Denver Government

Unsheltered Homelessness Jumped in Metro Denver During the Pandemic

More people are living on the streets today than in 2020.
More people are living on the streets today than in 2020. Conor McCormick-Cavanagh
In the 22 months after the pandemic descended on Colorado, unsheltered homelessness increased significantly in metro Denver, according to the 2022 Point in Time Count, whose results were just released.

According to the 2022 count, the overall number of people experiencing homelessness increased from 6,104 in January 2020 to 6,888 this January, a rise of 12.8 percent.

"We're seeing increases specifically in people staying outside in their vehicles," says Jamie Rife, executive director of the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative, which conducts the annual survey every January.

The 2021 Point in Time count was not a complete tally, as surveyors did not conduct an unsheltered homelessness count because of COVID-19 precautions and stuck to shelters and other spots. This year, however, they were able to count unsheltered homelessness, too, and it increased from 1,561 in January 2020 to 2,073 this January. That's a 32.8 percent increase.

The count underscores what service providers already recognized: More people were living on the streets of Denver outside of traditional shelters than had been prior to the start of the pandemic.

"I feel like our region did an extraordinary job during the pandemic keeping people safe, making sure that we prevented homelessness for thousands of households," says Rife, who notes that the numbers could have been worse if more people had fallen through the cracks.

And the crew that conducted this year's survey wanted to be sure they didn't miss anyone. "We had a lot of increased participation to make sure that we had true and full regional coverage and were really able to map out the region and get some assistance from some national partners," Rife says. MDHI has not yet received demographic data on the count from the federal government; she says she expects that later this summer.

In the meantime, the data released on July 20 includes major takeaways beyond the overall increase in unsheltered homelessness.

One of the biggest jumps took place in Arapahoe County, which saw the total number of people experiencing homelessness rise from 245 in 2020 to 503 this year, a 105.3 percent increase. Broomfield's count jumped from 26 to 86, a 230.8 percent increase.

The biggest percentage jump in unsheltered homelessness was logged in Douglas County, where it went from 13 people in January 2020 to 50 people this past January.

But while increases were tallied in five metro counties, two registered drops: Boulder County's count decreased from 689 to 457, and Adams County's from 476 to 473.

While information collected during the Point in Time count can be instructive for service providers, Rife cautions that it's just a one-night snapshot. According to metro Denver's Homeless Management Information System, around 31,000 people experience homelessness in a given year in the region.

“While this count can help us understand homelessness on a single night," Rife notes, "getting to a place where we have comprehensive, real-time data regionally is the ultimate goal." 
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.