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A protester waves a sign at traffic on 13th Avenue while the tent camp at Morey Middle School was swept on August 5, 2020. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

The number of people who became homeless in metro Denver for the first time sharply rose to 3,996 people this year from 2,634 last year, a 51.7% increase, according to data from the annual point in time count led by the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative.

The number of families who were homeless for the first time also significantly increased to 1,316 this year from 597 last year, a 120.4% increase, according to the data released Monday morning.

The number of families experiencing homelessness for more than a year also drastically rose across the metro Denver region, according to the results. This year, 2,101 families were homeless again compared with 1,277 last year, a 64.5% increase.

The annual count, which quantifies homelessness in the seven-county metro Denver area, showed 9,065 people were homeless on Monday, Jan. 30, the night local volunteers, municipal and county leaders, outreach teams and people who were formerly homeless scattered across the metro Denver region to conduct the annual survey. That’s a 31.7% increase in homelessness compared with the survey’s findings in 2022, which counted 6,884 people. Preliminary numbers released after the 2022 count were slightly higher, at 6,888 people.

“While the world is no longer in a pandemic, we are beginning to feel the full economic fallout of the COVID-19 era,” Jamie Rife, executive director of the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative, said in a news release.

“With COVID-19 relief funds for the prevention of homelessness coming to an end, as well as many other COVID-era protections, we’ve seen a sharp increase in the number of eviction filings as more households struggle to pay rent,” she said. “This, paired with inflation and the increased cost of housing, is resulting in many people falling into homelessness and many being unable to obtain housing.”

The pandemic showed that when municipalities have funding to help prevent homelessness, that mechanism works, she said in an interview on Monday afternoon. The number of people who are homeless this year would have been even higher without rental assistance and prevention funding, Rife added. “Instead of waiting for homelessness to happen, let’s prevent it before it starts.”

Last Tuesday, before he was even mayor for 24 hours, Mike Johnston’s office declared a state of emergency on homelessness so that he could access funding to help house 1,000 unsheltered people by the end of this year. Johnston said he wants to build additional tiny homes on city-owned property for people who are homeless.

Needed demographic data

The count, required by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, assesses the number of people living in a place not meant for human habitation on a single night. Surveyors also count people living in emergency shelters and transitional housing programs. Communities typically conduct their counts each year during the last 10 days of January.

People at risk of becoming homeless, such as those staying in a motel or with friends and family, are not included in the count.

The survey helps local human service organizations determine the scope of homelessness so they can help people find housing. 

The survey also provides needed demographic data, raises public awareness about homelessness and helps nearby service providers apply for increased and needed housing funds. Numerous variables, such as weather, the number of volunteers available to count and other factors can influence the results or lead to an undercount.

“While the region continues to improve our count and was able to locate 9,065 individuals on a single night experiencing homelessness, the Homelessness Management Information System (HMIS) used by our providers allows us to see this number is closer to 28,000 throughout the course of the year,” Rife said in the news release. “We need to keep moving towards understanding who is experiencing homelessness in real-time and by name, so our response is as effective as possible.”

It’s much more accurate to examine the number of people who are homeless throughout the year than on a single night in January, said Cathy Alderman, chief communications and public policy officer for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless.

Most federal funding programs to address homelessness are based on the annual point in time count, even though data consistently shows that the survey is a significant undercount, she said.

“How can we truly design and implement programs for a crisis that is more than three times what the data point we choose to use shows?” she wrote in an email Monday evening. “If we looked more comprehensively at all of the data, and funded and brought to scale solutions that aligned with the true need, we would be making much more progress on resolving homelessness.”

Surveyors counted 6,495 adults who were homeless, 2,101 families who were homeless and 469 youth who were homeless this year. Denver, Adams and Boulder counties had the highest numbers of people who were homeless, respectively.

About 70% of people were living in an emergency shelter, transitional housing or a safe haven (supportive housing for people with severe mental illness) while about 30% of people were living outdoors, including in safe outdoor spaces or safe parking spaces.

Every year, people of color are overrepresented in the local homeless population. 

For example, Native Hawaiians or Pacific Islanders in metro Denver are 15 times more overrepresented in homelessness when compared with their makeup in the general population. Native American or Alaska Native people are 3.7 times more overrepresented in homelessness compared to their makeup in the general population. Black people are 3.4 times more overrepresented and multiracial people are 1.8 times more overrepresented, according to the results. 

Traditionally, adults and single men are also overrepresented in homelessness, Rife said. For example, 62% of men were homeless compared with 36.7% of women in this year’s survey. 

Less than 1% of people counted (0.6%) identified as transgender and the same percentage of people identified as gender-nonconforming. 

A systemic failure

Examining how factors such as child welfare, criminal justice, and health care systems contribute to the increasing number of people who are homeless is crucial, Rife said, and it’s important communities have access to the resources needed to provide support to address homelessness such as by offering housing options and wraparound services.

“We need to address the inflow into homelessness,” Rife said. “Homelessness is a failure of many systems, largely due to economics, or things like familial breakup and fleeing domestic violence. And yes, there are people that do have mental health issues or substance use disorders, but that is not the largest cause of homelessness and we need to recognize this is economic and systemic and be taking steps to address those.”

She encouraged people to be open to having housing solutions such as safe outdoor spaces, tiny homes and affordable housing nearby in their communities. 

“We are all impacted by homelessness,” Alderman said in the email. “Whether it’s the sorrow we feel when we see the toll of homelessness on friends, family members, and neighbors or the concern we have for our parks and public spaces where people are forced to survive. There is a significant financial toll to the community when we don’t invest in interventions like housing and services and instead rely on expensive emergency services for people experiencing homelessness. As individuals and communities, we are stronger, better, safer, more effective, and successful when we provide meaningful solutions to homelessness and ensure everyone has a safe place to call home.”

The number of families included in this year’s survey is likely a significant undercount, she said, because families can be reluctant to disclose homelessness when they are fearful of being separated.

The best way to stabilize a family that has entered homelessness is to rehouse them as quickly as possible, Alderman said, but a severe housing shortage for families with low incomes makes that difficult.

“The enormous toll that this will take on the kids in our community cannot be underestimated,” she said. “We need to invest in housing for fixed and low income families and more resources like vouchers, rental assistance, and eviction prevention to stop this flood into homelessness that families are experiencing.”

She encouraged people to support the organizations working to resolve and prevent homelessness, ask elected officials to invest in meaningful solutions such as housing and wraparound services, talk to people who are homeless to learn from their firsthand experiences and give directly to unhoused people who need help. “Speak up and against stigmatizing language, cruelty, and attempts to criminalize people simply because they are unhoused,” she wrote in the email.

Information about how to volunteer during the 2024 count will be released in October, Rife said.

The survey results were announced the same day Mayor Johnston’s office said it would begin a series of town halls Tuesday to engage community members in Denver neighborhoods to help find strategies to address the homelessness crisis.

On Tuesday at 6 p.m., Mayor Johnston and Councilmember Darrell Watson will host the first town hall at The Savoy Denver at 2700 Arapahoe St. 

Metro Denver Homeless Initiative leaders are encouraging people to read the organization’s latest State of Homelessness Report to gain a more comprehensive picture of homelessness in the region.

Tatiana Flowers is the equity and general assignment reporter for the Colorado Sun and her work is funded by a grant from the Colorado Trust. She has covered crime and courts, plus education and health in Colorado, Connecticut, Israel and Morocco....