• Original Reporting
  • Sources Cited
Original Reporting This article contains new, firsthand information uncovered by its reporter(s). This includes directly interviewing sources and research / analysis of primary source documents.
Sources Cited As a news piece, this article cites verifiable, third-party sources which have all been thoroughly fact-checked and deemed credible by the Newsroom in accordance with the Civil Constitution.
A man pushes a wheelchair filled with items on Friday, March 20, 2020, in downtown Denver. (Joe Mahoney, Special to the Colorado Trust)

The number of people who are homeless in the Denver area doubled from 2020 to 2021, and along with that increase came a surge in the number of deaths among those living outside. 

At least 269 people who were homeless died in Denver and surrounding counties in the last year, according to a count by the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative and other agencies that provide shelter and services. 

The deaths in Denver alone totaled 168, up 12% from 2020 and 83% from five years ago. In the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative area, which includes Adams, Arapahoe, Boulder, Broomfield, Denver, Douglas and Jefferson counties, deaths among the homeless have climbed 94% in five years. 

“In 2020, we witnessed a convergence of crises – the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent economic fallout, a reckoning with racial inequity, a massive increase in overdose deaths, and a worsening housing and homelessness crisis,” the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless said in releasing its annual report on homeless deaths

The numbers do not account for “all of our neighbors who died,” said the coalition, blaming a lack of demographic data from the Denver Medical Examiner’s Office that would allow the homeless service agencies to cross-reference their count. 

The most common cause of death, at 46%, was overdose. This was up 6% compared to the year prior, an increase mirrored in statewide statistics for all residents – homeless or not – fueled by the fentanyl epidemic. 

The second most common cause of death for the homeless, at 9%, was blunt force trauma, emphasizing the dangers of sleeping outdoors, according to the report. The coalition said 7% of deaths were caused by infectious disease, while another 7% were caused by environmental exposure. Homicide and suicide each accounted for about 5% of deaths.

Jay, who was homeless in Denver last year, is framed by the door of his tent, set up on Colfax Avenue between Lincoln Street and Broadway with the Colorado State Capitol in the background. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

People who are homeless are at increased risk for heart and lung diseases, as well as diabetes, and on average, have a life expectancy 30 years shorter than people who are not homeless, according to the coalition’s report. 

At least 12 of the Denver deaths were attributed to COVID-19, but complete data on specific medical causes of the deaths in the seven-county area was not available. 

The coalition compared the data to numbers of deaths among people living in the agency’s housing projects, which include multiple apartment buildings around downtown. Fifty formerly homeless people who found housing through the coalition died last year. Those who were still homeless were significantly more likely to die of overdose and as a result of an accident, and none of the people living indoors died from blunt-force trauma.

“Housing has a significant impact on mortality outcomes, acting as a protective factor against accidental death, substance-related death, and violent or traumatic death,” the coalition said. “These stark statistics reinforce what the coalition has always known to be true – housing saves lives.”

At least 10 people who were homeless in Denver died each month in the last year, and September, with 22 deaths, was the deadliest, according to the report. 

Outdoors was the most common place of death, at 39%. About one-quarter of the homeless who died last year were in a hospital and about one-quarter were in a motel or house. 

The coalition vowed to push for increased support for programs that get people into housing, including the city’s social impact bond program. Almost 400 people – the city’s most frequent visitors to hospital emergency rooms and jail – have accepted housing through the program in the last five years. Nearly 90% remained in housing after one year. 

Denver’s Department of Housing Stability launched an effort to move 200 people into housing within a 100-day period that ended earlier this month. The drive far exceeded the goal, housing 576 people within the 100 days using housing vouchers and a variety of other programs. A second “housing surge” is planned for February, according to Mayor Michael Hancock’s office.

On Dec. 21, hundreds of people gathered outside the Denver City and County Building to remember those who died while homeless in the last year. The names of each of the 269 people were written on luminarias that lined a sidewalk in the center of Denver. A video created by the coalition is a tribute to the 269 whose deaths were counted, as well as those unaccounted for in the official numbers.

Jennifer Brown writes about mental health, the child welfare system, the disability community and homelessness for The Colorado Sun. As a former Montana 4-H kid, she also loves writing about agriculture and ranching. Brown previously...