Denver-area shelters beefing up, as number of homeless is expected to grow beyond current 31,000

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Part of a homeless camp near 25th and Arapahoe, Denver.

DENVER (KDVR) — Homeless shelter capacity is expanding, and according to leaders, they’ll need it.

The last week has seen two shelters options expand. A collaboration of homeless advocates announced Denver’s first ever sanctioned homeless camps to be set in Capitol Hill, to neighborhood backlash.

Tuesday, Mile High United Way announced a partnership with Denver’s St. Francis Shelter to convert United Way’s available Conference Center into an overflow day shelter that will be staffed by St. Francis Center.

Tom Luehrs, executive director at St. Francs Shelter, said the expansion could not be more welcome.

“What we’re running out of is space,” Luerhs said. “Mile High United Way was overly gracious enough to allow us to us their space. It really worked out well for us being two blocks away and having a really big space to open up.”

Space for homeless shelters of all kinds faces huge challenges from the Denver metro’s explosive growth in the last ten years. Land is scarcer and much more expensive, driving up both commercial and rental costs.

The pandemic added a new layer. Luehrs said St. Francis Shelter formerly served 300-400 people experiencing homelessness a day. COVID-19 restrictions, alongside wintertime 24/7 service, cut that number down to 150.

The winter brings a cycle of stressors for homeless shelters along with increased demand.

“In winter, there is in increase but also people seeking longer time at our facility,” Luerhs said. “Many of our people can work in the summer because there’s more work available. As the weather turns cold that job might disappear.”

Indeed, Luerhs said the Level Red restrictions have hurt his people. Though construction and other transitional work sectors are still strong, restaurant work is off the table. As the pandemic wears on, Luerhs said he expects it to add numbers to Colorado’s homeless.

“There’s a very good chance there could be more people who experience homelessness,” he said. “It’s something we’re thinking about and trying to respond to. That would be a big challenge for our community.”

Data confirms his fears. Columbia University research projects an increase of 40%-45% in homelessness due to the pandemic economy.

There are already tens of thousands of homeless people in the Denver metro’s six counties.

Monday, advocacy group Metro Denver Homeless Initiative released a comprehensive study on the Denver metro’s homeless numbers, demographics, shelter use and contributing factors.

According to information gleaned from the U.S. Housing and Urban Development’s homeless management information systems, the Denver metro counties had 31,207 homeless individuals using services in that year. Up to a third are children. The U.S. Department of Education tracked 12,879 students experiencing homelessness.

Homelessness is not an urban issue, either. MDHI’s research plants more homeless people in the suburbs than in the city.

Only 14% of the Denver metro’s homeless students are in Denver Public Schools. Adams and Arapahoe counties together account for half the state’s homeless student population.

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