Data indicates 40% increase in use of Denver metro emergency homeless shelters

By: - August 26, 2021 2:09 pm

City workers walk by a large encampment on Nov. 30, 2020, during a multi-day homeless sweep in Denver’s Five Points neighborhood. The area accommodated between 100 and 150 people. (Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)

Denver area homeless providers and residents have suspected that homelessness has been on the rise throughout the pandemic, but now there is some data to back up those claims.

The Denver metro area saw a 40% increase in the number of people staying in emergency homeless shelters on a single night compared to last year, and a doubling of the number of people experiencing homelessness for the first time, according to data from the annual Point in Time survey, which was conducted on Feb. 25. 

“In 2020 there were 1,273 people in shelter(s) that were experiencing homelessness for the first time. This year, that number doubled to 2,530 demonstrating the devastating effects of COVID-19 on the stability of our neighbors,” Matt Meyer, executive director of the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative, the organization tasked with the count, said in a written statement. 


The survey, which did not include people living outdoors, found that 5,530 people had accessed some form — such as emergency shelter, transitional housing or “safe haven” — of temporary shelter on the single night in February. So, overall sheltered homeless increased by 22%.

MDHI is the Denver area’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.

In 2020 there were 1,273 people in shelter(s) that were experiencing homelessness for the first time. This year, that number doubled to 2,530 demonstrating the devastating effects of COVID-19 on the stability of our neighbors.

– Matt Meyer, executive director of the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative

Other notable numbers include a 10% reduction in veteran homelessness, a 10% increase in families seeking emergency shelter and a 27% increase in individuals seeking shelter compared to the previous year. 

Count only includes people who stayed in a shelter

Denver and many major cities in the country this year skipped the annual count of unsheltered people due to safety concerns related to COVID-19. 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 related to housing and homelessness.

Last year’s PIT count for the Denver metro area showed 6,104 people experiencing homelessness (both sheltered and unsheltered) during the 2020 January count. But a more comprehensive assessment that was released in October 2020 by MDHI showed 31,207 unique people in the Denver metro area accessed homelessness services throughout the year.

In May, Cathy Alderman, vice president of public policy and communications for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, estimated for Newsline that there were approximately 4,000 people living outdoors in the Denver metro area. If that estimate is correct, the total increase in homelessness (both sheltered and unsheltered) in the Denver metro area increased by 56% — or 3,426 people — from 2020 to 2021. 

The annual PIT count is already widely viewed as an 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 — the real picture is likely starker. The count 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. 

Rural counties see 45% increase in homelessness

During the COVID-19 pandemic many rural homeless shelters had reduced capacity because of social distancing requirements, and some individuals experiencing homelessness likely did not seek shelter due to fears around catching the virus.

According to another point in time survey that encompasses 54 Colorado counties, 1,221 men, women and children were experiencing homelessness during this year’s count, with the highest concentration of homelessness occurring in Mesa (512), Pueblo (208) and Bent (110) counties. 

Of the total number of people experiencing homelessness, 472 were without shelter and 749 were staying in emergency shelters and transitional housing programs.

The 2021 survey indicates a 45% increase in homelessness compared to the 2020 count.

According to the report, 20% of those experiencing homelessness were families with children, 75% had at least one disability, 43% were chronically homeless, 12% were fleeing domestic violence, 9% were veterans and 6% were unaccompanied youth.

The two remaining COC’s in Colorado — the Northern Colorado Continuum of Care, which encompasses Larimer and Weld Counties, and the Pikes Peak Continuum of Care, which encompasses El Paso County — have yet to publish their findings on their websites.


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Moe Clark
Moe Clark

Moe Clark is a freelance journalist and former Colorado Newsline reporter who covered criminal justice, housing, homelessness and other social issues.