Homeless numbers spike

Report illuminates tension among advocacy groups, communities

Photo by Ryan Cutler

An annual survey and count of homeless people in the metro Denver area shows that while the city of Boulder has seen a slight decrease in its homeless numbers, Longmont and Boulder County as a whole have seen a spike.

Local advocates for the homeless say the “Point in Time” survey conducted Jan. 28 by the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative represents a mixed bag, but they agree that the results point to the need for more resources, less competition between agencies and more regional cooperation to address the growing number of homeless people — including more and more families.

Officials from Boulder Outreach for Homeless Overflow (BOHO), an organization that uses area churches and synagogues as emergency housing for those who can’t be accommodated by the Boulder Shelter for the Homeless, say the survey is positive news for the city because the number of homeless identified that day dipped to 745, five fewer than the previous year. However, they say that since the number of homeless respondents countywide rose from 1,970 in 2012 to 2,366 this year, there is increasing need that can put strains on the city of Boulder’s resources.

Nancy Brinks, chair of the BOHO board of directors, says there should be better cooperation and coordination countywide, because the city of Boulder takes in homeless from outlying areas. BOHO, which operates from October through May, saw 16,844 guest visits last season, up from 12,976 the year before.

“There are many other communities surrounding the Boulder area that tend to send folks to Boulder itself and say, ‘There are a lot of services there, why don’t you go take advantage of those?’” she says. “It’s not that anyone in Boulder doesn’t absolutely say, yes, we want to help take care of people, but this is a regionwide problem really, it’s not an individual city kind of problem.”

Brinks explains that while the city of Longmont, like Boulder, puts significant resources into providing services for the homeless because they have the largest homeless populations in the county, other cities don’t have the same ability.

“We have heard, anecdotally, that both Lafayette and Louisville will tend to send people into Boulder for services,” she says. “And I’m not trying to sound like I’m accusing them of anything, because they don’t necessarily have the resources available in their communities right now. I think the discussion needs to be held that we all need to come together to have a greater set of unified resources.”

Bill Sweeney, BOHO board member and operations manager, says he hasn’t heard the same anecdotes about Lafayette and Louisville, although he does see homeless people come from Denver and out of state. He says the slight dip in Boulder’s numbers is a positive sign that resources like BOHO are addressing the demand.

“I think the city is actually making progress,” he says, noting that Denver’s homeless population showed a decline as well. “Boulder’s finally, so to speak, gotten ahead of it and started bringing the numbers down.”

Sweeney adds that it would be a nice change to actually decrease BOHO’s services.

“We are as adept at shrinking as we are at growing,” he says. “It’s just fewer mats to put on the floor of a congregation.”

But the picture isn’t so rosy in Longmont. Edwina Salazar, executive director of the OUR Center, says the homeless population has gone up by nearly 30 percent over the past year, which is about the same percentage increase the center has seen in the number of motel vouchers it gives out to homeless families. The tight rental market and increasing cost of living only exacerbates a housing problem in which there are sometimes two or three families living in a single rental unit, she explains.

“The rate of chronic homelessness is going down and the rate of single homelessness is going down, but the rate of family homelessness is going up,” Salazar says. “That’s a risk for the future, because those children that become homeless, their education is at risk, their health is at risk and their family disorder puts a lot of emotional distress on the children.”

She agrees that more collaboration is needed among the county’s various agencies.

“Nonprofits, communities of faith and governments need to work together to improve the housing options for folks that live and work in our community,” Salazar says.

Advocates have differing views on the reliability of the survey results. When asked whether the county wide spike could be attributed to more volunteers administering the survey and covering more territory, Sweeney says the survey administrators correct for such variances, so there is “stability in the methodology” with both a raw count and an adjusted count in the final report.

But Greg Harms, executive director of the Boulder Shelter for the Homeless, disagrees.

“I don’t pay a lot of attention to the numbers,” he says. “We do our best to try to count the folks, but there’s a lot of variability every year in how successful we are at finding people. … They try to correct for duplications and those kinds of things, but if we can’t find people, they don’t show up on the survey at all. … One of the really frustrating things about this business is that the data’s really poor, but this is about the only real data point we have about the magnitude of the problem on a regional basis.”

He says the spike in the countywide numbers is probably “survey administration issues more than a change in the population.”

While all agree that more cooperation among agencies is needed, that might be stymied by competition for funding, volunteers, employees and other resources. When asked if the shelter has to compete with other organizations, Harms replies, “Every day. In the morning we compete for funding, and in the afternoon we’re supposed to collaborate on providing services. That’s the nature of what we do. We have to compete against each other, and we have to collaborate, and it’s kind of a weird environment, but that’s the way it works.”

Boulder District Attorney Stan Garnett told Boulder Weekly that he has been told by a number of people that the county’s homeless advocacy organizations don’t always work together as well as they could, and that a countywide entity like the DA’s office might be able to play a coordinating role.

“One of the things that’s a little bit disturbing sometimes is that there’s a lot of turfiness,” Garnett says. “Not only fighting about resources, but people, second-guessing what others in the field are doing and I think sometimes undercutting it.”

He also says he’s initiated discussions with officials in eastern Boulder County communities like Lafayette, Louisville, Erie and Superior about their contributions to resources for the homeless.

“Those are communities that are committed to doing their share,” Garnett says. “Some would say they haven’t ever really been asked to do anything. Some would say that maybe we should use the model that’s used for the humane society, where municipalities in east Boulder County contribute to help fund what’s basically a countywide effort.”

Full reports on the Point in Time survey for Boulder County and the cities of Boulder, Longmont and Lafayette are available at the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative website at http://mdhi.org.

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