DENVER — A state with one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country is grappling with an ever-increasing homeless population.
Colorado saw one of the largest percentage increases in homeless individuals in the nation, up 17.4 percent from 2016, according to the Annual Homeless Assessment Report.
Individuals are defined in the report as people who are not part of a family with children during an episode of homelessness.
The state's overall homeless population, including families and unaccompanied youth, crept up 3.7 percent in 2017. However, those numbers mark a 29.3 percent decrease since 2010.
The 2017 increase represents an additional 1,121 individuals who called the streets home during a point-in-time count conducted in January of this year, a “snapshot” of a single night. The state’s estimated total homeless population was 10,940.
Of that total, 7,081 people were located in emergency shelters or transitional housing programs while a total 3,859 people were unsheltered.
The report, released Wednesday by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, may not be a surprise for many in Colorado. Several homeless camps have sprouted up across the state as packed shelters continue to strain local resources.
But what’s causing the numbers to rise?
The overall increase comes amidst a booming labor market. But the fast-moving economy has pushed many people out. Homeless advocates say souring rents have put lower-wage workers out on the streets.
“The lack of affordable housing in the Rocky Mountain Region has meant that more people are experiencing homelessness,” said HUD Rocky Mountain Deputy Regional Administrator Eric Cobb. “It is more important than ever that we work together to create and maintain affordable housing to ensure that the families, veterans, and youth of our communities have quality places to live.”
While Denver’s rental affordability is showing signs of improvement – the city’s rents dropped for a second straight month – numbers from the HUD report continue to paint a bleak picture.
The explosion in individual homelessness has put the state's largest city in a new category. The report showed Oakland, Denver, and Phoenix replaced Boston, Philadelphia, and the District of Columbia as the major cities with the largest numbers of homeless individuals.
However, the data indicates a 3.8 percent decline in overall homelessness in the Metro Denver area since 2010.
Another troubling find from the HUD report shows Colorado has among the largest number of unsheltered homeless people in families with children in the nation. In fact, along with Colorado — California, Florida, and Oregon together accounted for nearly two-thirds of all homeless people in that category in the country.
But some groups are faring better. The number of homeless veterans declined 8.7 percent from 2016. An estimated 1,078 veterans were homeless in Colorado during the January count. The state had the seventh largest homeless veteran population and the 19th largest population of all veterans.
Chris Conner, the interim director Denver’s Road Home program, released the following statement regarding the HUD report:
HUD’s annual point-in-time count is one way we can appreciate the scale of homelessness in a community. The report findings released by HUD, and their comparison to the landscape of homelessness in 2010, reflect seven years of deepening efforts to resolve homelessness throughout the region. Another measure, contacts by outreach workers, also reveals a decrease between 2010 and 2017. However, while we may see progress in the numbers, we do not declare our victories as proportional. We recognize that every person who is experiencing homelessness in Denver has a unique story. There may be common themes, but every person has individual needs and deserves an individualized approach. We find victories in ending homelessness each day for these individuals and families. But we also find challenge with each day that delivers a new person in need to the doors of our providers.
Colorado’s increase coincides with a nationwide jump. The nation's homeless population swelled to nearly 554,000. That figure is up almost 1 percent from 2016 and marks the first increase in seven years.
Local officials freely admit the HUD survey is not an accurate number of people living on the streets or in transitional housing. The numbers released in the reports are from a single-night count conducted at shelters.
Officials note the challenges in reaching unaccompanied youth and caution the numbers are only a portion of the actual population.
The Metro Denver Homeless Initiative calls the point-in-time survey a snapshot of the homeless situation — not the complete picture.
There are several city programs to assist the homeless population, and many not-for-profit organizations are also in the business of giving a helping hand. Find out how you can help by visiting the following:
- Denver Homeless Connection
- Shelter directory
- Denver Department of Human Services
- Metro Denver Homeless Initiative
- Housing and Urban Development