Family, veteran and young adult homelessness growing in Boulder County

Image by Jeremy Brooks via Flickr Creative Commons

Friday, May 7, 2021

Homelessness increased for the third straight year in Boulder County, following a national rise in homelessness. Similarly, more people were living outside in early 2020 than 2019 — and that was before a pandemic widely expected to worsen these trends. Homelessness among families, veterans and young adults also grew, according to an annual count, as did the number of people fleeing violence in the home.

City council on Tuesday will receive its yearly update on the state of local homelessness and services set up to help unhoused adults. Elected officials will also consider new rules to discourage encampments in public spaces; namely, banning tents and propane tanks.

Here, a look at data, compiled from city council notes, Homeless Solutions Boulder County, Boulder Shelter for the Homeless and Metro Denver Homeless Initiative:

How many unhoused people are in Boulder?

That’s hard to know for sure. We have two sources of data on this — though both are likely vastly under-counting people experiencing homelessness. Homelessness includes people staying temporarily with friends/family or in hotels, so the unhoused persons living on the streets and/or in cars (unsheltered, in formal speak) are just a fraction of all those experiencing homelessness. Boulder’s two counts come from:

  • Metro Denver Homeless Initiative’s Point-in-time count
  • Coordinated entry screenings

MDHI Point-in-time count: 2020
678 unhoused persons in Boulder County
 – 118 not sheltered
– 336 living in emergency shelter
– 225 living in transitional housing

2019: 623 unhoused persons; 53 not sheltered
2018: 592 unhoused persons; 158 unsheltered
2017: 600 unhoused persons; 129 unsheltered
2016: 726 unhoused persons; 129 unsheltered
2015: 658 unhoused persons; 144 unsheltered

In 2020, there were:
– 53 unhoused veterans
– 55 unhoused families (221 total people; family defined by children under age 18)
– 47 unaccompanied youth (under age 25 without kids)
– 104 people fleeing violence in the home

The 2020 point-in-time count reveals that all these groups experienced increased homelessness from 2019: More veterans, more families, more unaccompanied youth and more people fleeing domestic violence than the previous year. See the full 2020 Point-in-Time count

Coordinated entry
2020: 794 unhoused, single adults accessed screening in the City of Boulder
(Author’s note: Staff notes say 1,088 screened through CE in Boulder. A time difference likely accounts for this difference: Staff data is for March 2020-Feb. 2021. The above figure was provided by Homeless Solutions Boulder County.)

This figure does not include people who have not completed CE screening. According to city staff, this could be 100-200 individuals over the course of the year.

What services are available?

Diversion: The only option available for those who self-report residing in Boulder County for fewer than six months, this most often takes the form of paid transportation out of town to “reconnect” with family, friends or homeless services, but can also include

  • Help negotiating with landlords to avoid eviction 
  • Connection to other resources to maintain housing
  • Transportation assistance (example car broke down while individual was in transit to another location and needs assistance in car repairs) or needs to get to another location for a job

Navigation: This includes work with a case manager in cases where a path to housing is shorter and less challenging. Navigation services include but are not limited to

  • General case management
  • Financial assistance for housing
  • Legal assistance
  • Referrals and linkage to county and other community programs as needed

Housing-focused shelter: Individuals who have “disabling conditions” — as 57% of unhoused persons screened through CE in 2019 did — are put on the path to housing. The majority of beds at the Boulder Shelter are reserved for this group, where people live until they are placed. This is most often Permanently Supportive Housing (housing + services).

Unlike the point-in-time count, coordinated entry screenings are cumulative throughout the year. That is, there are people entering into and exiting out of homelessness regularly, so should not be read as a figure of who is homeless right now, but rather who experienced homelessness at some point in the past year.

Again, they capture only a fraction of the total unhoused population. All services available through the HSBC system are for single adults. Family homelessness is handled by other organizations.

In 2020, of the 794 people screened in the city,
460 went to Diversion (58%)
108 went to Navigation (13.6%)
226 went to Housing-focused shelter (28.4%)

Who used the services available to them?

81 of 460 were diverted (17.6%)

61 of 108 used services (56.5%)

Housing-focused shelter
79 of 226 were housed (35%)

What happens to people who don’t access services — or even those that do — is unclear: Boulder and HSBC don’t track outcomes, relying on individual providers to do so. Outreach workers suggest that many of the people living in encampments have attempted to use services at some point, but exact figures are hard to come by.

Boulder Beat requested data on how many individuals placed in housing remain housed. Boulder Housing Partners deferred to Boulder Shelter for the Homeless. As of Friday evening, those figures were promised but had not been provided.

What about winter sheltering?

