Denvers homeless population nearly doubled in 2021 for first-time homelessness

The number of people in metro Denver who reported experiencing first-time homelessness in 2021 nearly doubled over 2020, according to a new report.

And people of color make up a disproportionately high percentage of the unhoused in the Denver area, the report found.

The Metro Denver Homeless Initiative on Thursday released its second annual State of Homeless report. Going beyond the once annual point-in-time count of people living in emergency shelters or on the streets the organization leads, the report pulls together data from multiple sources to provide a more holistic view of homelessness, according to the officials.

“When COVID hit, really in an effort to keep people safe and know where they are, we had a lot more street outreach, safe outdoor spaces, the safe parking initiative,” Jamie Rife, the initiative’s spokeswoman said Thursday, speaking broadly about service providers across the metro area. “What that allowed us to do was more quickly reconnect people with resources and help to keep them safe but also to understand that population much better. Now we have much better data.”

This year’s report provides three totals for people experiencing homelessness across Denver, Adams, Arapahoe, Boulder, Broomfield, Douglas and Jefferson counties. The seven counties will be doing an in-person count again on Monday night.

Using data from the metro area’s Homeless Management Information System, the shared information collection point used by nearly 75% of shelters and all federally funded service providers, the report counted 32,233 people who accessed services or housing support related to homelessness at least once between July 1 and June 30, 2021.

While the in-person point-in-time count for 2021 was canceled out of concern for COVID-19 safety, using data pulled from the system, the report found that 5,530 people stayed in shelters, transitional housing or safe haven sites on the night of Feb. 26, 2021.

While that’s a decrease from the 6,104 people in the 2020 point-in-time count, the 2021 point-in-time number only included data from roughly 75% of shelters. The 2020 figure also included an in-person count of considered “unsheltered,” those sleeping in tents, cars and other places not meant for human habitation. The 2021 survey did not.

Overall, the initiative’s report found roughly 40% of people experiencing homelessness in metro Denver are unsheltered on any given night.

What the 2021 point-in-time data revealed was major increases in emergency shelter use and the number of people reporting first-time homelessness. There were 2,530 people in shelters on Feb. 26, 2021 that reported being newly homeless, up from 1,273 people during the January 2020 count, a sign of the crushing impact of COVID-19 on housing security in the Denver area, service providers say.

“I anticipated an increase,” said, Rife, who will take over as the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative’s executive director next month. “I don’t know that I fully anticipated that sort of increase.”

Finally, the report relied on data from the 2019-2020 school year to count 11,830 students in the metro area who were identified as experiencing homelessness by their school districts. That count used different definitions than the database.

Regardless of definition or method, one thing stood out to Rife in the report: Black, indigenous and people of color were overrepresented in the numbers compared to white people.

Among 10,870 unsheltered adults counted by the shared data system, 22.7% were Black, more than 4.4 times greater than the percentage of Black people in the metro population at large. Of the 952 unsheltered youth counted, 24.5% were Black.

“That tells us that there are a lot of structures and systemic issues that need to be addressed that contribute to this overrepresentation,” Rife said. “Criminal justice reform, child welfare reform, health care; these are all things that disproportionately affect people of color that lead to things like homelessness and living in poverty.”

There was a silver lining in the report. The data showed a 15% decrease in the number of veterans experiencing homelessness, giving Rife hope that the challenges can be overcome with regional coordination and collaboration.

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