Denver’s homeless population is on the rise, but the pandemic is forcing city officials and service providers to move forward without an annual data point: the total number of people experiencing homelessness.
Cities across the country rely on annual point-in-time surveys to take stock of who is living on the streets, in shelters and transitional housing and fleeing domestic violence. The numbers set a baseline for governments and service providers to track demographics, understand how much money to request and how to best use their time.
But this year, the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative cancelled part of its point-in-time surveys and delayed the rest, spokeswoman Jamie Rife said. The agency conducts counts for the cities and counties of Denver and Broomfield, and Aurora and Adams, Arapahoe, Boulder, Douglas and Jefferson counties. This year the agency won’t count those on the streets, only those in shelters — and that will happen Feb. 25, about a month late.
Denver joins Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and San Diego in canceling major counts — which are huge undertakings that require scores if not hundreds of staffers and volunteers to pull off. Those people — and those experiencing homelessness — would have been put at risk with this year’s count because of the pandemic, Rife said.
Even in a good year the surveys are imperfect, Cathy Alderman of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless said, but it still gives Denver and local agencies a better sense of the homeless population “so that we can advocate with local, state and federal governments on how best to direct resources.”
This year, Alderman said, it’s not yet clear what might happen to funding that typically comes from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. And tracking how much the homeless population is growing and why is also more difficult without the survey, she said.
“Of course anecdotally, we know it’s housing, COVID, job loss, etc,” Alderman said.
Over the past five years Denver’s homeless population increased by about 15%, from 3,631 in 2016 to 4,171 in 2020, according to past point-in-time surveys.
Plus, the homeless population is increasing so fast with the pandemic and financial crisis — well above the recent increase — that this year’s survey wouldn’t be accurate for long, according to Kathleen Van Voorhis, director of housing justice for the Colorado Interfaith Alliance.
“Even if we had a PIT (point-in-time) count, it would be invalid by the end of February, especially by the end of March, “ Van Voorhis said.
And the methodology behind the surveys is changing, Rife said, so a gap in this data isn’t the end of the world.
“This might be an opportunity for us to look at how we enhance some of the things we’re already doing so we don’t have to rely on the point-in-time when it comes to unsheltered data,” Rife said.
Collections of service providers, advocates and government agencies — called continuums of care — across the country appear cautiously optimistic that the cancelled counts won’t amount to a massive shortfall of cash, she said.
“What’s being signaled from Washington is that funding will continue to increase,” Rife said.
Last year, the local continuum of care — of which Metro Denver Homeless Initiative is a part — received about $29.4 million from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Rife said. If that figure is lower this year, money from the CARES Act, federal block grants, private donations and more should be enough to make up the difference, she said.
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