Recently Released Point in Time Count Data Shows 8.2% Increase in Denver Area’s Homeless Population
During one of the coldest nights in years on Jan. 29, volunteers throughout Colorado came together to capture the annual Point in Time (PIT) count, surveying people experiencing homelessness. The survey data released in August showed a rise of 8.2% in the homeless population throughout the Denver Metro Area, but an overall decrease in 56 rural counties. Across the state, 34% were unsheltered compared to 16% in the Denver Metro Area.
The Rocky Mountain Human Services (RMHS) Homes for All Veterans (HAV) program participates in the PIT count every year, surveying those experiencing homelessness in the Denver Metro Area, Colorado Springs and Pueblo. This year, other RMHS staff volunteered as well.
HAV Program Manager James Sieffert, along with other RMHS staff and community volunteers, helped count how many people were experiencing homeless at the Comitis Crisis Center near the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora that evening. They handed out winter clothing and supplies, connected with veterans and conducted intake for HAV. Organizers worked to attract people to magnet events at shelters and other locations citywide, offering services such as pet immunizations and health screenings. However, the freezing weather was the main motivation for people to spend the night indoors.
“We came across numerous veterans who were not connected to services who had recently moved here and become homeless,” James said. “That night it was so cold they decided to come to a shelter – we may not have connected with those veterans if we weren’t there.”
Meanwhile, HAV Outreach Specialist John Kerr braced for the cold temperatures and waded through a fresh foot of snow in Denver, searching for those who were unsheltered. The vehicle he was in broke down because it was so cold outside.
“It was 10 below that night,” John said. “There weren’t a whole lot of people out, fortunately.”
In Colorado Springs, about 10 HAV staff trekked throughout town the following morning asking people on the street where they slept the night before, and Veteran Support Specialist Ben Strand counted those who came to the Pueblo HAV office.
The PIT count, a required effort for communities to receive federal housing funds, is currently the best method for determining the needs for supporting people experiencing homelessness. The HAV program at RMHS is funded yearly by a grant from Veterans Affairs, providing financial resources to help veterans pay for rental deposits and short-term rental support, and access other resources. Overall, almost 70% of veterans in the program are stably housed within six months.
Though the PIT count is the closest communities get to estimating the population of those experiencing homelessness, it isn’t perfect. The count misses many people, including those sleeping on friends’ couches, in their cars or in the backcountry. James said some who came to the shelter that night bolted when they realized the count was happening, because they didn’t want to be a part of it.
Overall, the count found a total of 5,755 individuals experiencing homelessness in the Denver Metro Area, with 627 identified as veterans. James said that’s a low estimate. The survey continues to improve though – this year, volunteers and nonprofit staff used survey tools on their phones and tablets for the first time.
“You’re not just writing stuff on a piece of paper. It’s being counted electronically so it’s more accurate,” James said.
The count of veterans experiencing homelessness in the Denver Metro Area was close to accurate, James said. The HAV program conducts its own counts every week, identifying veterans experiencing homelessness by name, attempting to connect them to resources and help them become stably housed.
“We think that we almost came in contact with all those veterans,” James said.
At the shelter alone, James made contact with at least 15 veterans experiencing homelessness, and they were able to connect a handful of them to resources they weren’t previously accessing, such as the HAV program, in a matter of a few hours.
The count helps to ensure that resources like the HAV program remain available to people who need them, and it also helps spread awareness in the community. For those in the HAV program, it provided an opportunity to connect with some of the veterans they might not have found otherwise.
The HAV program has made a large impact on the population of veterans experiencing homelessness. In 2018, the program helped 545 veterans transition to permanent housing. Staff are dedicated to helping veterans find safe, stable and warm places to live, and that evening on Jan. 29, John was happy he didn’t find many people trying to sleep in the snow.
“It was about as difficult a night as you could imagine to be living outside,” John said.