New Study Suggests Higher Percentage of Unsheltered Homelessness in Metro Denver

A new report from the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative indicates that unsheltered homelessness accounts for a larger percentage of the area's homeless population than previously thought.

"A lot of people experiencing homelessness felt safer staying outdoors because of COVID and continue to feel that way," says Jamie Rife of the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative, which just released its State of Homelessness study.

According to that study, the Homeless Management Information System, a platform used by servide providers across the metro area, showed that 32,233 people accessed services related to homelessness between July 1, 2020, and June 30, 2021.

And while past Point in Time counts, during which service providers count individuals experiencing homelessness on a single January night, have indicated that around one in four people experiencing homelessness was living outdoors, the new study puts that figure at closer to two in five.

"Now what we see is, on average, about 40 percent of people are staying outdoors," says Rife.

Service providers have suggested that the number of unsheltered people in the area has gone up significantly since the pandemic began. But while some of the increase may be attributable to COVID, the study's stats also reflect the fact that the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative has access to more data.

"Pre-pandemic, not as many providers and organizations were putting data into HMIS, specifically those serving unsheltered communities," says Rife. "Now, because of COVID and this push for street outreach, safe outdoor spaces, safe parking, we now have data. ... We have a lot of teams across the region now that are actively engaging people staying outdoors and are able to get this information into HMIS."

The HMIS data documents the unsheltered population throughout the year, not just on a single January night, when it can also be cold and people seek shelter. But that's when the Point in Time count, which is coordinated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, is done across the country.

"One of the reasons [HUD] asked us to do this during the winter months is because generally the weather does drive people indoors, which makes it more feasible to count people," says Rife.

The January 2020 Point in Time count showed that 6,102 people were experiencing homelessness across the metro region on a single night. The count considers Denver, Arapahoe, Adams, Douglas, Broomfield, Boulder and Jefferson counties as the metro area. Of those 6,102 people, 1,559 were in unsheltered settings such as tents or sleeping bags in parks.

The January 2021 Point in Time count did not include an unsheltered count, because of concerns about COVID spread.

But on January 24, service providers will be heading back out for the 2022 Point in Time count, counting individuals in both sheltered and unsheltered settings.

The information from this year's count will be particularly useful, because service providers will be able to compare it directly with the January 2020 Point in Time data, collected before the pandemic began. "I think that’s where we’re finally going to see apples to apples on what COVID-19 has done to our community and how many people have become unhoused as a result," Rife says.

In the meantime, the new MDHI study offers a number of takeaways. To begin with, it highlights the racial disparities in the homeless population across metro Denver, a frequent observation of such studies. "Again, the one thing that is consistent in all the data is the overrepresentation of black, indigenous and people of color," Rife says. "It’s systemic racism and structural racism. It’s policies that actively discriminate against BIPOC communities."

It also suggests there aren't enough low-barrier shelters in the region; some, for example, require sobriety and others don't allow pets. In addition, people experiencing homelessness often have "safety concerns" about shelters, leading those individuals to avoid them. "During COVID, some people felt it was safer to be outdoors because they could socially-distance, and the outdoors were considered especially safe," Rife notes.

Over the last year, service providers have been operating safe-camping sites for people experiencing homelessness in Denver. The sites provide centralized connection to sanitation and services for residents and are meant as a bridge to more stable housing; the city is expanding funding for the program this year.

But according to most service providers across the country, the real key to solving homelessness is housing.

"We have to fix the fact that there’s not enough affordable housing," Rife says. "This is an economic issue at its core. It goes back to systemic barriers that people face."