Amid Camping Ban Controversy, Metro Denver Counts Its Homeless Population

Sara Fleming
Volunteer Katie Rollyson interviews Tim Abell at the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless Stout Street clinic.
Over the course of 24 hours, from dusk on Monday, January 27, through Tuesday, January 28, hundreds of volunteers with green buttons reading “Everyone Counts” hit the streets trying to find people who might be experiencing homelessness. They talked to people staying warm in the Central Denver Public Library and people seeking medical attention at a Colorado Coalition for the Homeless clinic. They walked up and down Colfax Avenue, through Civic Center Park, and scoured downtown encampments. They drove around neighboring counties, trying to spot people in tents by riverbeds or in sleeping bags under bridges.

The over 600 volunteers were part of a coordinated effort to answer a seemingly simple but difficult-to-answer question: How many unhoused people are there in the Denver metro area?

The Point in Time count is the method most cities rely on to get a rough sense of the numbers. In a massive annual effort, the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative (MDHI) trains and coordinates hundreds of volunteers across seven counties to count everyone they can find who spent the night of January 27, 2020, on the streets or other places unfit for habitation. The results will produce a number that media outlets, city agencies and service providers will cite repeatedly throughout the next year. But it’s bound to be an underestimate.

“The fallacy I hear too often with the Point in Time is that this number is the number of people in the region that experience homelessness. No, that was the number on a single evening in January. It's one picture of homelessness,” says Diane Howald, the community engagement manager for MDHI. “We work really hard to have accurate and complete coverage, but we didn't find every person staying in a car.”

The Point in Time is required for all areas that get federal funding for homelessness and housing from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, so just about every city in the U.S. does some version of the same count during a 24-hour period in the last ten days of January. HUD suggests a number of methodologies, and each region’s designated “Continuum of Care” chooses how to conduct the count based on the region’s specific needs.

Having an accurate count is urgently important. There's no way that city agencies, nonprofit service providers and shelters can serve the entire homeless population, much less get everyone into housing, if they don't know how many there are.

And the issue is even more pressing this year. In December, a Denver County Court judge ruled the city's controversial camping ban unconstitutional. The city is appealing the ruling, meaning the law sits in limbo. One question at the heart of the case is whether it is cruel and unusual punishment to ticket people for camping and sleeping on the street when they have nowhere else to go. Effectively, this means that if people have no reasonable option for going to a shelter, whether because of a lack of beds or because the shelters aren't accessible to them, the law is less likely to hold up in court.

The case referenced the 2019 Point in Time count, which showed that although there was extra space in shelters that January night a year ago, if was not enough to accommodate all of the unsheltered people who were counted. If the 2020 Point in Time count comes up with a radically different number, either the city or the defense could introduce it into the case on appeal.

Though it could be the linchpin of the court case, a 2017 National Law Center on Homeless and Poverty report on the Point in Time called it “severely flawed” and bound to produce an under count. The Point in Time only counts people experiencing “literal homelessness" — those staying in emergency shelters and certain types of transitional housing, or living unsheltered on the streets, on buses, under bridges or in cars. People who are crashing on a friend’s couch, for instance, or staying temporarily in motels aren’t counted.

According to Howald, the Point in Time count gives a “very accurate” picture of sheltered homelessness, since everyone who stays there is either already in MHDI's database or shelter staff survey them the night of the count. It’s much more difficult to count those who didn’t stay in shelters, especially those who don’t interact with service providers. Although downtown encampments are relatively easy to find, many other people who sleep on the streets stay hidden, under bridges, in obscure alleyways, or beside riverbanks; some are in less dense neighboring counties and cities. Some have been pushed away from visible areas by police enforcing the camping ban or other laws that criminalize encampments.

For example, less than two weeks ago, the city dispersed about fifty people in an encampment in Lincoln Park, closing the area in front of the State Capitol because, they said, the grounds had become infested with rats. Days before the count began, Denver resumed enforcement of the camping ban, after pausing it in light of the ruling.

“It does make it harder to find people,” Howald says of the city’s policing of encampments. She says MHDI tries to work with police to ensure that “unless there’s an imminent safety threat, they're not asking folks to move along” in the weeks leading up to the count.

