Unhoused in Denver: a microcosm of American inequity

A smiling woman sits at a rooftop table, enjoying the last of the day's sunshine.

By Linette Hidalgo | Guest Writer

Linette is a Colorado native of Indigenous and Spanish heritage. She is a thinker, natural born storyteller, and writer. She cares deeply about protecting our environment, being mindful, and helping others understand the issue of homelessness. Linette spent several years serving as the program director of Denver’s nonprofit street newspaper and currently works in philanthropy. 


“We can end homeless[ness] today.  We don’t need to invent a new vaccine. We know the cure — it’s a federal government that will build enough affordable and mixed income housing (HUD). And for a small percentage of folks we will need support service[s] (HHS).”

Sam Tsemberis
Photo by Aidan Roof on Pexels.com

2020 was a marked year in both US and world history. A global pandemic changed the way we conduct our daily lives, how we engage with each other, and created economic impacts that left many Americans either out of work or housing or job insecure. 

As the pandemic raged on, we began to see some of our most vulnerable citizens, those living unhoused, facing even harsher circumstances as shelters and day centers became both limited in their capacity and unsafe places to stay and congregate. 

My hometown of Denver has experienced rapid growth within the past decade, intense gentrification, a rising cost of living, and in turn, a rise in our unhoused population. In 2020, the visibility of our unhoused community increased and homelessness became a more pressing issue for the city. 

How Big of a Deal Is It?

In 2019 there were more than 560,000 people experiencing homelessness nationwide according to the annual HUD Point in Time Count. In Denver and the surrounding seven county region, the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative (MDHI)’s annual Point in Time (PIT) Survey counted 6,104 individuals experiencing homelessness on January 27, 2020.

PIT numbers do not fully represent the extent of homelessness as these counts are conducted on one night each year, counting only those in shelters or on the streets and supplemented by transitional housing data. The amount of unhoused people is actually larger since other definitions of homelessness include couch surfing and staying in a motel through charitable assistance, for example. Still, these numbers give us a starting point from which to work.

The State of Homelessness, a comprehensive report published by MDHI in 2020 which includes PIT numbers among other data sets, shows the extreme overrepresentation of people of color within the unhoused population, specifically of Black and Indigenous folks in the Denver Metro area

According to regional data, Indigenous people make up only 0.8 percent of the Denver metro population but represent 5.6 percent of the unhoused population, according to PIT numbers. Similarly, Black Americans are only 5.3 percent of the regional population yet account for 23.2 percent of the unhoused population. 

White and Asian Americans have significantly higher rates of housing in this region, however. The research acknowledges that it used the “federal definitions of race” which do not give Hispanic or Latino options. 

Though Black Americans make up just over 5% of total residents in the Denver metro area, the percentage of unhoused Black residents is 4.4 times that amount. Indigenous locals make up less than one percent of current residents in the region, yet 7 times that percent are unhoused!
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Poverty and housing displacement disproportionately impacts people of color and LGBTQ residents in Seattle, San Francisco, Chicago, Atlanta, Boston and cities across the country as well.

The racial disparities within the unhoused community are a reflection of the economic inequity seen in the U.S. population as a whole. A Pew report released in 2016 found that the wage gap between Black and Hispanic men and their white counterparts has not narrowed since 1980. 

Black men in 2015 were still earning 73 percent of the pay white men earned as they did in 1980. In 2016 the net worth of a white family in the U.S. was $171,000, ten times more than the typical Black family

Ultimately, the root causes of homelessness are economic, including poverty, economic insecurity, and displacement created by gentrification in cities like Denver. As the overall population grows, so does the cost of living, and thus we see a rise in the unhoused population. 

Housing First and National Resources

Photo by Alex Green on Pexels.com

The racial disparities that exist on the national economic level are replicated in subpopulations. Solutions to inequality within our economic structures are complex but begin with policies that are designed to create more proportionate wealth for all Americans and that break down systemic racism. 

To effectively address and truly progress towards ending homelessness cities must begin implementing a Housing First model. This approach prioritizes housing those experiencing homelessness and then offers support to address other factors impeding stability rather than waiting until they complete required steps to earn housing. 

The Housing First model is evidence-based, dignifying, and has proven to be more cost effective than the continued criminalization of homelessness, which has become common practice in cities across the U.S. 

Connect with advocacy groups in your community to see how you can be involved on a local level. You can also look into these resources to learn more: 

While homelessness and racial inequity can seem insurmountable or overly complex, continued community advocacy for better policies, working to shift the mindset among city leaders and fellow citizens, and a willingness to support equitable solutions will begin to create lasting solutions and change. 

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