On July 14, 2005, then-Mayor John Hickenlooper announced a 10-year plan to end homelessness in Denver. Sixteen years later, and a brief glance at the tent encampments across the metro area, it’s clear this issue is still plaguing Denver and its surrounding counties.
Like Mayor Hickenlooper and the many nonprofits whose mission it is to serve the homeless population, our drive to find a solution is born from compassion. Our belief is that we can do better, and this begins with having a clear picture of the systems surrounding homelessness.
Over the last 16 years, government entities, nonprofit organizations and individuals have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to meet the challenge, find solutions and provide opportunities for housing to meet the needs of the thousands of homeless Coloradans.
A growing number of our neighbors are homeless, and data indicates that the longer people are unsheltered, the more challenging rehousing becomes. Strategies to improve early intervention, rapid rehousing, and permanent supportive housing are the path forward, as they mitigate the risks to the individual and society of long-term homelessness. Such strategies must also involve wraparound services to help some individuals overcome substance abuse, mental illness, and other trauma. The complexity of the ecosystem surrounding homelessness and the scarcity of affordable housing in the region makes implementing these strategies immensely difficult.
Common Sense Institute is a nonpartisan research organization. We rely on data and facts to inform policies that protect our economic vitality and allow individual opportunity to flourish. We believe sound fiscal and economic research is essential to addressing this issue. In other words, we can’t start to fix what we don’t know.
To that end, Common Sense Institute has partnered with several local organizations and leaders to launch a three-phase project to understand the many challenges and types of homelessness.
Through a multifaceted approach, Common Sense Institute and its partners hope to identify the systematic issues that contribute to a person’s experience with homelessness and find the network of people and organizations working to make change.
Bringing clarity and identifying the leverage points in these systems will support all who seek to tackle this challenge by providing critical information about where to invest their time, energy, and money to address the homelessness crisis.
We recently completed phase 1 of this project in partnership with CU Denver, the Downtown Denver Partnership, Together Denver and many other Colorado associations and community leaders, in which we conducted an economic analysis of the organizations serving homeless individuals within Denver and the broader, seven-county metropolitan area.
We found at least $481.2 million is spent annually on shelters, services, emergency response and health care for homeless individuals in metro Denver. That equates to approximately $31,500 to $78,800 per homeless person in the metro Denver region, depending on how many people are homeless.
Additional key findings include the number of people working and volunteering at organizations dedicated to resolving homelessness. The numbers are significant and underscore the sheer magnitude of this complex issue. To read the full report, visit www.commonsenseinstituteco.org.
Our hope is these facts will allow policymakers, community leaders, nonprofits, and citizens to come to the table better educated and informed, and with our combined brainpower, we can help solve this crisis.
How many people are experiencing homelessness?Before digging into the economic footprint of homelessness, we present data on the homeless population in the metro Denver region. We started with the Point in Time count, which assesses the number of homeless people on a single night.
The count is conducted annually to measure the scope of homelessness and to provide information to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for programmatic funding. The last full count was conducted on Jan. 27, 2020 (due to COVID-19 concerns a full count was not conducted in 2021).
In the seven-county metro Denver region, 6,104 individuals were homeless in January 2020. Sixty eight percent of these individuals or 4,171 were in the city and county of Denver. The count has been on an upward trend since 2017, with the number of homeless individuals increasing by 25% since that year. A greater increase in homelessness is expected because of the devastating impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. City of Denver data shows that there was a 46% increase in the number of guests at emergency shelters from January 2020 to January 2021.
In 2020, 30% of the population counted in the Metro Denver region reported a substance abuse concern, and 36% cited a mental health concern.
According to the count, Black/African American and American Indian/Alaskan Native populations are significantly more likely to be among the homeless than other races. Black and African American individuals, for example, comprised 23% of the homeless population in January 2020, which is 4.4 times higher than the proportion of Black and African Americans in the general population. These data highlight significant inequities that must be addressed in the community.
The Point in Time count provides a great deal of trend data on this issue, but as a snapshot of what is happening on one night in January, the data do not provide a complete picture of the population. Key stakeholders recommended multiplying the PIT count by a factor of 2.5 for an annualized count, which would result in an estimated count of 15,260 individuals experiencing homelessness at least once throughout the year in Metro Denver.
The count also provides data on the number of beds available and being occupied by homeless people. Overall, transitional housing and emergency shelters in metro Denver had beds available during the 2020 count. Transitional housing was 72% occupied and emergencies shelters were 82% occupied if including the severe weather beds, or 88% occupied if severe weather beds are excluded.
Additionally, Denver increased the number of shelter beds during the onset of the pandemic in spring 2020. The concerted effort to expand the availability of beds meant that supply kept pace with, and even exceeded, demand as the number of people experiencing homelessness increased during COVID-19.
How much are we spending?
The homelessness ecosystem consists of a complex array of organizations, agencies, and funding streams. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is the key federal agency on this issue, while states and localities have many agencies and departments working on preventing and resolving homelessness.
Charitable organizations are a critical provider of shelters and services. HUD funding, local and state taxpayer dollars and philanthropic dollars intertwine in the web of services and care provided throughout metro Denver.
Common Sense Institute examined nonprofits’ tax filings, financial data from charitable organizations and municipal expenditures to estimate that $481.2 million is spent on homelessness assistance programs.
That number surpasses the size of some budgets for state level agencies, including the Colorado Departments of Natural Resources, Local Affairs and Labor and Employment, and Public Safety. Out of the estimate of $481.2 million, approximately $434 million is spent within the city of Denver, while approximately $15.9 million is spent with the city of Boulder and approximately $7.8 million is spent within the city of Aurora.
Within the city of Denver, the range of spending per person experiencing homelessness is $41,613 to $104,038 per person depending on the type of count used. In comparison, spending per pupil for K-12 education in Denver Public Schools is around $19,202 and the median household income is $68,592.
Brenda Bautsch Dickhoner, Ph.D., is a Mike A. Leprino Free Enterprise Fellow at Common Sense Institute. Kristin Strohm is president & CEO of Common Sense Institute.