Pandemic is setback for count of homeless in Denver metro area

Uptick in homeless families seen in Englewood area, service provider says

Ellis Arnold
earnold@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 2/1/21

As one homeless-service provider put it: “You can’t go a block or two without seeing someone on the corner begging for money — and that’s all over the Denver metro area.” While that’s a …

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Pandemic is setback for count of homeless in Denver metro area

Uptick in homeless families seen in Englewood area, service provider says

Posted

As one homeless-service provider put it: “You can’t go a block or two without seeing someone on the corner begging for money — and that’s all over the Denver metro area.”

While that’s a bit of an exaggeration, visible homelessness has showed no signs of slowing down amid the coronavirus pandemic in metro Denver. Pedestrians wrapped in large blankets, lying on sidewalks or pushing shopping carts full of belongings are a common sight from Adams County all the way down to the south metro area.

Although exact numbers are difficult to come by, city officials and advocates have said the homeless population has increased in recent years in Englewood, where obvious signs of homelessness signal only a hint of the problem. In Englewood, people experience homelessness in motels, along the South Platte River, in alleys and vehicles. Families often live doubled up in homes.

Mark McIntosh, a member of the local Change the Trend Network coalition that works to fight homelessness, made the observation of how common it is to see people asking for money in metro Denver. He said that in the last two years, the area’s homeless population hasn’t appeared to decrease — and as the pandemic continues to upend economic stability, families that were “right on the margins” appear to fall into homelessness more, McIntosh said.

“The one area I know we’ve seen an uptick is families, especially families with school-age kids,” said McIntosh, who has observed trends by spending time at Giving Heart homeless-services center on South Broadway and Cafe 180, a restaurant that provides meals in exchange for volunteer service for those who can’t pay.

McIntosh and other advocates have found support in the local business community, with some motels in the area helping to shelter families, he said.

“Kids are going back to school somewhat, but they’ve been trying to learn virtually in a hotel room where there might be five people there,” McIntosh said of families who have fallen on hard times.

Changes in survey risk undercount

Compounding the difficulty of tracking trends in homelessness is that the metro area’s annual count of people experiencing homelessness has been pushed back a month.

Each January, volunteers from sources such as churches, human-services departments, nonprofits and law enforcement team up in communities across the Denver metro area, and areas around the nation, to conduct the Point-in-Time survey of their region’s homeless population.

The date for the count was changed from Jan. 25 to Feb. 25, according to the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative, which oversees the annual survey.

Based on a waiver from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Denver metro region won’t carry out a count of people in “unsheltered” homelessness, according to the homeless initiative. 

The survey has in the past categorized people as staying in transitional housing, emergency shelter or supportive housing for mental illness, also called “safe havens.” Those in hotels or motels paid for by a government or charitable organization have also counted as sheltered homeless.

Apart from those settings, others are considered unsheltered. The count in the past has not included people sleeping on couches at friends’ or families’ homes.

“Any sort of unsheltered count would have required the need for volunteers and potentially put people at risk of infection,” the organization’s website says. “The safety of those experiencing homelessness and volunteers is the top priority.”

Cities with large homeless populations in other states are waiving the unsheltered count as well, according to the website.

In the Denver metro area, homeless-service providers typically hold “magnet” events, offering resources such as food or medical services as an incentive for people experiencing homelessness to complete the survey. There won’t be any such events in the metro area this year, according to Cameron Shropshire, a housing specialist for Arapahoe County.

“Arapahoe County Community Resources will still provide incentive items to community members experiencing homelessness through our community partners, such as hygiene items, hand warmers, sleeping bags, blankets and food,” Shropshire said.

The region will still conduct a count of “sheltered” homelessness as is still required by the Housing and Urban Development Department, according to the homeless initiative.

The majority of that count will be conducted by a “data pull” on Feb. 26 from the region’s Homeless Management Information System, the homeless initiative’s website says. Shelters not using the system will conduct surveys overnight on Feb. 25.

The focus only on counting in shelters will likely result in the homeless in counties such as Arapahoe being “severely undercounted,” said Jen Engquist, executive director of Break Bread, an organization that serves free meals on Saturdays at Littleton United Methodist Church.

The homeless initiative notes that the unsheltered count is only required every other year. While 2021 is an “on” year, there is precedent for communities to not conduct an unsheltered count, the initiative’s website says.

“Additionally, the region is considering doing a (Point-in-Time)-like count later this year, once it is safe to do so, to be used solely for local planning purposes” and not for submission to the Housing and Urban Development Department, the website adds.

Even in years when the full Point-in-Time does occur, the survey is voluntary and is a “snapshot” of the homeless population — actual numbers are likely higher.

‘Weaving through maze’ of needs

Change the Trend Network — a coalition of nonprofits, faith-based groups, a health-care provider and the Englewood police — formed in summer 2017, coming forward to the public with a March 2018 forum, where residents engaged in conversation with the coalition.

Since then, the coalition has gained more momentum. Change the Trend is working on gathering more resources under its umbrella, said McIntosh, who is also the founder of A Stronger Cord. That’s an organization that helps men in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction begin rebuilding connections with friends, family and their community.

McIntosh marvels at the level of collaboration he sees in Zoom videoconference calls on Thursday mornings — different players, such as law enforcement and Arapahoe County officials chime in, ready to offer help for those experiencing homelessness.

“It’s just weaving through the maze and figuring out the best path and having a real team effort,” McIntosh said. He added: “Next thing you know, we’ve got a path for these folks.”

Change the Trend now lists 16 organizations and government entities as among its network, according to its website.

Englewood joined Littleton and Sheridan — its neighbors along the South Platte River and major roads — in forming the Tri-Cities Homelessness Policy Group, made up of city officials, police and community organizations. The group began in fall 2018.

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