Every year in January, a small army of volunteers from churches, human services departments, nonprofits and law enforcement fan out into communities across the nation and conduct a point-in-time …
Every year in January, a small army of volunteers from churches, human services departments, nonprofits and law enforcement fan out into communities across the Denver metro area, and the nation and conduct a point-in-time survey of their area’s homeless population.
This time last year, 394 people were counted spending the night in shelters, vehicles, or the streets of Jefferson County.
By its nature, the homeless survey only acts as an incomplete snapshot of what the homeless population looks like on that one night. And by the nature of homelessness — with a population constantly in flux, some of whom with a criminal history, some with questionable legal status – it is a difficult group to count. Current federal guidelines also do not count individuals temporarily staying in motels (unless paid for by a service provider), or couch surfing with friends as homeless.
While many of those involved in the annual Point in Time (PIT) survey point out its many shortcoming, they also say it is the best survey tool they have. The stakes are also high to still be as thorough as possible since regional, state and federal funding could be affected.
“Our funding is determined by how many we can survey, which is stupid. Out here our population is scattered, hard to find,” said Kathryn Otten, Jefferson County’s director for the Division of Housing and Integration. “We’ve got 24 hours to survey 774 square miles ... we don’t even have time to start looking up in the mountains.”
Next year Otten says the county will again petition to have a full week to survey.
Family Tree headquarters — Monday, 6 p.m.
Roughly 20 volunteers gather in a meeting room on the first floor of the nonprofit’s Wheat Ridge facility on Jan. 29. From this moment, to sundown the following day, this group, along with a scattering of others already running homeless shelters across the county, or at a special homeless dinner event at Red Rocks Community Church, are tasked with counting as many homeless as possible.
Family Tree’s Housing Supervisor Linda Barringer leads the meeting, and divides the gathered people into three groups, headed towards the severe weather shelters — open tonight specifically for the count, despite the fact that the evening low will only dip down to 37 degrees, and the ground is dry, downright pleasant conditions for this time of year.
Be sure to get your team leader’s cell number, Barringer reminds the group before they head out.
Mean Street Ministry – 6:15 p.m.
It’s lasagna night at Mean Street Ministry in Lakewood, as four families set up dome tents in the corners of the former church and current Denver Street School gymnasium, which has doubled as a family shelter every night since December.
As the adults and volunteer Chuck Adams get the tents set up, the half-dozen or so children play – the teenagers shoot hoops, and the young girls run around, visiting with each other, coloring, and scampering through the kitchen. In that kitchen, Kim Adams, Chuck’s wife, and Tina Stuckey, the shelter coordinator, are preparing a salad, getting the lasagna in the oven, as well as a turkey, stuffing and green beans.
In the midst of it all, Aaron Durant is there. He helps a family with a tent, then is in the kitchen, answering questions from Stuckey and Kim, and then he’s trying wrangle a few of the children.
“I’ve done all kinds of jobs over the years, but this is the hardest,” Durant said, taking a brief break in the kitchen. “I started out volunteering here cleaning the toilets, and Pastor James Fry asked if I wanted to take helping run the shelter on.”
Durant was familiar with Fry and Mean Street, because he made use of the organization’s food pantry and cafe, as he himself is homeless by choice.
“I’ve lived the kind of life that most people have, and I didn’t know anyone. I felt alone a lot,” he remembered. “But on the street, I feel like I’ve gotten to know a lot of great people. I know what they’re going through, and am trying to help.”
Arvada Covenant Church Severe Weather Shelter — 6:50 p.m.
PIT volunteers arrive at Arvada Covenant Church on Ward Road and find six volunteers from Faith Bible Chapel manning the shelter for the night. They set up pizza and salad for dinner and mini cupcakes for dessert. Five men and one woman arrive for dinner and a night of sleep indoors.
Deloris Thomas, a case worker at Family Tree, is the survey team leader.
“Personally, I’m hoping to find out about personal situations people are going though that are leading them into homelessness,” she said.
But Thomas said she was worried that the unseasonably warm weather will skew the count on the low side as it did last year.
“We need to show that this population exists. So, when the numbers are low — even though when know these people are there and we are servicing them, if the surveys don’t reflect that — then the money isn’t there.”
Among the counted was Tyler Blane Croaker, 50, of Wheat Ridge.
Croaker had been living on the streets for just over week. He lost his housing after a heroin overdose almost took his life.
Croaker said that he broke his back and after six surgeries became highly addicted to pain medications. About a year ago, he switched to heroin because it was cheaper and always available.
“At first I said I needed it for my back,” Croaker said. “But it came to a point where it was more of an addiction. I lost control.”
“It’s very exciting that it was available,” he said. “The volunteers are amazing.”
Mean Street Ministry – 7:15 p.m.
Dinner preparations are coming along nicely, and it smells delicious.
PIT volunteers are speaking to family members for the annual survey. Some have been willing to speak, others refused. This is typical when dealing with people who face a lot of stigma and scorn from the more fortunate, said Morgan Wieziolowski, who works with the AmeriCorps VISTA program.
