By Sarah Ford | Art by Book Williams, Jr.
The lights of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless are long dark when the two men meet outside its doors, silhouetted by the dim streetlights of Broadway. They wear light coats against the brisk night, each carrying a bulging backpack and a clipboard under his arm. Although it’s 8 p.m. on a late January night, their breath does not mist as they laugh, standing close together in a companionship built by ten years of partnership.
Kevin Raleigh and Bernie O’Connell decide to begin their work on the 16th Street Mall, an area mapped by experience for the partners. In their years of outreach, they have covered almost every corner of Denver, but for both, their work began at the Mall.
“You try to avoid getting too involved,” Raleigh explains during the drive over. It is what he and O’Connell describe as a “healthy callous,” a barrier worn into their lives out of necessity after years of living so close, and holding on so tightly.
Together, they have 21 years of experience in street outreach. Both met as members of the night crew for their respective organizations, traveling to corners of the city to deliver emergency provisions and information to Denver’s homeless. Now, O’Connell continues as part of the outreach team for the St. Francis Center, while Raleigh has switched to a supervision role as team lead for the Denver Street Outreach Collaborative with the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless.
“You miss it, though,” O’Connell teases him.
They don’t talk much about their task this night; still, the conversation flows easily. Raleigh asks O’Connell about women, they chuckle over dating and the prospect of creating an account with match.com. But as they approach the first man at the mall huddled under the overhang of a storefront entryway, the jokes fade.
“How are you doing?” O’Connell asks, approaching easily. “Do you have a place to stay tonight?”
It’s a question that will be asked thousands of times that night, January 26, the national night of the annual Point-In-Time (PIT) Survey. On that night, volunteers across Metro Denver try to count the number of homeless by conducting one-on-one surveys with them. This is Raleigh and O’Connell’s mission on the Mall: to count, to survey.
Run by the Housing and Urban Development office, the PIT is meant to give a snapshot of homelessness in communities nationwide, providing numbers that will be cited by service providers, government agencies, and nonprofits for the rest of the year.
In Denver, officials say there has previously been trouble reaching the estimated 11,000 homeless in the widespread metro area. But a series of changes implemented this year by the Metropolitan Denver Homeless Initiative (MDHI) may be the first step toward making data collection more targeted, reliable, and useful in connecting Denver’s homeless with resources.
“While we appreciate all of the PIT volunteers and assistance, we recognize it’s just a sliver of a snapshot,” said Gary Sanford, executive director of MDHI. “In the past it really hasn’t told us much more than who we talked to that night.”
Results of the survey are largely reliant on uncontrollable factors, including volunteer turnout and weather. Last year, the PIT Survey found 5,812 homeless in Denver, significantly down from the 11,167 found in 2013.The disconnect between the two years, Sanford says, demonstrates the unreliability of the numbers gathered during the PIT survey—it doesn’t necessarily mean a marked decrease in homelessness in Denver.
“I think we have to be a lot more coordinated across the seven counties,” Sanford said. He admits that MDHI has struggled to reach the thousands across Denver’s seven-county region, resulting in hundreds potentially falling through the gaps in communication. “I think, right now, it’s pretty fragmented.” Sanford said. “I think the burden is really on the person in need.”
Hoping to bring more accuracy to the numbers reported through the PIT Survey, this year Sanford and MDHI introduced reforms in the method of data gathering. These include looking for ways to get statistical samplings of homeless populations and extrapolating data.
This year, the governor’s office and Denver Foundation supported these efforts, helping to fund the purchase of Safeway gift cards and RTD passes to help encourage people to fill out the Vulnerability Index Service Prioritization Decision Assistance Tool (VI-SPDAT).
Survey-takers were incentivized to fill out the VI-SPDAT, which helps to track homeless clients and connect them to housing resources. It’s more than just another way of gathering information on people, though. The hope is that, using VI-SPDAT, housing providers are given names and numbers to reconnect with those contacted in the survey to share housing opportunities that become available, an option not provided by the old census-style Point-In-Time survey.
It is challenges in the system that frustrate Raleigh and O’Connell as well. Of the hundreds he has handed his card, O’Connell says, only two have ever called him back. Even when people work within the system for housing, it’s something that can take years to accomplish.
