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Homeless count up in county while emergency beds decline

June 12, 2014 Updated: June 12, 2014 at 8:22 pm
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A man, who said his name was Tom, sleeps in a flower bed as pedestrians walk along Tejon Street in downtown Colorado Springs Friday, May 3, 2013, at the corner of Tejon Street and Pikes Peak Avenue. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

More homeless people appear to be going without shelter despite a relatively small uptick in homelessness across El Paso County - the result of a steep drop in emergency beds, an annual survey found.

The assessment highlighted the annual Point in Time survey, which showed a 4-percent increase in El Paso County residents defined as homeless by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Released Thursday, the survey typically offers the region's best snapshot of homelessness by tallying the number of people lacking "a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence" on a single night. Organizers counted 1,219 homeless people who went without that on Jan. 26, one-fifth of whom were ages 17 or younger.

Veterans accounted for 145 of those people - a five person drop from 2013.

An inventory of housing and shelter facilities painted a more troubling picture - one punctuated by high occupancy rates and dwindling options for emergency shelter.

The region would have lost a quarter of its emergency beds had nonprofits not expanded their programs midway through the year.

Instead, nonprofits tallied 63 fewer emergency beds in January compared to the previous year, a 12-percent drop driven, in part, by the Aztec Motel's closure in November.

Men would have had a particularly difficult time finding shelter that night. While there were 20 emergency beds open on Jan. 26, all were set aside specifically for women.

In all, 269 people went without shelter that night, the report said.

Organizers cautioned that the Jan. 26 count was not all-encompassing, and the actual number of homeless people could be much higher across the county.

For example, while the United Way only found 254 homeless children in its Jan. 26 survey of shelters, fellow nonprofits and campers, a subsequent sampling of school districts in El Paso County found 883 homeless students on that same day, the report said.

Further, the Colorado Department of Education said 2,564 El Paso County students experienced homelessness during the 2012-2013 school year, the report added.

"The Point in Time serves a particular purpose, but it doesn't paint the whole picture," said Anne Beer, who helped lead the United Way's count, which is a requirement for receiving federal funds to combat homelessness.

The survey further shined a spotlight on the county's affordable housing gap, which appears to be creating a bottleneck among people trying to work their way out of homelessness, Beer said.

A preliminary assessment spearheaded by Colorado Springs in late May found a 18,406-unit shortfall attributable, in part, to below-average wages and too many new high-end units.

"It's going to be really hard for us to make a significant dent until we have housing and ... have jobs that will support the housing that's available," Beer said.

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