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Pandemic Disrupts Annual Survey of People Experiencing Homelessness In Denver, Boulder And Beyond

Homeless Point in Time Count
Benjamin Slane / Public Domain

Organizers of the Point-in-Time count of people experiencing homelessness in Denver, Boulder and the seven-county metro region have called off the 2021 count for unsheltered people. A count of the sheltered population only will take place on Feb. 25.

The annual survey of people experiencing homelessness is mandated by the Department of Housing and Urban Development and is a major source of data, providing a snapshot of the scale, experience and demographics of regional homelessness. The data is also used to secure funding and service resources. Organizers in Fort Collins say they will conduct a full Point-in-Time count for their region later this month.

The Denver Metro Homeless Initiative organizes the event. Communications director Jamie Rife explained that in late January, her group made the call that it was simply too unsafe to go ahead with the high-contact operation this year.

“We employ hundreds of volunteers to go out on the night of, and not only count, but also directly speak to people and ask them questions about their experience of homelessness,” Rife explained, describing a typical year. “Where they're staying, demographic information, when they were last housed.”

Even in a normal year, the Point-in-Time is an imperfect number. Service providers routinely assume it to be an undercount and internally use a multiplier to get at a better estimate. The actual population of people experiencing homelessness is anywhere between two and six times the official number in the report, several providers told KUNC.

Cathy Alderman, a spokesperson for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, said that groups providing homeless services will be left without an important piece of data informing their work.

“We won't have an estimate of the unsheltered population in Colorado,” she said. “Even though we know the point-in-time is flawed and doesn't count everybody, it's a good tool to give us an idea of what we should be planning for.”

At the same time, groups like the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative are looking for other ways of capturing information on the homeless population in real time. For instance, Rife says that combining increased outreach efforts with data pulled from a coordinated Homeless Management Information System could produce even better data than Point-in-Time reports.

Less data to capture a growing homeless population

It’s particularly hard for service providers to know what to plan for this year because of COVID-19. Anecdotally, the pandemic has let to a significant increase in regional homelessness that — with the cancellation of the Point-in-Time count — won’t be captured in any official data.

According to the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, demand for shelter beds in the Denver area has increased by 30% to 60% — even as social distancing has shrunk capacity. And the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative reports receiving a marked rise in service inquiries.

“It's a lot of people who have never had to really grapple with this level of housing insecurity,” Rife explained. “We've probably seen a tripling in just the number of people reaching out that have lost jobs related to COVID.”

Many communities on the Front Range are seeing a lot more visible homelessness, too.

“There are more people camping outside, in more places than there ever have been,” Alderman said. “That's difficult to quantify, especially without a formal count.”

Despite the lack of data, there is support for regional service providers in the form of federal CARES Act dollars, as well as increased state funding. In Denver, providers could see money from the new sales tax increase that voters approved last November — in the form of Measure 2-B — as soon as this summer. Even so, Rife says all the support is unlikely to keep up with increased demand.

“We're all still incredibly concerned about the amount of resources available, particularly for eviction prevention as moratoriums expire,” she said.

Stymied homelessness research

In this environment, researchers who study homelessness have been scrambling for ways to understand the pandemic’s impact on their subject population.

Daniel Brisson, director of the Center on Housing and Homelessness Research at University of Denver, said the pandemic had stripped him of his typical methods for conducting research.

“Everything that I've been doing has been turned on its head because of COVID,” he said. “We can't go out and talk to people the way we used to. People aren't living the way they used to.”

The Point-in-Time report would have filled in some of the blanks for him. But, he described the pandemic as a seismic disruption in his scientific research that could never be captured in a single number.

“The pandemic changed everything. And so it's really hard to compare or to know what life is like in 2021 compared to 2020 just based on a point in time,” he said.

This story is part of KUNC’s Colorado Edition for Feb. 4. You can find the full episode here.

I am the Rural and Small Communities Reporter at KUNC. That means my focus is building relationships and telling stories from under-covered pockets of Colorado.
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