Denver and many major cities in the country this year are skipping an annual count of unsheltered people. While absence of the count won’t affect the flow of related federal funds to Colorado, observers say the gap in data will significantly limit the ability of policymakers to understand local issues of housing and homelessness.
The annual homeless census, called the “point-in-time survey,” is required by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, which uses the data to assess need and fund homelessness and poverty initiatives throughout the country. This year, HUD is allowing states and cities the option to skip the unsheltered count due to he pandemic.
“It’s just too risky this year to conduct that particular portion of the point-in-time, for people experiencing homelessness and the volunteers that usually do that count,” said Jamie Rifle, the director of development and communications for the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative.
MDHI is the Denver metro’s continuum of care organization that’s tasked with orchestrating the count for seven counties: Adams, Arapahoe, Boulder, Broomfield, Denver, Douglas and Jefferson counties. A continuum of care is a local decision-making group that coordinates homelessness initiatives for a region. Colorado has four COCs.
MDHI will still count the number of people staying in homeless shelters on the night of Feb. 25 per HUD requirements by relying heavily on the state’s homeless management database. Other large Colorado cities, including Colorado Springs, Aurora and Boulder, are following suit with similar changes. The slimmed down count has some worried the impartial picture will further obscure how the pandemic is worsening the state’s housing crisis.
“We see a lot of politicians out there and a lot of people that when they see low numbers they will say, ‘See, it’s not all that bad,’” said Eva Henry, an Adams County commissioner and the chair of the Westminster housing authority, Maiker Housing Partners. “That is definitely what’s concerning for me.”
She’s fearful that an eviction crisis is still on the horizon.
“If we were hit by a tornado, or a flood, the federal government would be bringing in FEMA trailers and they’d be providing a lot of services,” Henry said. “We see the storm is coming in, but there’s no planning. People just don’t know what to do. And that’s frightening. I feel that the count is going to actually affect policy decisions because of the fact that it’s not going to look like it’s as bad as it actually is.”
Count includes demographic information that helps providers tailor services, understand the pipelines to homelessness
Every January, hundreds of trained volunteers and homeless outreach workers typically fan out across Colorado to speak with people living in abandoned buildings, under highway passes or in tent encampments as part of a nationwide effort to quantify how many people are experiencing homelessness on a given night. The process is widely viewed as producing a significant undercount because it occurs on a single night in the dead of winter and only accounts for people willing to be interviewed for the survey.
Last year’s PIT count for the Denver-Metro area — which includes seven counties — only showed 6,104 people experiencing homelessness during the January count. But a more comprehensive assessment that was released in October by MDHI shows that 31,207 people in the Denver-metro area accessed homelessness services throughout the year.
“The point-in-time is a great tool, it’s an interesting tool, but it certainly doesn’t count everybody,” said Cathy Alderman, director of public policy and communication for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeles — the continuum of care organization for the majority of Colorado’s rural counties. “Two thirds of our counties aren’t even participating in the first place.”
Only counties that receive HUD funding are required to conduct the annual count, according to Alderman, which is 17 out of the 52 Colorado counties that fall in CCH’s jurisdiction.
Despite the PIT’s quantitative shortcomings, the unsheltered count also provides crucial demographic information that helps service providers better understand the barriers people face when trying to access housing and homelessness services.
“Under normal circumstances, we look at how many families are experiencing homelessness, how many veterans were experiencing homelessness on that night,” Rifle said. “(We’re) collecting age, gender, their barriers, do they have substance use, mental health or physical disabilities, things like that.”
In normal years, they also conduct a youth supplemental survey.
“So if we come across someone that’s within a certain age range, we have some additional questions like, ‘Do you have a history of foster care? Or, ‘Do you have criminal justice involvement?’ Things like that. So that we’re getting a better understanding of the pipelines into homelessness.
Homeless researchers, policymakers are left in the dark without data
“The point-in-time count is typically regarded as the standard that we use,” said Daniel Brisson, executive director of the University of Denver’s Center for Housing and Homelessness Research.
Brisson, who studies communities, poverty and affordable housing, said that although he’s heard anecdotal evidence that homelessness has increased throughout the pandemic, he’s waiting for more data to back it up.
“I’m hearing a lot that says that we are expecting large increases and that we anticipate that homelessness is going to be a major issue, particularly with eviction moratoriums and backlogs of rent becoming due,” Brisson said. “And theoretically or conceptually, that makes sense. But I am also waiting to see more evidence.”
Significant increases in the number of people accessing homeless shelters alludes to a broader increase in overall homelessness in the Denver metro area.
For example, more than 3,300 people who had never accessed homeless services stayed at temporary shelters in Denver between April and August, according to Alderman. Christine Carlson, CEO for the Denver-based youth homelessness provider, Urban Peak, said their demand for services during the pandemic “has absolutely gone through the roof.” Rifle, with MDHI, said that the number of people living in tents or makeshift structures in the Denver metro area has visually increased throughout the pandemic.
“But there hasn’t been a safe way to really quantify that anecdotal observation at this point,” Rifle said. “People are rightfully very concerned about having data for planning purposes and then also having data on what’s the impact of COVID.”
Silver lining: the chance to reevaluate how the state collects homelessness data
The slimmed down count will not impact the amount of federal funds Colorado gets for homelessness initiatives, according to Alderman. In fact, increases in the number of people experiencing homelessness don’t typically lead to more funding like one might expect.
“For areas that see increases in homelessness, it’s actually counted against the continuum of care instead of being a reason to give more funding because the idea is that you’re not doing enough,” she said. “But that doesn’t take into account all of the reasons why you might be seeing an increase. It’s kind of the fatal flaw of HUD funding for homelessness.”
Brisson said the necessary changes to this year’s homeless census will undoubtedly impact future research efforts to understand how the pandemic has impacted Colorado’s housing crisis.
“When you make changes to methodology in some kind of a census or in some tool that’s used to look at an issue longitudinally, that’s got major repercussions,” said Brisson. “We’re making changes to the PIT count and I could foresee that there will be challenges comparing 2020 PIT counts to 2019 PIT counts.”
Rifle said MDHI is in conversations with other communities about the possibility of doing an unsheltered count later in the year when it’s safer to do so. Ultimately, she sees some silver linings in this year’s changes. Mainly, that it gives continuum of care organizations the opportunity to evaluate the current systems in place to collect the highly-sought-after data for unsheltered homelessness.
Carson, with Urban Peak, echoed that sentiment.
“We do have an opportunity to think about this data issue and figure out if there’s a better way,” Carson said. “The best data we have is still not very good.”
“We know there’s not enough affordable housing and there is definitely not enough housing for people experiencing homelessness. And we need to quantify that. We need to know what is the right number in order to come up with these solutions.”