The number of veterans who are homeless in metro Denver decreased more than 30% from 2020 to 2022, despite an overall increase in the region’s homeless population, according to new survey data released Thursday by The Metro Denver Homeless Initiative.
Veterans have historically been overrepresented in homelessness in metro Denver, Colorado, and across the country. However, federal and local governments have been working together to increase housing resources specifically for the population.
“The government has stepped up their investment in resolving veteran homelessness. We’ve been seeing steady declines as those investments have kicked up,” said Cathy Alderman, chief communications and public policy officer for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless.
The Obama administration made it a top priority to dramatically increase awareness about veterans’ high risk of becoming homeless, and in 2013, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Veterans Affairs announced almost $70 million in grants to assist in addressing the issue across the country through rental assistance, case management and clinical services provided by the VA.
In mid-September, the VA announced it had awarded another $137 million in grants to help house veterans and their families who were homeless, or at risk of becoming homeless.
Many states, including Colorado, are also targeting veterans who are homeless and working with an organization, Community Solutions, which runs a campaign, Built for Zero, that works to end homelessness among subgroups, including veterans.
“It’s a subset of the population of people experiencing homelessness that really can be targeted and evaluated,” Alderman said. “And so we’ve seen this trend over the last few years: When you increase investment in resolving veterans homelessness, veterans homelessness goes down. When you target resources to better track, evaluate and connect veteran services together, we see better outcomes in veteran homelessness. If we took that same model and did it for families experiencing homelessness, or youth experiencing homelessness, or people who were experiencing chronic homelessness, we would see the same results.”
The Colorado Coalition for the Homeless has several programs focused on serving veterans, including a housing development it opened during the pandemic called The Veterans Renaissance Apartments at Fitzsimons in Aurora, and through its Fort Lyon supportive program in southeastern Colorado for people who are homeless and have a substance use disorder.
“If we can do it for veterans, we can do it for families, for individuals, for youth, if we’re prepared and we have the political will to make these investments,” Alderman said.
The data released Thursday is from the annual point-in-time count, conducted Jan. 24, and included people staying in shelters and outdoors in the seven-county metro Denver area. It showed an overall increase of 784 people experiencing homelessness compared with pre-pandemic levels in 2020, the last time the region completed a comprehensive count.
The count is only a snapshot of homelessness. Many variables could result in an undercount, Metro Denver Homeless Initiative leaders said. On the night of the count, trained volunteers and staff cruise around local streets interviewing people and families who are homeless using a standardized survey before the results are released months later.
People living on the streets, in shelters and in transitional housing programs were counted. People at risk of becoming homeless, such as those living with friends and family or in a motel, are not included in the count.
In January 2020, about six weeks before the beginning of the pandemic and the last time a comprehensive survey was conducted, there were 6,104 people counted who were homeless. The region did not count people staying outdoors in 2021 because of safety concerns related to COVID-19.
This year, 6,884 people were counted, a 12.8% increase. According to the results, 4,806 people stayed in emergency shelters, transitional housing or safe haven programs, and 2,078 people slept on the streets or in places not meant for human habitation. The number of people staying in shelters remained fairly consistent while the number of people living on the streets significantly increased.
One in three people were homeless for the first time. An overwhelming majority of people surveyed, 5,317, were single adults, age 25 or older with no children. Surveyors also identified 1,207 families, defined as an adult age 25 or older with at least one child with them, and 360 people age 18-24, who were unaccompanied or parenting.
Of those counted, 37% reported a mental health condition, 30% reported a chronic health condition and 16% reported experiencing domestic violence.
Black people, Native Americans/Alaska Natives, multiracial people and Native Hawaiians/Pacific Islanders are significantly overrepresented in the region’s homeless population, according to the survey.
“The overrepresentation of people of color, specifically Black and Native Americans, among those experiencing homelessness is critical to the response,” said Jamie Rife, executive director of The Metro Denver Homeless Initiative, the regional system that coordinates services and housing for people experiencing homelessness. “Homelessness is an issue of race and must be approached through this lens.”
While the count can help human service leaders understand homelessness on a single night, a comprehensive system disseminating real-time data regionally is the ultimate goal, Rife said.
The region has made strides in decreasing its reliance on the one-night count. Instead, providers and municipal leaders are working together to improve participation with the region’s Homeless Management Information System to make data about those experiencing homelessness accessible each day.
Boulder recently became the first community in the region to reach a new milestone: The county can now track every adult experiencing homelessness by name in real time. Only a small number of communities across the country have reached the same milestone, according to Thursday’s news release.
While the region was able to locate and count 6,884 people on a single night, the number of people who are homeless in the region is likely closer to 31,000 throughout the course of the year, Rife said.
“This data highlights the dynamic nature of homelessness and the importance of real-time data to allow the region to coordinate effectively and allocate resources efficiently,” she said.
The organization releases annually the State of Homelessness report with more data about regional homelessness. Infographic reports by county and an interactive dashboard are available at The Metro Denver Homeless Initiative website.