HEAD COUNT: City uses volunteers, incentives to tally homeless population

Shelley McKittrick, Aurora’s first homelessness program director, said last year’s survey found there were about 420 homeless people in Aurora

AURORA | It’s just before 4:30 a.m. on a vaguely warm January morning and Shelley McKittrick is cautiously optimistic.

“It’s not too cold, but it could be so much worse” McKittrick, Aurora’s first homelessness program director, says to a group of about 30 volunteers. “For those of us who have a home, imagine what it’s like when it’s zero (degrees).”

McKittrick is standing in front of the Aurora Police Department District 1 Station readying the attendees present to participate in the annual point-in-time or PIT survey, a once-a-year exercise organized by the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative intended to approximate the number of homeless people residing in the city that particular day.

Inside the police station on the fringes of the University of Colorado Anschutz medical campus, McKittrick breaks volunteers into eight groups that will conduct a “non-disruptive enumerative count” for the next three hours across the majority of the city’s wards. They’ll use a tracking app developed by city staffers to mark the exact locations where they find people believed to be homeless.

“We’re not going to disturb them,” McKittrick said at a city council policy committee meeting regarding the count last week.

In a van driven by Lt. Tanya Pemberton, a corps officer with The Salvation Army, a group of four passengers scoured alleys, plazas and fences along East Colfax Avenue in Ward I between about 5:15 a.m. and 8 a.m. looking for evidence of inhabitants. The first person counted was an older woman resting on the curb outside the Seven-Eleven convenience store at the corner of East Colfax and Dayton Street. An ocean of neon signs was reflected in the nearby window panes, and the mobile accordion that is the 15L express bus shot by across the street.

Such is the never-changing landscape for much of the city’s homeless population.

The enumerative count was one of several events the city has hosted in recent days, and was intended to take a snapshot of Aurora’s homeless populace in conjunction with national point-in-time counts taking place across the country.

Last year, the metro Denver PIT survey tallied 5,467 people who identified as homeless across Boulder, Jefferson, Douglas, Broomfield, Denver, Arapahoe and Adams Counties, according to the report.

McKittrick said last year’s survey found there were about 420 homeless people in Aurora.

While final tallies are still being tabulated, the numbers could be slightly skewed this year due to unseasonably warm weather and more than 60 hotel and motel vouchers the city handed out the night before the count. The vouchers, distributed Monday at the Aurora Warms the Night facility off of East Colfax, could have helped temporarily shelter more than 120 people, according to McKittrick.

Still, Isaiah Adams, a homeless man who attended the count Jan. 31, was excited to see so few homeless people sprinkled around some of their typical haunts in Ward I.

“This is the first time I’ve seen a really, really low count of homeless out here,” said Adams, who’s a 19-year-old graduate of George Washington High School in Denver. “To me, it’s really cool.”

Adams is currently staying with his aunt at her Aurora apartment.

Each of the groups driving out into the city included a person who has experienced homelessness. Several city politicos and officials, including city councilwomen Sally Mounier and Angela Lawson, also volunteered.

As a part of the survey, organizers at the Comitis Crisis Center, one of two homeless shelters currently operating in the city, temporarily lifted the housing lottery Monday night, letting everyone in and offering meals, ice cream and hair cuts. Between the Comitis outreach and Aurora Warms the Night events, which both took place Jan. 30, McKittrick estimated she got as many as 400 detailed surveys from self-identified homeless people from Aurora.

Volunteers also handed out surveys in exchange for $5 King Soopers gift cards at libraries across the city following the count Tuesday morning.

“It helps us bring money into the area, it helps us plan for the services we need, and (the survey) helps us understand our outreach needs and our sheltering needs and our housing needs,” McKittrick said.

She said next year she may try to count people late at night instead of early in the morning.

“If people are going to a day labor job they go to bed really early and then they wake up really early … so I think we missed a lot that way,” she said. “This was a pilot this year and we’ll find out what we can do better next year, but it’s going to give us a good snapshot.”

McKittrick said she should have some early estimates on total numbers gleaned from the surveys sometime early next week.

“I really hate to predict what we’re going to get until we see the surveys come back, but I feel confident that we made a really big effort,” she said. “So if it’s not very much higher (than last year) then that will be a very interesting data point.”

The city is also in the process of redeveloping an abandoned building on the Anschutz medical campus to create the new Day Resource Center, where people experiencing homelessness will be able to receive services during the day. The center is being funded using marijuana tax revenues and is tentatively expected to be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., according to McKittrick.

The facility is expected to open sometime this summer.

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