JEFFERSON COUNTY, Colorado — In the middle of a Colorado winter, it’s hard to imagine sleeping on the street.
On one of the coldest nights of the year, teams around the state walked through cities in search of people experiencing homelessness. This annual point-in-time count helps determine how many people are in need and how much federal funding the state gets.
It's expected the number of people living on the streets and in shelters will go up this year. The weather may make the numbers even larger. The cold weather pushed more people into shelters Monday night, likely skewing the numbers.
All cities and counties can do is count people who need services, no matter where they are. It's up to the federal government to decide how that funding is dispersed.
"It’s dangerously cold. If we find someone this morning, it probably means they spent the night out last night where we had life-threatening temperatures," said Cassie Ratliff, Chief Impact Officer with Family Tree, who has volunteered with the county for 14 years to help with the point-in-time count.
In Jefferson County, homelessness went up 11% from 2020 to 2022. But the number of people surveyed who said they were homeless for the first time was up 257% in just two years.
Families who are homeless decreased in the count by 34%, and homeless veterans decreased over the two-year period by 40%.
"Suburban homelessness sometimes looks a little different than what you might see in the urban or Denver metro areas. You see a lot of larger encampments there. You have more shelters. We are seeing a lot more encampments out here in Jefferson County," Ratliff said.
"What we know here in Jefferson County is that the numbers are still on the rise," she said. "The numbers for unsheltered are rising. The numbers for unsheltered families are rising. You see the visibility of homelessness much more than 10 or 15 years ago."
It was 14 degrees on Tuesday morning as Ratliff and her team arrived in Wheat Ridge to begin their count. Outside a Costco parking lot, they found a man packing up his tent. Law enforcement had given the man a ticket and told him he needed to find a new place to sleep.
"We don’t have a lot of sheltering options out here in Jefferson County," Ratliff said.
"He’s out here surviving and then gets a ticket," she said. "If you don’t pay your ticket, you get a warrant."
Before Ratliff leaves, the man asks her to pass something along to others.
"This is how cold it was," Ratliff said, holding a frozen water bottle. "One of the folks that we surveyed today gave us water. He has extra water and wants us to hand it out. They’re frozen solid."
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