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Housing

After COVID delay, metro Denver homelessness survey returns to measure the scope of housing crisis

The annual count of unhoused people hasn't happened since before the pandemic and is a "critical" part of measuring housing stability in the metro area.

Lana Dalton, homelessness programs division manager for the City of Aurora, looks for unsheltered and houseless individuals on the morning of Jan. 25, 2022 in Aurora. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Life for Rich Schehr is beautiful by day, but rowdy at night. 

At night is when 61-year-old Schehr, who lives in the back of his truck in a leafy Aurora park, hears drinking and yelling, drug sales and sometimes gunshots.   

“This is the only place they haven’t kicked me out of,” said Schehr, who has been living at the park since June. Before then, police officers told him to move his truck off several streets in Thornton, Westminster and Commerce City.

Schehr is one of the hundreds of people without a home who were counted during the Denver metro area’s “point-in-time survey.” His participation with outreach workers could indirectly help him and others by giving city governments and aid groups a more accurate sense of the scope of homelessness in the region while also forming a basis for funding requests.  

Rich Schehr, 61, repurposed a truck bed into a living unit he now inhabits in Aurora. The retired veteran and former carpenter, who has family members living nearby, relies on Social Security payments and food stamps to survive. Schehr prefers living alone to using shelter services, where the risk of contracting COVID-19 is high. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

The count, led by Metro Denver Homeless Initiative, is back after being partly suspended in 2021 due to the pandemic. Typically, workers count the number of people who are unsheltered or living in tents on the street while also counting the number of people living in shelters. Last year, to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19, they counted only those in shelters.

Seventeen teams of employees for the city of Aurora and other outreach workers from local nonprofits fanned out across the region, visiting highway overpasses, alleys, public parks, open space, transit terminals, fast food restaurant parking lots, and other locations. 

The Department of Housing and Urban Development requires organizations that receive funding to address homelessness to conduct an annual population count followed by interviews.

The count is the main source of data used to measure progress on the goals of Opening Doors, a federal strategic plan to address homelessness. 

It also helps with effective service provision and informs plans for ending or reducing homelessness across the country, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Final numbers from the survey are expected to be released in early summer.

Brandt Van Sickle, homelessness liaison for the City of Aurora, looks for unsheltered and houseless individuals on the morning of Jan. 25, 2022 in Aurora. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Typically the survey occurs on the last 10 days of January, sometimes on the coldest days of the year. It’s conducted in the early morning, when people who are homeless are likely stationary or sleeping, which helps prevent double counting. “If someone was staying in a shelter one night and then stood on the street the next day, you’re not capturing them twice by doing the count on multiple days,” said Lana Dalton, homelessness programs division manager for the city of Aurora. 

The count started Jan. 25, as teams of surveyors split up and slowly drove down streets in their assigned areas, peering out of their snow-coated windows, looking for people sleeping in tents or RVs. Only people in tents or RVs shelters were counted. 

A Colorado Sun reporter and photographer embedded with a small team working an area from Peoria Street to Chambers Road and Colfax Avenue to Sixth Avenue in Northwest Aurora, looking for people who are homeless. 

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

On a snowy and brisk morning, the workers offered donuts and pairs of new Bombas socks to people they encountered. Most were willing to answer survey questions and many who had lived on the streets for years were already familiar with the city employees.

Brandt Van Sickle, homelessness liaison for the City of Aurora, enters location data of an observed houseless individual into an app created by the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative on the morning of Jan. 25, 2022. Annual “point-in-time” observations and surveys, usually taking place in late January, are conducted early in the morning to avoid overcounting the population. 2022’s count is seen as “critical” in determining the scope of homelessness after surveys were partially suspended last year due to COVID-19. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

The count comes amid signs that the homeless population has grown during the pandemic.

“We have people that call in every day to the city of Aurora concerned about people in cold weather or asking for camps to be abated,” Dalton said. “In 2020, there were about 1,200 of those requests. In 2021, there were 2,300 of those requests. The number of requests have doubled over the last year.”

At 5 a.m., when Dalton and Brandt Van Sickle, a homelessness liaison for the city, began their work, they predicted most people would be hunkered down on East Colfax Avenue near and under the Interstate 225 overpasses. People sleeping in RVs and cars, they said, are typically more spread out in the northern part of the city between Interstate 70 and Smith Road. Last year, street outreach workers saw a high concentration of reported homelessness along Mississippi Avenue. 

Javier Garza outside an RV unit he shares with roommates on Jan. 26, 2022 in Aurora. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

During followup interviews, people were asked how long they had been homeless, whether they had a disability, where they slept two nights before, whether they were connected to human services, and if they were fleeing domestic violence, among other questions.

If the person was uncomfortable providing their full name, only the first three letters of their first name and last name were recorded.

During the survey team’s visit to an Aurora park, Schehr told outreach workers that it took five months and about $5,000 to build the mini-home in the bed of his truck. The former mechanic and carpenter, who graduated from West Aurora High School, said he’s most comfortable living alone and doesn’t want to use shelter services because of the risk of contracting COVID-19. The retired veteran prefers to live in his truck, which has a heater, a stove, a television, a bed, a sink and water tanks. He doesn’t consider himself homeless, but said if he could afford to live in a more typical home, he would.

When asked  if he would be willing to connect with human service organizations, he declined. “I don’t have time for that,” he said. “My time is taken up by just existing everyday.”

Schehr thinks he’ll live in his truck for the remainder of his life. “I’ve probably only got 10 to 15 years left,” he said. “I’ve got bad lungs.” 

He knows that some people living on the streets have it harder, and said he’s happy with his life. He’s worked all his life for the chance to be retired, and when the weather is nice, he’s able to head out on fishing expeditions across the state, leaving behind the park and its rowdy nights. 

“As soon as it thaws out,” he said with a smile, “I’m going to be in the mountains fishing.”

Brandt Van Sickle, homelessness liaison for the City of Aurora, looks for unsheltered and houseless individuals on the morning of Jan. 25, 2022 in Aurora. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)


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