“It’s extremely important to the county and the whole city to get this information,” Wieziolowski said. “While it may be just a snapshot of the homeless population, HUD (the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) needs numbers to provide appropriate funding to programs to help the homeless.”
The survey volunteers have “incentive packs,” which include donated items like water bottles, food, and other necessities. People received a pack whether they answered the questions or not.
While it might be discouraging, Wieziolowski said she expects the number of homeless to go up this year, which is actually a good thing. It means that volunteers are getting better at counting this population.
Another family arrives to make use of the shelter for the evening, and volunteers eagerly approach them to see if they’re willing to participate. Another name to write down.
Westwoods Community Church Severe Weather Shelter — 7:20 p.m.
It seems as if there’s more and more people in this area facing homelessness, said Jacqui Daughery as she sat at a table with a list of names in front of her, waiting for the van to arrive with Westwoods Community Church’s guests for the evening.
“But when they’re here,” she added, “they’re here to rest, be fed and safe.”
Daughery, her husband Mike and two of three of their children were of the 10 volunteers at the church who helped cook a meal and prepare bedding for the church’s overnight guests.
By 7 p.m., the guests arrived. Only four of the five guests that signed up to stay there have shown up.
After the four men have checked in with Jacqui, they went into the large conjoining room to pick up bedding from one of Jacqui’s sons.
“The value of volunteering with the Severe Weather Shelter Network is getting to see people as they deserve to be seen. Everybody has a name and a story that is not much different than our own,” said Aaron Doverspike, an overnight host at Westwoods.
Once they had set up their bedding in their chosen place to sleep, the guests went to the far side of the room and made themselves a plate of food —chili, chicken noodle soup, baked potatoes, bread and mini cupcakes and cookies.
“When it gets really cold, these folks could die,” Mike Daughery said. “Being able to come to a place that’s warm and safe could be life-saving.”
The Severe Weather Shelter Network’ focus is to keep people alive, Jacqui Daughery added.
“They’re seen, and they’re valued,” she said.
Mean Street Ministry — 7:35 p.m.
A small band gathers outside the shelter doors. It includes Pastor James Fry, the executive director of the ministry, and his constant companion Zeke the German shepard circles his legs, making occasional detours to those nearby, in hopes of a good petting. Otten is there, along with other members of the Mean Street organization: Todd Graber, Mandie Gallagher and Durant.
As they wait, a family — man, woman and an elementary-aged boy — walk by on their way into the shelter, pulling their belongings in scuffed luggage behind them.
“It’s so early still, should we still go out?” Otten asks.
“Nobody’s going to be settling down yet,” Graber, who is part of the ministry’s weekly street team, nods in agreement.
Still, it’s PIT night, and Jeffco needs a more accurate count if it wants any additional funding. So the group piles into two vehicles and heads off to check the common congregation spots.
The first location is a bust.
“They do hide, that’s part of the game,” said Durant. “Can’t get a ticket if you don’t get caught.”
He would know, having spent years on these same street.
But while everyone in the group is familiar with these streets, none of them are under the illusion that they are all safe.
“Last time we went out a lady whipped a hammer at my head,” Otten says. “I kept the hammer.”
Fry later confirms her story.
“Yeah, she keeps the hammer on her desk now,”
Westwoods Community Church Severe Weather Shelter — 8 p.m.
Mitch Pino got his Pikachu hat last summer.
“I was looking for a Denver Broncos hat, but they were out of season,” Pino said. “This was the best hat they had and it looks good on me. I like it.”
But usually when it’s really cold outside, he’ll wear his Denver Broncos beanie. And on those nights, he goes to a severe weather shelter to avoid “freezing to death,” he said.
Pino, 34, was born and raised in Denver and currently lives in a cave in Jefferson County.
“I don’t plan on living there forever,” he said, adding he is currently attending school to earn his high school equivalency diploma.
And he has a goal to pursue higher education — a bachelor’s degree in science, perhaps. Or maybe someday he’ll open a Mexican restaurant because enjoys cooking, Pino said as he ate a warm bowl of chili.
“So I can work in it, too,” Pino said. But “I’m glad I’m in school so I won’t have to deal with seasonal work. I don’t have to have the best job there is. I just want something I enjoy doing.”
Mean Street Ministry – 8:15 p.m.
“It’s a feast tonight,” exclaimed Stuckey, as she surveyed the full spread for the evening.
One child who is staying the night with her family at the shelter agrees – “It smells so good in here.”
All the food Mean Street serves is donated – either purchased or hand-made by volunteers.
Another guest for the night sums it up best – “It’s like Thanksgiving tonight.”
Before dinner is served, Chuck calls for a prayer, in which everyone forms a circle and holds hands. A few PIT volunteers remained in case any more families arrive, but it looks like about seven will be the total for the evening.
“You can go on a mission trip right here in Colorado,” Chuck said. “The need is here, and it’s amazing that a family in Denver with children can be living on the streets.”
The dinner experience is the same one might see in any cafeteria — People laughing, telling stories, stealing bites of each other’s food.
Kim eventually gets to join her husband, eating with the night’s guests.
“This is my favorite part – going out to eat with them,” she said. “You get to really meet these people and get to know them.”
Edgewater — 8:35 p.m.
