Navigating the lunch line at St. Vincent de Paul's free kitchen, Deborah Grizzle takes a seat in the busy cafeteria and recounts the misfortunes that led her toward homelessness.
"I've been in and out of the hospital the past five years," she said. "I got hit by a car in a hit-and-run and messed up my hip. I can't work because I'm not supposed to stand or walk too long."
She and her partner, John Dyhrmann, head to St. Vincent de Paul in Medford when they can. In recent months, Grizzle says she has watched the numbers of homeless grow.
"These aren't the ones that I'm used to running into," she said, gesturing to the 100-plus seated beside her. "There's quite a few more."
Oregon suffered the nation's highest rate of homelessness last year, according to reports from the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Agency.
Data collected throughout 2008 and released last month revealed one out of every 200 Oregonians to be homeless.
The numbers are troubling for a state already burdened with the nation's third-highest unemployment and hunger rates. Separate organizations have tracked a 37 percent spike in homelessness since the collapse of the stock market last fall.
"We are really just at the start of seeing what's going to happen," said Bill Yeager, director of Salvation Army's Hope House transitional shelter in Medford.
Yeager said official criteria for homelessness understates the depth of the problem in Southern Oregon. Federal law defines a homeless person as lacking a fixed nighttime residence, or residing in a shelter, institution or place not designed for sleeping accommodations.
"That is not the description I would use for homelessness in this valley," he said. "That removes all of the youth that are couch surfing, families that are doubled up. It isn't a real accurate picture of the need for the area and if they're using this definition, that's way short of what really is happening."
Oregon is ranked 11th nationally in foreclosure filings this year. Homeowners fleeing properties they can no longer afford find themselves stuck in rentals, inflating demand and price across the housing market.
"If you're working at the minimum wage level in the valley, which a lot of people are," Yeager said, "your ability to find housing is lessened."
Housing for Dyhrmann is a motor home his brother owns — when he is fortunate. Otherwise, he and Grizzle must make due with their surroundings. Whether that means sleeping in a thicket of bushes or beneath a tree varies by day.
"We try to help each other out, make sure that each one of us is safe," Grizzle said. Both say they are careful to pick up after themselves.
Dyhrmann, an Army veteran, collects about $400 each month in disability payments, which vanishes amid medical expenses and the prescription pills he and Grizzle need.
They are just two of the state's thousands of chronically homeless. But officials now are worried about the influx of new homeless: individuals who recently lost jobs and are entering into shelter programs for the first time. Ed Angeletti, planning director for ACCESS, Inc., has noticed recent demographic shifts throughout the valley.
"We are seeing changes in the number of people who we otherwise wouldn't have seen before as a result of the economic downturn," he said. "We've seen more working families not being able to make ends meet as the result of people losing their jobs."
Unemployment and lack of affordable housing have driven these past months' increases, Angeletti said. But mental and emotional disorders are also taking their toll. The stigmas associated with homelessness often prevent those capable of helping themselves from doing so.
"The majority of the homeless population in this valley, we don't see them," he said. "We don't know that the person who is sitting right next to us at work is leaving and going to an emergency shelter that evening."
He said lawmakers must understand the broad range of problems facing the homeless population, and shelters must make adjustments to suit the needs of both newly and persistently displaced.
Yeager sees similar problems in dealing with the new wave of homeless.
"Most of the shelter programs that deal with homelessness are designed around improving self-sufficiency of individuals so they can function within the mainstream community," Yeager said. "The people that are being displaced now are self-sufficient. Their problem is lack of resources."
Homeless long before the recession, Dyhrmann and Grizzle have always faced a lack of resources. The cafeteria at St. Vincent de Paul is one of few. The time they share among friends there is a refuge, and even then, the reality of homelessness is never too far.
Grizzle is interrupted at one point in her conversation by a young woman. Crying, the woman is led outside with her head in a friend's arms. Chatter in the cafeteria dims momentarily, then carries on as normal. Grizzle says she has been there.
"You gotta make each other smile every day," she said. "Otherwise you gotta give it up."
Elon Glucklich is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.