The annual Point in Time on Monday surveys the homeless population in El Paso County.
In fast-falling snow and freezing weather, about 150 volunteers fanned out across El Paso County on Monday seeking answers to some of the most pressing questions about the area’s homeless population.
They kicked off the annual Point in Time survey, a snapshot of county residents who are homeless.
The count is federally mandated for the Pikes Peak Continuum of Care to receive millions of dollars in federal grants to move people off the streets and into housing. It also helps determine how many housing vouchers are assigned to the area by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
It all focuses on a central question: Where did the county’s homeless people sleep Sunday night? From there, surveyors asked a host of other questions, including whether respondents were military veterans, used drugs or had a history of mental illness.
The goal is to use that data to better meet the needs of people living on the streets, said Jennifer Mariano, program manager of the Pikes Peak Continuum of Care, which organized the survey.
The 2018 count, for example, highlighted a longstanding problem in Colorado Springs: a lack of low-barrier shelter beds, where admission is based on behavior, not sobriety. Every bed at local low-barrier shelters, such as the Springs Rescue Mission, was taken on the night of last year’s survey. Meanwhile, 513 people were living in tents or sleeping bags.
In all last year, 1,551 people were found to be homeless, more than at any point over the past 10 years, including during the Great Recession.
“It really defines how we’re going to move forward with our work,” Mariano said.
Nonprofit leaders say homelessness continues to rise in the Pikes Peak region, she said. Many of those people appear to be living in their cars, trucks or recreational vehicles, said Tim Kippel of the Police Department’s Homeless Outreach Team.
The survey always undercounts homeless people, as their participation is voluntary, and finding encampments hidden across the county is a near-impossible task. Some people aren’t around when surveyors stop by, and others refuse to participate.
Monday’s count proved especially challenging. A swift-moving snowstorm Monday morning hit just as surveyors began their work, complicating their search for campers. Few homeless people ventured to their typical hangouts, such as Dorchester, Antlers and Acacia parks, Mariano said, so survey takers scrambled to downtown coffee shops and eateries where people were keeping warm.
This year’s count also marked the first in several years that came without the help of Blackbird Outreach, a nonprofit that specialized in visiting well-hidden homeless encampments, building trust among the residents and offering them resources to help them survive.
The nonprofit dissolved over last summer and fall, widening a void of outreach besides that of law enforcement.
To bolster the count’s accuracy, the volunteers plan to continue surveying all week, still focusing on where people slept Sunday night.
“The general sense from a lot of the service providers in the area is they’re serving more people,” Mariano said. “To be honest with you, I don’t know what this number’s going to look like.”
The four members of the police Homeless Outreach Team conducted about 80 surveys in camps along waterways and on undeveloped land across the city, Mariano said. It was a productive effort on an otherwise slow day of surveying, due to the weather.
One of those officers, Kippel, trudged through a couple of inches of snow on the banks of Sand Creek, eyeing several tents just ahead. He said no tickets would be issued for illegal camping — even along creeksides — during the survey, to encourage people to participate.
“If we’re not getting an accurate count, that does affect the services that the city and the service providers can give,” he said. “So during this week, we kind of take that softer approach.”
With three other people, he walked to several camps along Sand Creek, where more than a couple of dozen tents stood, along with some mounds of snow-covered trash.
At the last tarp-covered structure, Corey Alexander, 40, poked his head out just far enough to listen to and answer the surveyor’s questions. He said he has been homeless since 2007 and chose this campsite near Academy Boulevard and Hancock Expressway for its solitude.
“It’s kind of quiet out here,” Alexander said. “It’s kind of away from people.”
His choice underscored the challenge that surveyors face in the days ahead.