 2011 count showed a 35 percent increase of unsheltered homeless families since 2009.

More and more people are living in cars, RVs, vans or trailers, moving from parking lot to parking lot and street to street, to try to avoid being ticketed or towed for staying too long in one place.

Portland city ordinance, for instance, makes it illegal to park a vehicle for more than 24 hours on the street. Some types of recreational vehicles, such as RVs or trailers, will be ticketed if they are parked in a public right-of-way for more than 8 hours. All vehicles on public streets need current registration, which is not always financially feasible for the down-and-out.

“Most people express gratitude that they still have a vehicle to stay in,” said Margie Dechenne, program manager of the Housing Transitions Program at Catholic Charities in Portland.  Especially, she said, because sometimes wait lists at emergency shelters can be longer than 150 people.

“It’s frequent that people have gone from their homes, to a vehicle, and then lost the vehicle,” she said. “The issue is not only where to park it, but where to get gas to move it. The cars disappear too after a while.”

Some businesses are generous about allowing people to park in their lots. There is a community center in Northeast Portland that allows parked residents to come in and use their showers, Dechenne said, and some “big box” chain stores allow people to park. But if the car is gets towed, the high cost to retrieve a vehicle from impound means the vehicle is lost.

Before 2010, approximately half of the people Dechenne worked with were people were considered “long-term” homeless. But last year, after the economy took a turn, the number of people who were homeless for the first time began to rise.

“People who have experienced it before, they are knowledgeable about resources,” Dechenne said. “People who are homeless for the first time are in shock and are often scared to death to go to shelters. Everything they own is in their cars, so they’re afraid to leave them unattended.”

McDonald said they are seeing a perfect leading to the increase in new homeless – a decrease in affordable housing, jobs and access to benefits. Budget cuts for health care assistance also pose a problem: One medical incident in a family can cost enough to force them out of their home.

Until some these trends turn around, he said, people can expect to see numbers of people who are newly homeless continue to rise.