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Latest homeless count likely underestimates numbers in Durango and Colorado

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Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017 10:58 AM
A married mother of three holds a sign asking for assistance on Main Avenue in 2015. The number of people who are homeless is rising across the state, according to recently released numbers from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

An affordable housing shortage is driving a rise in homelessness in Colorado.

Across the state, 10,940 people were homeless on one night in January, a 3.7 percent increase compared with 2016, according to recently released survey data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“The lack of affordable housing in the Rocky Mountain Region has meant that more people are experiencing homelessness,” said HUD Rocky Mountain Deputy Regional Administrator Eric Cobb.

In La Plata County, the survey found that 91 people were homeless on a single night in January, and a growing number of them are living outside. Nationally, the homeless population rose a little less than 1 percent up to about 553,742 in 2017, HUD found.

The survey is an underestimate of the homeless population in Colorado because it doesn’t include people who are living with family, in their cars or in other temporary conditions. There are also 12 counties in Colorado that do not participate, said Cathy Alderman, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Coalition for the Homelessness.

“We know that it is a vast undercount,” she said.

The 3 percent increase in the homeless population is also likely an under estimate, she said.

People moving to Colorado believe the economy is strong, but once they arrive they can’t find jobs that can pay for housing, she said. Many others are seeing their rent increasing beyond what they can afford.

“We absolutely are experiencing that homelessness is a growing problem,” she said.

The survey estimates for homelessness in La Plata County are likely an underestimate for some of the same reasons that the state numbers are likely low.

Housing Solutions of the Southwest organizes the survey locally, and staff members work with agencies in the area to collect data, but they can’t reach those people who are couch surfing or other unstable housing situations, said Elizabeth Salkind, executive director of the nonprofit.

Just as affordable housing is a factor for the state, it is an issue for those who recently lost their homes, she said.

But she isn’t sure if it’s triggering a rise in the number of unsheltered people.

In La Plata County, the survey data show the number of people living outside increased from 29 in 2015 to 35 in 2017, Salkind said.

At the same time, the number of people living in transitional housing in La Plata County fell from 27 in 2015 to six in 2016 because funding for a transitional housing program for families with children ended, she said.

A new transitional housing program will start in January to help fill that need, she said.

Housing Solutions, Volunteers of America, Alternative Horizons and Sexual Assault Service Organization received a three-year grant for a transitional housing program for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, dating violence and stalking from the U.S. Justice Department, she said.

Housing Solutions is also preparing to apply for low-income housing tax credits that could fund permanent supportive housing for 35 to 40 people near the social services campus off of Avenida del Sol.

The new building could house chronically homeless individuals and supportive services on site, she said.

To address homelessness across Colorado, Alderman said state government and local municipalities must think about designated streams of funding that could be set aside.

“Federal funds have remained pretty stagnant for the past few years,” she said.

While homelessness is rising across the country, the survey showed a positive long-term trend concerning veterans homelessness. Since 2010, the number of homeless veterans has fall by about 34,000, or about 45 percent.

In 2012, Volunteers of America in Durango started two programs for veterans – the Back Home Program and the Transitional Housing Program for Veterans – and over the years, the nonprofit has housed 60 veterans, Rachel Bauske Frasure, the Southwest Colorado division director, said at the nonprofit’s November fundraiser.

mshinn@durangoherald.com

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