This night, he hands his card to a few more potential clients as they work their way along the Mall. For some it’s the only exchange of information that will happen; several are too mentally ill or incapacitated to answer the questions of the survey, and will be unaccounted for in the numbers of the final report. In a census-style survey, incomplete surveys cannot be counted, and will be discarded during the data entry process later. There is no method to record those who volunteers come across that are unable or unwilling to fill out a survey, despite their homeless status. Hundreds experiencing homelessness have slipped through the cracks of the PIT survey, invisible even among a group commonly left in society’s periphery.
This is what MDHI plans to address through extrapolating data from this year’s survey: counting the hundreds that otherwise will slip through the cracks of the census-style methodology. They will pull information on those surveyed in locations such as transitional housing, using it to make estimations on the statuses of those who didn’t want to complete a survey or couldn’t be reached, through a system called the Homeless Management Information System (HMIS).
“You’ve got some statistically sound ways to do this,” Sanford said. “This old way of we don’t count people unless we interview them face-to-face is such an underestimation of what the true need is out there.”
Through HMIS data, clients who have already provided information asked on the Point-In-Time Survey to transitional housing will not be asked to re-submit information. Instead, the data will be drawn from the housing system records.
Further down the Mall, O’Connell spots his client Pam across the street, who he says many have jokingly called “the Bag Lady,” referencing the many garbage bags she wears and carries with her. He plans to talk to her later—years of working with Pam have helped him build a rapport, but she is easily put off around others.
“I’ve been doing this for 11 years,” O’Connell says. “We’re around them [our clients] more than our families.”
Their work on the Mall ends with an almost 20-minute conversation with a man named Donald, sitting on a chair in the center of the Mall with a bag by his feet, a notebook fallen halfway out, a grey hood pulled over his thin face.
They can’t complete a survey with Donald, either. He tells them story after story, about his telepathy, playing Wolverine in X-Men, about getting shot over 20 times. In the end, Raleigh writes his name and number in huge scrawl on the notebook and asks him to call if he needs to find shelter or wants to start the process to find housing. O’Connell and Raleigh head back to the car, deciding to finish the night after checking one more spot they know people gather to sleep.
“People don’t make it more than two or three years without learning boundaries,” Raleigh says of their work. “Our job is to have this weird intimacy with people. We are kind of professional, and we’re kind of not.”
As they get on one of the free mall rides, Pam climbs onto the other end of the bus and sits among the other passengers. O’Connell says that she is on track for housing after years of work, only a few months away.
“We’re pretty close,” he tells Raleigh. “We’ve never been this close.”
Pam is one of the chronically homeless the PIT Survey aims to address in particular this year, along with homeless veterans. These are the groups MDHI told this year’s PIT volunteers to encourage to fill out the VI-SPDAT information when they come across them during the survey. It is part of the 25 Cities Initiative, a project in which 25 participating cities, including Denver, aim to eliminate veteran homelessness by 2015 and chronic homelessness by 2016.
Some additional help will come from HUD, which announced earlier this year that Denver will be one of the cities awarded additional grant funding. Sanford says the money will largely be directed towards housing vouchers for the chronically homeless and veterans.
In the 2014 survey, 830 people were classified as chronically homeless, and 437 people, or 13.3 percent of the homeless population, were veterans.
The success of the new survey efforts and methodologies cannot begin to be gauged until the numbers are crunched and the results reported, which will not happen until May.
Tonight, O’Connell and Raleigh finish their work checking in on a group who says they’ve been asked about the survey several times already. They offer everyone an extra pair of socks and some snacks from their backpacks, chat amiably, and bid everyone a good night.
They are headed back to their meeting place on Broadway by 10 p.m., drawing a line for the night on a job where it is so often blurred. Surveys will be collected for another three days from day shelters and other providers, and the numbers analyzed and crunched for months. But there is nothing else that can be done tonight.
Tomorrow, while more surveys are collected, O’Connell and Raleigh will return to regular work: meeting with clients, doing street outreach, directing volunteers. Maybe Pam will take another step toward housing. Maybe Donald will call. ■