As Portland and Multnomah County grapple with a spike in homeless families seeking shelter, a key data point is raising a startling question: Are those families arriving from out-of-state?

The number of people seeking shelter at the Human Solutions Family Shelter had more than doubled in the last four months, as WW reported last week.

Data collected at the East Portland shelter on the night of Sept. 12 show that 43 percent of the heads of households reported that their last permanent address wasn't in Oregon.

On Aug. 23, nearly three weeks before, 49 percent of households who answered the relevant question while seeking shelter gave an out-of-state address.

The shelter was built for 133 people, and because of a policy of not turning anyone away has relied on area churches and motels. The number of people seeking shelter there has topped 400 this month—a significant spike from the spring.

Whether the increased demand is coming at least in part from outside the Portland metro area remains an unanswered question, says Marc Jolin, of the Joint Office of Homeless Services, the city-county agency in charge of shelters.

"It is a question we are asking, looking at our data and talking to our provider," says Jolin, "to see both if there has been in the recent past a significant increase in the number of families who report that their last permanent address was somewhere other than Multnomah County, but also understanding the limits of those data."

Questions officials want to explore: how long families had some kind of housing in the county before coming to the shelter, and the reasons they moved to Portland and nearby areas.

"Without understanding those things, we can't really answer the question why are we seeing this increase and does it have anything to do with the communities where the families last had residence," adds Jolin.

Advocates for homeless services are quick to fight off what they call the "magnet myth"—the idea that providing resources will only make the city's homeless population swell.

In general, people living on the county's streets report having roots here. More than 70 percent of unsheltered homeless people reported living in the county for more than two years, according to the latest, 2015 data.

The new stats on out-of-town addresses were culled from an intake form that households fill out when entering the shelter. Families don't necessarily understand what they're being asked for—whether they should list their last formal lease or a more recent, informal housing arrangement.

The joint office said it couldn't readily provide a comparable out-of-state number for last year, but did offer statistics on the number of households with in-county addresses, which suggests the out-of-towners can't possibly be the sole cause of the increases.

During the fiscal year 2016-17, 50.3 percent of households served by the family shelter reported a Multnomah County address as their last permanent zip code.

That's just a few percentage points higher than what was reported during the two nights in August or September, 46 and 45 percent, respectively.

The joint office and the shelter will be surveying families over the next six weeks as part of an effort to get a better understanding of what's driving the increase.

Among the other questions: Are more people arriving? Or are families staying longer?

A similar spike in people seeking shelter has not occurred at the three traditional shelters in the county, which turn away people once they hit their limit. Instead, they run a wait list.  According to the Joint Office data, the wait lists are down significantly.

Wait lists at traditional shelters in Multnomah County:

Men’s Women’s
Sept 2017 284 95
Sept 2016 414 174