Annual homeless count tallies an elusive population

Jeffco numbers include 63 families

Posted 7/11/17

On a balmy January night this year, 5,116 people were counted as being homeless in the Denver metro area.

In Jefferson County, 394 homeless individuals were counted.

The annual Point in Time (PIT) survey is conducted on a January night across …

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Annual homeless count tallies an elusive population

Jeffco numbers include 63 families

Posted

On a balmy January night this year, 5,116 people were counted as being homeless in the Denver metro area.

In Jefferson County, 394 homeless individuals were counted.

The annual Point in Time (PIT) survey is conducted on a January night across the nation. In the Denver metro area, the count is organized by the Metropolitan Denver Homeless Initiative, using hundreds of volunteers drawn from the general public, faith-based groups, human services departments and philanthropic organizations. In recent years, the group has conducted the survey on the last Monday of January, looking in shelters, parked cars and the streets.

The 2017 data was released in late June.

The numbers for Jeffco are down from the 436 individuals found in 2016, but Kathryn Otten, the county’s director of housing, homeless and integration says the drop likely had more to do with the reletively mild weather, rather than lower numbers.

“The data collection method for the homeless is lacking,” said Otten. “It doesn’t give an accurate view of the populations.”

By its nature, the homeless survey only acts as an incomplete snapshot of what the homeless population looks like on that one night. And by the nature of homelessness, with a population constantly in flux, it is difficult group to count. Current federal guidelines also do not count individuals temporarily staying in hotels, or couch surfing with friends as homeless.

Otten said on warmer nights more homeless people were liable to sleep on the streets or in their cars than in shelters, making them less likely to be counted. Only 10 percent of the counted homeless in Jeffco were found in shelters this year.

Across the seven-county metro area covered by the survey, a total of 5,116 individuals were counted, representing a more than 6 percent drop from last year’s total count, though others share Otten’s belief that those numbers might not reflect reality.

“It sure doesn’t feel down, either in the city or in the metro area,” Evan Dreyer, deputy chief of staff to Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, recently said at a Denver City Hall meeting.

“What I know — and I think almost anyone else who works with the homeless community would tell you — is that the numbers are low as compared to the realities we deal with every day,” said Lynn Ann Huizingh, the executive Director of the Severe Weather Shelter Network, which serves the metro area.

“I firmly believe the reported number of homeless individuals could be multiplied times three and be more accurate.” Huizingh said

Otten agrees, saying the Jeffco service providers, faith groups and law enforcement officers she works with all agree that as many as 1,500 homeless individuals are probably in the county.

“And we have homeless families on top of that,” said Otten, who estimated as many as 200 families living here.

Even that figure may be low though. For the 2015-16 school year Jefferson County Public Schools identified 3,622 students as homeless.

By contrast, just 63 homeless families were identified by this year’s PIT survey.

Otten and Huizingh said some of the survey could be helpful.

Huizingh said the survey information about causes of homelessness lines up well with what she sees in her shelter network.

“In our suburban sheltering we experience most of our guests as alcoholics or at least using alcohol as a way to self-medicate,” Huizingh said.

To improve the quality of information on the homeless population Huizigh said she had hope in the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative’s future plans for day-to-day data collection across multiple organizations and agencies.

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