Annual Denver metro count highlights hurdles in climbing out of homelessness

Englewood-Littleton area one of many targeted in Point in Time survey


Going to college but still living on the South Platte River. Surviving on the streets for years after a divorce. Two brothers, nearly 60 years old, still searching for foliage to stay outdoors undetected.

These are among the stories people experiencing homelessness shared with volunteers for the annual Point in Time survey, an effort to count the number of people sleeping outdoors in metro areas around the country.

Each January, volunteers from churches, human services departments, nonprofits and law enforcement spread out across the Denver metro area, and around the nation, to conduct the one-day survey. Last year, the survey found 5,755 people homeless across the Denver metro area.

Housing prices skyrocketed over the past decade in the Denver area, but the cost of a roof overhead isn’t the only factor that pushes people into homelessness. And many of them grew up in the area where they now survive outside.

“I got laid off and divorced, lost my house,” said Billy Welty, 51, who grew up in Englewood. “I ended up on the streets. I had a motor home for a while and had a truck and camper. I had to sell them just to eat.”

Welty has been homeless for 16 years off-and-on. He came to Giving Heart Englewood, a homeless services center, for a Jan. 28 event where volunteers interviewed people for the Point in Time survey. The night before, Welty slept at a bus stop. That day, he’d likely stay on a local greenbelt, he said. Often, he’ll sleep all day and walk around all night to stay warm.

Asked what has kept him homeless for so long, Welty said: “If you really want to know, it’s employment. If you can’t get a job, you can’t get a roof. I had over 100 applications out there in the last few years.”

But getting calls back didn’t matter when his phone stopped working.

Homeless individuals outdoors often must play a game of bouncing from place to place, hoping law enforcement doesn’t uproot them.

“If you go to the Platte (River), Denver cops will run you out. If you’re in Littleton, police will (move you). Englewood sends you to Littleton, Denver sends you to Littleton or Englewood, or vice-versa,” Welty said.

One familiar face on the river is D.J. Morrison, a 41-year-old who has attended Metropolitan State University of Denver for the past few years with the help a student loan and financial aid. He weathered 2 1/2 years on a housing waiting list through Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, and his number finally came up, he said. He’s hoping to be housed soon.

People experiencing homelessness often hang around the Auraria college campus’s Tivoli building and library, a trend that has increased since fall 2018, Morrison said. A free meal service operates at the campus each day, he added.

Near the time that a Denver County judge ruled in December 2019 that Denver’s urban camping ban is unconstitutional based on protections against cruel and unusual punishment, Morrison said more people appeared to move to the Platte.

“I’ve seen tents just pop up out of nowhere on the river, next to the light rail (and) in vacant lots” around that time, Morrison said.

Denver police announced they would no longer enforce the city’s urban camping ban after the ruling, but they resumed enforcement in January pending an appeal of the case.

Morrison finds enough resources to survive in the metro area, but he said transportation — specifically bus passes — is a top need for homeless people in the area.

Brothers Thomas Trevithick, 59, and Timothy Trevithick, 58, stay in the Englewood-Littleton area and also came to Giving Heart during the survey event. They avoid the Platte River — calling it too cold, crowded and dangerous — instead dwelling in foliage and bushes and trying “not to get busted,” Timothy Trevithick said.

He ended up homeless about two years ago after losing a job, and his brother has been homeless for decades, owing to problems with his father that began in his childhood, Thomas Trevithick said.

Both brothers have had strokes, one in 2006 and the other about seven years later, they said. They grew up in the Arapahoe High School area in what’s now Centennial.

Affordable housing is the main challenge for them.

“That’s No. 1,” Timothy Trevithick said. “It’s hard enough to do anything without eating right and sleep and getting your prescriptions.”

The Point in Time survey doesn’t catch everyone experiencing homelessness.

At GraceFull Cafe, a pay-what-you-can restaurant in Littleton that caters to everyone, including the area’s burgeoning population without homes, Frances Radford and Rick Kible said though they often sleep outdoors as they struggle to find housing, they hadn’t encountered any volunteers with surveys, who left the cafe hours before Radford and Kible showed up for lunch. Depending on the night, they might not even fit the survey’s definition of homeless.

“Sometimes we stay with a guy we know, but he’s pretty unstable, and some nights he won’t let us come by,” said Kible, 61. “Those nights we usually find a spot under a tree.”

Radford said she’d been homeless for about a year, after an apartment manager told her she had to stop allowing friends to move into her place, or hand over the keys.

“I’m stubborn,” said Radford, 81. “I handed over my keys. I wasn’t about to kick out my friends.”

Kible said he’s been homeless many times over the past 16 years. Struggling with alcoholism, Kible said he can manage to hold down a place while he’s sober, but relapses have cost him homes and friends.

Both said they’re grateful for GraceFull Cafe, where they can eat a healthy meal in peace and comfort without judgment.

GraceFull Cafe’s owner, Heather Greenwood, said the survey is just one data point toward addressing a large and nebulous issue.

“Quantitative data is a piece of the puzzle, but you can’t measure the qualitative portion,” Greenwood said. “Nobody is measuring what impact you can have by smiling and saying hello to someone on hard times. I think before we can talk solutions, we have to have empathy.”

— Reporter David Gilbert contributed to this report.


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