Homelessness Up in Metro Denver, According to Point-in-Time Survey

More people were experiencing homelessness in metro Denver this past winter than in the previous one, according to the newly released Metro Denver Homeless Initiative's point-in-time survey. On January 28, volunteers counted some 5,755 people living in shelters or on the streets in the seven-county region, up from 5,317 in 2018 and 5,116 in 2017.

The increase requires some explanation. According to the survey, which is conducted every year to collect information for the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development and local efforts to combat homelessness, 946 people were staying in "unsheltered" locations, such as outside in tents, parks, vehicles or underpasses, a 28 percent decrease from 2018. The vast majority of people experiencing homelessness — 4,809 — utilized emergency shelters and traditional housing, a 17 percent increase from the previous year.

Diane Howald, community engagement manager with Metro Denver Homeless Initiative, says that this past winter's harsh weather could have impacted the survey's findings. "Considering in 2017 and 2018 that 50 degrees was the average high and there was no precipitation [in January], it stands to reason that more people would be found outside," she explains. "Whereas on Monday morning, January 28, we woke up to snow already falling. In some areas, there was a foot of snow. We haven't seen temperatures be that low in the time of the survey, in five years."

Matt Meyer, executive director of the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative, says the overall increase in people experiencing homelessness in this city mirrors a national trend. "We don't know why yet," he says. "We have things we suspect, but I don't have the data that says this is why this is happening. We have notions around income inequality, wage stagnation and a lack of housing supply. [It's] probably some combination."

The number of newly homeless individuals actually decreased from a high of 1,060 in 2018 to 691 this year, as did the number of chronically homeless, which decreased from 1,597 in 2018 to 1,158 in 2019.

Also worth noting are the racial disparities. The majority of people experiencing homelessness in the survey, 53.8 percent, were white, less than the average white population in Denver of 65.2 percent. But even though Denver only counts a 5.1 percent black population, more than four times that amount, or 21.2 percent, were counted in the homeless population.

Local advocates say they're encouraged by a new initiative designed to streamline historically directionless efforts addressing housing issues in Denver. In April, during his re-election bid, Mayor Michael Hancock announced the new Department of Housing and Homelessness, since rebranded to the Department of Housing Stability. Agencies tasked with addressing homelessness and housing, including Denver's Road Home and the Housing Division of the Office of Economic Development and Opportunity, will be folded into the new department, which will be established either through an executive order signed by Hancock or by voters in November.

“What this new department will do is elevate that [work], provide centralized leadership and authority for that, and be the home for those operations that we have across the city,” Chief Housing Officer Britta Fisher, who will lead the new department, told Westword for a previous story.

Although the vast majority of people experiencing homelessness were counted in Denver, Howald says the survey results could instruct surrounding communities on how to secure more housing options. "In Denver there are multiple...day shelters, evening shelters, but not as many in the surrounding six communities," she says. "As communities start to look at data, it will inform them on how many people they get to see, how many people are around. It's a snapshot of a single day, but it can help show where people are going and staying." 
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Ana Campbell has been Westword's managing editor since 2016. She has worked at magazines and newspapers around the country, picking up a few awards along the way for her writing and editing. She grew up in south Texas.
Contact: Ana Campbell