New Point in Time numbers are promising, but homelessness service providers know it’s just one reference point

“You cannot paint a picture with one point.”
6 min. read
Volunteers train to help take the annual Point-In-Time survey of homelessness at an Adams County government building, Jan. 22, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
Kevin J. Beaty

Here are some homelessness numbers: 3,943. 434. 3,135. 1,762. Zero. 363. 324. 3,932.

The first, released in a report earlier this month from the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative,  is the figure for every person that canvassers were able to find the snowy, freezing night of Jan. 28 in Denver in shelters, along river banks, on the streets, in motel rooms paid for with emergency housing vouchers. The results of the annual one-day survey conducted across the country and known as the Point in Time are keenly awaited by those who track homelessness. The numbers indicate trends, help service providers plan where to concentrate resources and make arguments for new programs. And the federal government uses them to inform funding decisions.

"When the PIT releases, people clamor for it because they want to understand what's going on with homelessness in our community," said Matt Meyer, executive director of the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative.

It's "one data point," added Diane Howald, who is in charge of the Point in Time in the Denver area as coordinator of the effort for the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative. "You cannot paint a picture with one point."

The 3,943 people counted that January night in Denver made up the bulk of the 5,755 in all experiencing homelessness in the seven-county region where Howald's group operates. In Jefferson, another county in the metro count, 434 people were found experiencing homelessness.

Other measures of homelessness can lead to other conclusions. School districts assess homelessness independently of the Point in Time and report their figures annually.

For the 2017-18 school year, JeffCo schools found 3,135 students experiencing homelessness. Denver schools found 1,762.

School districts can rely on teachers and other staff who get to know the challenges students face over a longer period, not just one night. They also count students whose families are doubled up with other households out of economic necessity. The Housing and Urban Development definition of homelessness used for the Point in Time does not include doubling up, but the U.S. Department of Education has determined that it is not stable or reliable housing.

Schools can't count children experiencing homelessness who are too young or not enrolled for other reasons. The Point in Time has a wider reach, but also can't reach everyone.

The Metro Denver Homeless Initiative has been rolling out a digital management system that will make it easier for shelter staff to create databases on homelessness. During the Point in Time it will free up more resources to not only count but offer services to people on the streets, according to Meyer, the initiative's executive director.

As the system is adopted at more sites in coming months, service providers and policymakers won't have to wait for the Point in Time for data on a significant proportion of the homeless population. They'll also be able to see indications of people moving into permanent housing, a point the Point in Time lacks.

Howald envisions her future reports on the Point in Time offering a more complex picture, thanks in part to the growing shelter database. She also plans to weave in references to what other researchers have found.

Ending homelessness "does not mean that we have a Point in Time that says zero," Howald said.

But it is possible that homelessness will one day be rendered rare and brief, she said.

Denver saw decreases in some categories of homelessness between last year and this. The number of people who reported on Jan. 28 that they had been experiencing homelessness for less than a year and had never before been unhoused was 428, down sharply from 661 newly homeless last year. The number of people in chronic homelessness dropped from 991 to 806. Chronic homelessness is defined as being without safe, permanent housing for at least twelve months in a row or having experienced homelessness on at least four occasions over the past three years that total at least a year.

Those decreases are promising, said Chris Conner, director of the city agency Denver's Road Home that coordinates homelessness services. They could indicate, for example, some success of city efforts to quickly identify and support someone coming into a shelter for the first time.  That could mean locating funding help for someone who is working but can't afford a deposit on an apartment, or persuading a runaway to reconnect with family. The city piloted what is known as a rapid response program in 2017-18, Conner said.

Denver's approach to chronic homelessness has included an innovative social impact bond, a test of the notion that it costs more to provide emergency room and other short-term services to people living in homelessness than it does to get them into permanent housing and work with them to keep them there. Under the program launched in 2016, the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless and the Mental Health Center of Denver use police arrest data to identify some of the most vulnerable people experiencing homelessness, then help them find housing and provide them health, food, transportation, legal and other support. Investors who put $8.6 million into the bond will get their money back and possibly more if the program meets performance goals.

As of last January, 363 people had been connected to the social impact program.

Not all ended up housed. But the Urban Institute, which is leading an independent evaluation, has seen early indications the social impact bond is contributing to housing stability.

"We're pleased to see the success of investments like the social impact bond," said Britta Fisher, chief housing officer in  Denver Economic Development & Opportunity and the designated head of a new planned city department of housing.

In 2018 the Point in Time determined that on any given night in Denver, 3,445 people were experiencing homelessness. The number has risen fairly steadily in recent years, and the jump to 3,943 this year was significant. The weather may have played a role. Both counts were around the same time, but the January day in 2018 saw temperatures near 60, contrasting with a snow storm this year. Some people who couldn't find shelter elsewhere in the region may have come to Denver, where homelessness services are concentrated.

"Homelessness doesn't necessarily abide by borders," said Conner of Denver's Road Home.

Jefferson County had 324 beds in shelters and other havens available the night of the Point in Time. Denver had 3,932.

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