By Kathryn White
In the wee hours one late January 2022 morning, teams of Denverites fanned out across the city. They were tasked with tallying the number of people who were unsheltered that night, sleeping on streets or in some other place not meant for human habitation.
They drove two per car and counted individuals, tents, RVs, and other vehicles turned into sleeping quarters. Snow covered the ground and temperatures hovered near freezing. Over the week that followed a representative sample of those experiencing homelessness was surveyed. They were asked their age, race, ethnicity, and gender.
They were asked if they had mental health concerns, were fleeing domestic violence, or had a disabling condition. Did they identify as LGBTQ+? Had they been homeless before? Giving their names was optional.
In the City and County of Denver, 4,794 people were counted that night. 3,481 stayed in emergency shelters, transitional housing, or safe haven programs. 1,313 stayed in tents or vehicles, under awnings or bridges, and in other places not meant for living. One in three were experiencing homelessness for the first time.
Point in Time (PIT) counts are conducted at least every two years across the U.S. as required for funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Regions are given extra credit for conducting an annual PIT. Most take place during the last 10 days of January. Metro Denver Homeless Initiative (MDHI) conducts the seven-county PIT encompassing Adams, Arapahoe, Boulder, Broomfield, Denver, Douglas, and Jefferson counties. The City and County of Denver Department of Housing Stability (HOST) coordinates Denver’s portion.
Sabrina Allie, communications and engagement director for HOST, participated in the January count this year for the first time. Her team covered a swath of North Denver and was out from 4 to 10 a.m. on Jan. 25.
“Anytime we witness people experiencing homelessness, there’s a feeling of great humility that comes with it,” Allie said. “To know that there are people, neighbors in our community, who have nowhere to be. It’s deeply sad. And at the same time, it’s rewarding to know that we’re doing something that needs to be done in order to help people resolve their episodes of homelessness and get back to housing.”
Bayaud Enterprises provides employment training, coaching, placement, and supported employment to people with disabilities and other barriers to employment. And they rely on PIT data. “We use the Point in Time data for grant writing,” said Tami Bellofatto, executive director at Bayaud. “City, state and federal applications always ask, ‘How many people are experiencing homelessness?’ And that’s where we’re getting the data.”
“We had a couple of teams go out last year. They’ll go out again this year. I’m hoping that we get everybody counted. I think we do a good job of getting out there, but I don’t think we find everyone. For people experiencing homelessness, this number leads to funding, and that will help them.”
District 9 Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca leans on PIT data as well. To a point.
“I’m a data-driven person,” CdeBaca said, “The Point in Time count is an important snapshot of homelessness in the metro area. But it’s just a snapshot—to really comprehend the scale of the homelessness crisis we’re facing, we need to see the PIT data combined with other data sources like Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) from service providers and McKinney-Vento data from our schools, all of which inform MDHI’s annual State of Homelessness reports.”
“Those data trends, as well as the data from our frontline community partners and researchers, are at the root of everything that I do as a Council member in proposing policy solutions and budget amendments to address this crisis,” CdeBaca added.
HMIS is the region’s Homeless Management Information System. And in MDHI’s State of Homelessness Report 2021, that system showed 32,233 individuals accessing the seven-county region’s services or housing support related to homelessness between July 1, 2020 and June 30, 2021.
For comparison, PIT counts for the same seven-county region were 6,104 in 2020, 5,530 in 2021 (due to COVID-19 the 2021 count did not include an unsheltered number), and 6,884 in 2022.
“Point in Time numbers are an utterly abysmal low count of people who happened to be counted on a particular day,” said Terese Howard, an organizer with Housekeys Action Network Denver. “The number of folks who access HMIS is a better count. A large majority of houseless people will get entered into that system in some way. Not everybody. There are lots of people who are houseless who are not in the HMIS system, but it’s a much more complete number than the Point in Time number.”
Howard said, “The Denver five-year plan refers to the number of people who are housing cost-burdened at different AMI levels. That helps to give a bigger picture of houselessness.” The HOST plan includes, for example, that in 2019 “nearly 115,000 households in Denver (35%) pay more than the recommended 30% of their incomes on housing costs.”
With the release of the 2022 PIT data showing homelessness increasing from pre-pandemic levels, MDHI echoes HMIS’ growing significance on its website.
“The region has made significant strides in decreasing its reliance on the one-night count,” MDHI stated. “Instead, providers, municipalities, and others are working together to improve participation with the region’s Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) to make data accessible each day on those experiencing homelessness.”
CdeBaca looks further, “In terms of other research, I’m actively in touch with a team at the University of Denver and Regis University who are studying Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WaSH) access among people experiencing homelessness in Denver. I’m also actively in conversation with researchers from the University of Colorado who are looking at adverse health outcomes for people displaced by encampment sweeps. Their data fills out the picture of what people experiencing homelessness in Denver face all 365 days of the year.”