One good measure of the unsheltered is who accesses emergency winter sheltering. Anyone who goes through coordinated entry is eligible for up to 60 nights of Severe Weather Shelter, provided between October and May, roughly. People who meet the residency requirement do not have a limit on the number of SWS stays.

In the 2019-2020 season, some 558 unique individuals accessed SWS. That doesn’t mean there are 558 people living outside in Boulder at any one time, Boulder’s homeless policy manager, Vicki Ebner, explained.

“People are living unsheltered all the time, bounce from shelter to SWS and back, etc.” Ebner wrote in response to emailed questions. “Some are exited from homelessness, some re-engage with services, some are passing through, and some leave the community after being here for a while.”

The point-in-time count is a better measure for how many people are living unsheltered in Boulder at any one time. MDHI reported 118 unsheltered persons in early 2020, in line with the BTHERE outreach team, who has interacted with 129 unique individuals since Feb. 2021, and staff’s own estimates that there are between 100 and 150 people living in camps in the city.

On average, each person used 4 nights of SWS last winter. Eight people used 60 or more nights, according to Ebner, and all had resided in Boulder County for six months or more.

What is Boulder spending on homelessness?

Per notes to council, 2021 spending on homelessness was $3.22 million, or just under 1% of total city spending. All funding comes from Housing and Human Services, which in 2021 has a budget of $19,854,114.

2021 homeless services spending: $3,220,297

Services: $290,000
– Diversion: $100,000
– Navigation: $90,00
– Outreach: $100,000

Shelter: $502,922
– Boulder Shelter for the Homeless: $230,000
– Severe Winter Sheltering: $272,922

Housing: $2,427,435
– Permanent supportive housing: $921,875
– City-sponsored PSH project: $1,405,500
– Other housing: $100,000

Note: This represents spending on single adult homeless only, not funds directed to preventing homelessness (through rental assistance); payments to the Emergency Family Assistance Association, which responds to family homelessness; or Safehouse Progressive Alliance for Nonviolence, which runs a shelter for those experiencing violence in the home.

Enforcement costs (to remove encampments) are accounted for separately. Total estimates of spending on encampments has not been reported. Utilities Director Joe Taddeucci said the department spends has spent “several hundred thousands” in the past 2-3 years. Based on notes to city council, Boulder spent $170,000 on removal and $10,000 for private security in 2020, though that does not account for all spending (such as police). City council recently approved an additional $2.7 million in enforcement spending over the next 18 months.

Spending on homelessness services decreased in 2021 compared to the past three years, though is considerably higher than before the coordinated approach was adopted in late 2017. According to data shared with Boulder Beat, spending on services reached its peak in 2019. These figures, however, do not include money directed to housing — an expense which dwarfed all other homelessness expenditures in 2021.

Homeless services spending (does not including housing)

2021: $2,316,187 (-8.6%)
2020: $2,535,030 (-3.8%)
2019: $2,635,555 (+2%)
2018: $2,584,910 (+76%)
2017: $1,465,271 (+804%)
2016: $162,145 (+547%)
2015: $25,041

Note: These figures differ from those provided to council because they do not include spending categorized as housing expenditures. However, these numbers do include more services expenditures than those shared with council — payments to EFAA and SPAN, among other things. Boulder Beat is working to get a more complete set of data from the city.

Boulder spends more on homeless services than Fort Collins ($813,000) and Longmont ($827,745), according to staff notes. Colorado Springs’ spending ($3.7 million) was also included; that city spent just over 1.1% of its 2020 budget on homelessness.

COVID changes

The city of Boulder will be able to recoup a huge amount of spending for homeless services during the pandemic, including hotel stays and the COVID Recovery Center. For example, just $60,000 of 2020-201 spending on the SWS was not reimbursable through federal sources, staff told Boulder Beat in September.

Some 278 unique individuals used the CRC, which cost $280 per bed to run. The facility was initially staffed by volunteers, but this became untenable, and paid staff quickly took over. More than 200 people volunteered at the CRC, according to staff; a full list of names is included in notes to council.

People experiencing homelessness are more vulnerable to COVID than the general population due to their overall poorer health — as many as 30% of unhoused people have chronic lung disease, the New York Times reported last year — and congregate living. Predictions were that COVID would devastate the unhoused community.

In Boulder, 98 total cases have been identified among persons experiencing homelessness, according to staff. A higher proportion of unhoused people (8%) had COVID than Boulder County’s general population (6.28%) but “less than expected,” staff wrote.

“No significant hospitalizations or deaths of people experiencing homelessness due to COVID-19 have been reported.”

— Shay Castle,, @shayshinecastle

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