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Jeffco surveying homelessness across the county

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By Deborah Swearingen

Earlier this week, Jefferson County joined the rest of the metro area in conducting a yearly point-in-time survey of homelessness across the county.

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The survey, a nationwide initiative, helps communities understand trends and respond to the needs of people experiencing homelessness. The information also is provided to the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development. In Jeffco, the effort began at sundown Monday and continued until after sundown the following day.

In 2017, metro Denver counted 5,116 homeless people in its point-in-time survey, with approximately 1,500 to 2,000 of those in Jeffco. Despite the data it provides, Jeffco Human Services understands that the count is not a perfect portrayal of homelessness in the area.

“We think there’s way more than that,” said Lynnae Flora, deputy director.

This was evident Monday evening at Red Rocks Church in Lakewood, one of four sites where Jeffco Human Services hosted a magnet event with food and giveaways. In a two-hour span, approximately 15 homeless people showed up to enjoy a meal and be counted. Throughout the 24-hour period, there also were similar events at the Columbine, Arvada and Belmar libraries.

In suburban Jefferson County, homelessness looks a bit different than it does in a major metropolitan area, and this is something county employees fight on a regular basis.

“It just doesn’t look the same as it does in Denver,” said Kathryn Otten, director of Jeffco’s housing and integration division. “Because we don’t have one particular area where, you know, 300 people congregate. We have multiple areas where we have five or six (people.)

“Plus, we have creek beds, and we have bridges, and we have hiding spots.”

Meleny Garcia, 39, of Lakewood can attest to this. She moved to Colorado from Texas in May 2017 to attend the Art Institute of Colorado and became homeless in October after a bad situation with a roommate. Garcia now lives in her car on the streets of Jefferson County.

“Not everybody’s homeless for the same reasons. Everybody (has) a very unique story,” she said. “ … Even though we’re homeless, not all of us look homeless.”

She heard about the event at Red Rocks Church through Jeffco Human Services and said the agency has helped a lot in her short time without a home.

“With help, homelessness can be a thing of the past,” she said.

While his story is a bit different than Garcia’s, Jason S., who goes by “Turtle” but preferred not to give his last name, had many of the same thoughts.

Jason, who is college educated, graduated from Alameda High School and attended college in Greeley but said he ultimately fell into a rut. He is nearing five years on the streets and said experiencing homelessness has provided him with a great deal of perspective and taught him not to take life for granted.

Living on the streets requires some know-how, particularly on cold winter nights. Homeless people know to bundle up, and they learn places to sleep without getting in trouble with business owners or law enforcement.

“Being homeless wasn’t a choice,” Jason said. “You kind of get used to how to handle it. Be prepared. Know the different churches, the clothes bank, the food bank, where to get bus tickets, where to get sleeping bags.”

Many people who are experiencing homelessness, particularly those with mental health issues, may shy away from coming forward to organizations like Jeffco Human Services to ask for help. In this sense, it’s important to learn tips to better communicate and build trust.

“It’s all about relationships,” Flora said.

Contact reporter Deborah Swearingen at dswearingen@evergreenco.com or 303-350-1042. Follow her on Twitter @djswearingen.