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A woman sits amid blankets and a sleeping bag as small groups gather in Civic Center Park on March 20, 2020, in downtown Denver. (Joe Mahoney, Special to the Colorado Sun/Colorado Trust)

Cities were granted a pass this year from a federal requirement that they attempt to count every resident who is homeless, whether in shelters, tents in the park or alone with a blanket on a sidewalk.

Many of the nation’s cities, including Denver and Colorado Springs, decided that sending dozens of volunteers to the streets for the annual “point-in-time” survey was too risky during the coronavirus pandemic.

But in Mesa County, where unsheltered residents have stretched deeper into desert campgrounds, along the Colorado River, and to the rural communities of Clifton and Orchard Mesa, the coronavirus did not stop the annual survey held one night every January. A band of community organizations, plus students from Colorado Mesa University, put on masks and gloves and fanned out across the rural county on Jan. 26 as planned. 

“Everyone has a right to housing. Everyone has a right to food, and these things cost money,” said Beverly Lampley, chair of the Grand Valley Coalition for the Homeless, which coordinates the count for Grand Junction and the rest of Mesa County. “You can tell the story but you also need the numbers to back up the story. The point-in-time survey gives you the numbers.”

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requires a count of the unsheltered population every other year and then uses the results to distribute money for housing and programs.  But HUD told local agencies they could skip the 2021 survey because of the COVID-19 pandemic and that they would still receive funding, along with a cost-of-living increase.

You can tell the story but you also need the numbers to back up the story.

Beverly Lampley, Grand Valley Coalition for the Homeless

The survey was particularly important this year as cities and towns across Colorado have seen a rise in visible homelessness, from encampments in front of the state Capitol to families in rural campgrounds. The survey would have provided data to add to a mountain of anecdotal evidence that more folks are sleeping outdoors after a year of economic crisis and concern about living in the close quarters of shelters. 

In Mesa County, the increase in unsheltered residents is obvious, Lampley said. 

“People are camping in places where they haven’t camped before, and a broader range of people,” she said. “Elderly women, which is distressing. Children. We can see it in the parks, when they are allowed to gather there, that the crowds are more.”

Also, more people “losing their housing or right at the verge of losing their housing” are seeking help at community nonprofits, including Grand Valley Catholic Outreach, where Lampley is director of development. 

A group of nonprofits that began meeting last March out of concern for the homeless population during the pandemic has grown more cohesive and collaborative during the past year, she said. Lampley said she “entertained the option” of canceling the unsheltered count, but the organizations were adamant.

The volunteer list was so long, and with deeper connections to various camps throughout the county, that Lampley expects this year’s count was more thorough than ever. Teams dispersed beyond Fruita and deep into the camps, she said, though they “didn’t get all the crevices.”

Volunteers stood socially distanced as they counted and interviewed people in 15- to 20-minute surveys to gather data on household size, age and whether homelessness is chronic or new. The results are not officially released each year until May. 

Four regional “continuums of care” throughout Colorado are responsible for the annual count — Metro Denver Homeless Initiative, the Pikes Peak continuum for El Paso County, Northern Colorado in Fort Collins, and Balance of State, which comprises everything else, from the San Luis Valley to Mesa County to the eastern plains.  

Plans for the annual count varied by region, with most opting to skip the survey of unsheltered residents. In some areas, organizations made plans to count shelter residents one night in late February, and some plan to count — but not survey — unsheltered residents at some point this year to gather their own data.

Robert Vazquez of Denver brushes snow off the roof of one of the tents at the Colorado Village Collaborative’s Safe Outdoor Spaces encampment in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Denver. (Marc Piscotty, Special to The Colorado Sun/Colorado Trust)

In Glenwood Springs, volunteers held an unsheltered count similar to Mesa County’s, surveying people in tents and families sleeping in cars, as well as shelters, said Marian McDonough, regional director for Catholic Charities. 

In Denver, organizations will count the number of people sleeping in shelters on Feb. 25. Denver, as well as Colorado Springs and Mesa County, organize a full-blown point-in-time survey every year, even though HUD only requires an unsheltered count every other year. 

“For the sake of the volunteers, we didn’t feel that 15- to 20-minute exposure time between two strangers was really a good idea with the pandemic going on,” said Evan Caster, manager of homeless initiatives for Community Health Partnership, which leads the count for the Pikes Peak continuum. 

In Denver, about 75% of homeless residents typically are in shelters, while 25% are outdoors, said Jamie Rife, director of development for the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative. Last year’s count reached 4,171 in Denver County, including 996 people who slept outside and 195 who were unaccompanied youth.

“Obviously this year, that data is incredibly important,” Rife said. “We’re not going to see the full impact of COVID-19 on our community. But safety has to come first. We couldn’t put people experiencing homelessness nor volunteers in situations” where they could be exposed to the coronavirus. 

At the same time, nonprofits that work with the homeless have been overwhelmed this year as they’ve worked to get coronavirus testing, safe shelter options and outreach to the community. They decided to forgo the unsheltered survey because of “the amount of lift that is on our provider community right now in keeping everyone safe,” Rife said. “At the end of the day, it’s about people’s lives and not putting anyone at risk.” 

While the annual data collection is important for federal funding, nonprofits in Colorado are working toward providing accurate data more than just once a year. 

A tent at the corner of East 14th Avenue and Washington Street in Denver on May 12, 2020. The camp grew to dozens of tents and as many as 80 people wrapping most of the city block before it was cleaned up by city crews. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

In 2019, the state’s continuums of care began using the same database to collect usage numbers for various shelters and service programs. The Homeless Management Information System collects data daily, and later this year, is expected to publish statistics to a public website, said Caster in El Paso County.

The Pikes Peak region has outreach workers from various nonprofits who enter data almost daily, including numbers of young people, veterans and others who are living outside in the county. 

“We really would like to get to a place where we look at homelessness year round rather than relying on that one night in January,” Caster said. 

With the new system, Caster can see that El Paso County, unlike other places, doesn’t seem to have experienced an increase in unsheltered homelessness in the past year. He credits several shelter expansions in Colorado Springs since 2018, including a new Family Promise shelter for children and families, and expansion of the Springs Rescue Mission. 

Jennifer Brown

Jen is a co-founder and reporter at The Sun, where she writes about mental health, child welfare and social justice issues. Her first journalism job was at The Hungry Horse News in her home state of...