Homeless Durango resident Thomas Murray has been camping without a tent in cold temperatures dipping below zero.
“My hands and feet get the coldest,” he said.
He was living in a Chrysler Sebring with his family before it broke down about three weeks ago.
Homeless residents like Murray can be difficult to count because they do not have permanent addresses and they can be highly transient. But every year, social service groups and volunteers across the country attempt to survey homeless residents about where they spent a single night to determine the scope of the homelessness problem.
The survey also captures demographic data about homeless residents and the challenges they face, such as serious mental illness, substance-use problems, HIV, AIDS or other chronic illnesses.
The data is submitted to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and it is used to determine what groups of people, such as veterans or those with disabilities, may be in need of specialized programs, said Brigid Korce, program development director for Housing Solutions for the Southwest.
La Plata County agencies also need the data to show federal and state funders that there is housing instability in Southwest Colorado, she said. To collect the data, Housing Solutions organized staff and volunteers from 10 groups who surveyed homeless residents Wednesday, Thursday and Friday at Manna soup kitchen, Durango Community Shelter, Southwest Safehouse, Durango Public Library, Durango Community Recreation Center, Mercy Regional Medical Center and other locations.
More people are working to gather data than in years past, Korce said.
“It makes me really happy we have more support in getting this done,” she said.
This year, the survey intended to count all those homeless residents who slept in emergency shelters and places unfit for human habitation, such as on the ground, under a bridge, in a car or in an abandoned building on Jan. 29.
In 2017, the last time comparable data was collected in La Plata County, 91 residents, including 19 children, were sleeping in a place unfit for human habitation or in an emergency shelter.
A survey last year, which counted only residents living in a shelter, identified 40 homeless residents on a single day in town.
Results from this year’s survey were not available as of Monday.
Justin Gilchrist and his fiancé, Gabriel Wilson, were among those who agreed to be interviewed.
“It just seemed like it would be good to help get more funding,” Gilchrist said.
Gilchrist said he would like to see additional funding used to provide more meals for the homeless. Manna provides dinner only on Wednesdays, and it is not open for lunch or dinner on Saturdays or Sundays, he said.
The couple moved to Durango four years ago in a van after Gilchrist was hired for a job at City Market.
They are now camping and want to be close to town, where Wilson receives medical care from a neck surgery.
Another survey participant, Adrienne Snyder, said she spent the night of Jan. 29 sleeping outdoors without a tent. She was joined by two other people, including her boyfriend and his brother, Murray.
They lived in the Chrysler Sebring until it broke down. If any additional funding could be directed toward homeless residents, she would like to see it spent on providing a warm place for homeless residents to sleep, she said.
“They should work with the actual homeless people who are sleeping on the ground,” she said.
The survey is an important measure of the homelessness problem, but it is likely an underestimate of how many people are homeless.
Residents can decline to participate in the survey, and it does not capture those residents who may be couch surfing or staying in hotels, Korce said.
“It’s definitely one informative piece of the puzzle, but it’s not the only piece,” Korce said of the survey.
Housing Solutions staff can also gauge the scope of need for housing based on its waiting list, which has about 100 names on it, she said.
The survey also doesn’t capture the seasonal upticks in homeless residents that Durango experiences in the spring and summer months.
Richard Dilworth, a Durango man who advocates for homeless residents, said a summer and winter survey would provide a better understanding of the homelessness situation.
“Even if it was just local, it would be very helpful for our town,” he said.