El Paso County's latest survey of homelessness highlights a tired truth: Far more affordable housing is needed to reduce the number of people camping outdoors, in shelters or on the streets, advocates say.
The latest Point in Time survey found 1,562 people living in El Paso County who are homeless — roughly the same number as in 2018, when a record 1,551 people were counted amid a yearslong rise in homelessness.
In a possible bright spot, the survey found the number of people living unsheltered — living outside in camps, on the streets, in vehicles or in abandoned buildings — dropped 13 percent, from 513 to 444.
Andrew Phelps, the city's homelessness prevention and response coordinator, hailed the significant drop in unsheltered individuals as a sign that "lives are being saved." He has led a push to lower barriers at shelters — specifically, those that prohibit people from entering when they aren't sober.
"This year’s Point in Time count illustrates that the city's investment in low barrier shelter beds has had a positive impact,” Phelps said. "Small victories like this are something our community should celebrate.”
Others said they were unsure what led to the dramatic drop in unsheltered individuals. The count's data showed only a slight increase in people who sought emergency beds compared to 2018, and far more people found transitional housing this year.
The number of families, veterans and youths ages 18 to 24 ticked upward, though the city's chronically homeless population — often people who have been living outside for years — declined slightly.
For several nonprofit leaders in Colorado Springs, the results reinforced longstanding concerns about an affordable housing crisis that is limiting their ability to ensure that shelters don't turn into permanent housing for some.
"Part of the problem is we don’t have enough housing — we don’t have enough places to support these individuals, especially in the case of veterans," said Jennifer Mariano, program manager for the Pikes Peak Continuum of Care, which coordinates the area's homeless response.
She voiced optimism that multiple planned apartment projects — including Greenway Flats on Springs Rescue Mission's campus and Freedom Springs east of Colorado Springs — would help the situation.
"That should help make a dent," Mariano said. "But that's still not enough to serve folks who need that specialized, additional help."
The survey is held every year in late January and is required for the Continuum of Care to receive millions of dollars in federal grants.
It offers a snapshot of the area's homeless population by focusing on where people slept on a single night of the year — in this case, Jan. 27. It also asks several other questions, including if they have a mental illness, if they struggle with substance abuse and if they're new to El Paso County.
It does not include people who are homeless and doubled-up with family members or friends — often referred to as "couch-surfing." Rather, it focuses solely on people living outside, in shelters or in transitional housing programs, which provide a place to stay for up to two years.
Due to the transient nature of homelessness, the survey routinely undercounts the area's true population. Its accuracy depends on enough volunteers finding people in well-hidden camps, and on those homeless people agreeing to participate. Often, the decision turns on hard-earned trust won by outreach workers.
This year, the survey's organizers went without the help of Blackbird Outreach, a nonprofit that dissolved in 2018 after having become a key means of reaching people in hard-to-find encampments. Still, about 180 volunteers fanned out across the county.
They went to work amid a cold snap that dropped temperatures to 13 degrees the night of Jan. 27. A fast-moving snowstorm also hit just as survey-takers began heading out to count people at the Penrose Library, the Marian House soup kitchen and other known hangouts.
Mariano said she spoke with about 15 people who doubled- and tripled-up in motel rooms to escape the weather — people who, despite living outside, did not meet the federal definition of homelessness, because they spent that night in a motel.
A more detailed report offering a more complete picture of the area's homeless population is expected in couple months, Mariano said.