Andy McNulty, the attorney defending Jerry Burton against a camping-ban charge in the case that resulted in the controversial law being ruled unconstitutional, has a stronger take. “If the city wanted to get an accurate count and the largest amount of resources, they would suspend enforcement of the camping ban and encumbrance removal and every other activity they do for at least a week leading up to the Point in Time,” he says. “It’s certainly in the city’s interest to drive as many people as possible out of Denver or out into the nether regions of Denver, to show that there is enough shelter space and that homelessness is not as much of a problem.”

According to Howald, MDHI talks with police, street outreach teams and agencies that interact with homeless populations, to figure out where they have seen encampments. It then sends out volunteers to survey various zones. The methodology varies by geography. In dense downtown Denver, teams of volunteers cover areas the size of a few blocks. In the suburbs and rural areas, there are fewer resources, more space and less knowledge about where people are. Some counties hold magnet events, hoping to entice people to come for a hot meal and take the survey.

Point in Time counts from last year showed a growing homeless population.
Metro Denver Homeless Initiative
The weather can present an additional challenge: In 2019, for example, a blizzard hit on the night of the count. Howald says more people might have stayed in shelters that night than otherwise would. Or they might have crashed with friends or pooled money to get a motel room, taking them out of the count entirely. Weather is less of a worry this year, but the difference also means that the “snapshot” of homelessness isn’t entirely comparable from year to year (for example, if the number goes up, it may be attributable to an increase in the unhoused population, but it also could just mean that the methodology improved or that more people ended up in visible locations).

On the morning of Tuesday, January 28, volunteers did “street outreach” on Colfax Avenue, bringing along new socks, granola bars, hats and gloves to incentivize people to take the survey. By mid-Tuesday, many of the people they encountered said they’d already taken the survey at another location — a good sign that teams had hit the right places. But the team still found dozens of people who hadn’t yet taken the Point in Time. Each interview takes around ten to twenty minutes, in which volunteers ask a host of important but sometimes sensitive questions about people’s barriers to housing, including whether they have a chronic illness, a developmental disability or an addiction. Most outreach teams go out in two- to three-hour shifts. On Colfax, it seemed like a job that could go on for double or triple that time before volunteers ran out of new people to survey.

A handful of people also usually refuse to take the survey, another factor that can contribute to an under count. Those people might still be counted if surveyors are able to observe them literally sleeping on the streets, but if they’re spotted in the Denver Public Library, for example, volunteers can’t be sure they are experiencing homelessness. And there’s a good chance that an unhoused person in transit or a hard-to-find area could have missed the army of volunteers entirely.

In the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless clinic on Stout Street, first-time volunteers arrived with clients in the morning. Tim Abell says he heard on the Monday evening news that the Point in Time count was happening; when he took a friend in to the clinic to see a doctor, a volunteer was able to survey them both. Abell says he’s been homeless for over seventeen years. He’s on a waiting list for housing, thanks to his case manager at the VA.

Katie Rollyson decided to volunteer together with two of her colleagues, who work together in the community relations department of a bank. She was nervous at first. After interviewing people experiencing homelessness all morning, she says, “it really makes it feel like they’re in my community. It makes me feel more engaged and not necessarily walk by.” It also opened her eyes to some of the barriers they face. “You think that, oh, well, shelters are great, but what I’ve heard so far it’s not a great option. So as much as it’s awkward asking people some of these questions, hopefully it will help to find them a better solution.” She says she’d volunteer again next year.

Forming connections between the housed and unhoused community is a secondary goal of the survey. But at the same time, “the amount of effort and coordination it takes to do this is obscene," notes Howald. "It's mind-blowing how much work it takes not only on our part but on all of our community members and the donations we're raising and the coordination and the training,”

Howald wonders whether a single-night count is the best way to get a snapshot of the homeless population in Denver. She says that since HUD began requiring the count, database technology has improved, and agencies could coordinate to better track the number of people experiencing homelessness over longer periods of time. Others have floated the idea of doing the count multiple times per year, to get a better picture of the seasonal change.

The results of the Point in Time survey will take a few months to be analyzed and compiled into a report. In 2019, it counted 5,755 total individuals experiencing homelessness in the Denver metro area; 946 of those people were unsheltered, and 3,943 were in the City and County of Denver.