The truck has a sun shade up against the windshield, a rosary hanging in front. The back is almost full, and covered by tarps. Inside the cab a man and woman can be heard trying to shush a dog.
The couple is homeless, sleeping in the truck for the foreseeable future, and, after a bit of conversation, agree to participate in the survey.
The man, Eloy Morales, does most of the talking, and has a lot to say.
“What kind of country is it where you can make minimum wage and not be able to afford a place to f***ing stay?!” he asks.
According to Morales, his wife worked 27 years for the DMV. He served in the Army and put in more than two decades of work as a state employee. Still, bills mounted and their house was foreclosed on.
“We’re not out here trashing anything,” Morales says, insisting they even pick up after their dog Cody. “We’re just out here surviving.”
Colfax and Teller — 8:55 p.m.
A guy, dressed in unassuming clothes saunters past. A team member strikes up a conversation on the chance the man is homeless. He is, but doesn’t want to talk.
“I’ve tried and tried and tried. Been homeless since 2004. And that’s all I have to say about that,” he says as he walks off.
At the nearby bus stop along Colfax a loud, drunk voice echoes across the parking lot. Two bundled shapes are visible on the bench. Graber approaches the pair first.
“Who the F***k are you?” says the noisy one on the left.
“My name is Todd. I'm not a cop. I’m just a guy.”
“Well I’m just a f**king guy too!” he responds.
The one on the right hunches lower in her coat, and doesn’t indicate even hearing Graber’s questions. She opens up more when approached later by the women on the street team, who manage to go through the entire survey with her.
“She wasn’t unattractive, which is bad.” said Fry. “Good looking women don’t last long out here.”
The Rising Church Day Shelter — Tuesday, 10:30 a.m.
The day shelter at The Rising Church in Olde Town sees anywhere from 30-70 people needing services each day. Tuesday morning was no different as the downstairs bustled with men and women experiencing homelessness. Some bathed in the newly remodeled showers. Others drank coffee and ate breakfast. Some stocked up on snacks or food for the week. A few browsed the clothing racks in the gym.
“Everything is going really well,” said Rebel Rodriguez, food bank and day shelter director at The Rising, adding that clothes and food are donated daily by the community.
Rodriguez sat with a group at the table conducting PIT surveys.
“I’m really impressed with how well it’s gone this year,” Rodriguez said of the surveys. “I feel like this year will be a little more accurate.”
Rodriguez continued with saying she felt the survey last year didn’t reflect the true number of homeless.
“I feel like a lot of even our folks were totally missed,” she said.
One man who has taken advantage of services at The Rising to work toward gaining housing again is Norman Slyfox, 51.
“The church has really helped me from day one,” he said.
Slyfox became homeless shortly after his girlfriend was jailed for a repeat DUI. He couldn’t handle the bills on his own, so he put his belongings in storage and took to the streets while she spent a year in jail.
“Well, the streets are a hard place,” Slyfox said matter of factly. “To go from living inside being comfortable to readjusting to what it takes to survive on the streets is quite a change.”
Throughout his almost five months of homelessness, Slyfox continued to work as a master electrician. He saved every nickel and dime he could and is now weeks away from moving into a new apartment.
Arvada Public Library — Tuesday, 12:25 p.m.
Spaghetti and salad were on the menu for lunch at the library. Those experiencing homelessness were invited to visit the library to take the point in time survey and eat a meal in return.
The event at the library was a new addition to the count this year. A similar event took place at the Belmar Library at the same time and at the Columbine Library the night before.
“The more we can be active participants in raising our count to reflect what’s happening in our community, the more our county can go after the resources folks need,” said Simone Groene-Nieto, coordinator of diversity and inclusion services at Jefferson County Public Libraries. She also served as the PIT coordinator for the Jeffco libraries.
The Arvada library, located across the street from The Rising and next to Olde Town Square, sees one of the highest rates of homelessness of all the Jeffco libraries.
“This location faces unique challenges because serving the homeless community does also come with challenges,” Groene-Nieto said. “There’s more security incidences, more behavioral, more intoxication. But I think the staff here views that as an opportunity to and recommit to figure out how to end the problem of homelessness.”
Russ Coley, a volunteer who works at the Jefferson Center for Mental Health, thought that providing lunch for homeless community helped bring people in to get surveyed.
“I told them we’re trying to find out what services are needed and the best way to do that is talk to the people who need those services,” he said. “The homeless population here is now bigger than anyone wants to admit and most of us are one or two paychecks away from the same thing.”
Coley said to him, the most important thing the community can do is to identify the homeless population as part of the community.
“Look people in the eye,” Cooley said. “Rather than turn away in disgust, say ‘hi.’”
Mean Street Ministry – 6 p.m.
The doors to the family shelter open again, and again volunteers are on hand to count anyone not counted the night before. Otten said she and a few others would venture out to surrounding parks and back alleys again as well, trying to find just a few more of Jeffco's homeless.
"We feel that we got more surveys than last year, but still needed more time to find more families," she said. "The strategies we used this year was a good start."
The official report on the survey numbers will come out some time this summer, but how well those numbers will reflect the truth of the streets is anyone's guess.