GREELEY — On a cold November night, Jon Engrav went into a gas station and asked the people working to call the police on him.

He hadn’t done anything illegal, reported The Tribune.

“I told them, ‘I need a warm place to stay,'” he said.

He thought jail was his only option. The police took him to the hospital, where employees recommended the new cold weather shelter in downtown Greeley.

Guests, most of whom are men, pick on each other as they set up their beds for the night on vinyl sleeping mats. Many store sheets and quilts in their backpacks. They eat a hot dinner that donors provide at folding tables, which are cleared afterward to make room for more mats.

The small building that used to hold an American Legion is pretty snug.

Nov. 25 was Engrav’s fourth night there. He’s lucky. This cold weather shelter is the only shelter in town without a waiting list, and it almost didn’t open this year.

Catholic Charities ran a cold weather shelter inside its Guadalupe Center for years. It served as an overflow area to the full-time shelter that hosts single people and small families.

To escape the snow, blustering winds and life-threatening temperatures, people would pack into the shelter’s cafeteria and meeting rooms. Usually fewer than 10 people showed up, Executive Director Enita Kearns-Hout said.

But during the past two or three years, more people needed a warm place to stay. Last year, there were nights when 27 people showed up needing somewhere to sleep. There wasn’t room for all of them, Kearns-Hout said, and the organization finally had to tell the city it wouldn’t host the seasonal shelter on its site anymore.

This is one symptom of the area’s growing homelessness problem. Although a few people prefer the freedom of living off the grid, many families are fighting to keep a roof over their heads.

Hundreds are losing the fight. That’s becoming more common across Greeley and Weld County, and leaders are trying to conceive plans to help.

The cold weather shelter seemed like one of the easier ways to do so — compared to long-term solutions, that is. Catholic Charities partnered with the United Way, and a host of donors pitched in. After months of planning, they opened the temporary shelter inside an old American Legion on 7th Avenue.

It holds 45 beds, and it’s a bare-bones facility. Unlike the other shelters in town, such as the Guadalupe Shelter, there is no formal intake process or social services on site. It’s simply a reprieve from the elements.

It opened the first week of November. Organizers were worried about how long it took to find a location for the shelter and figure out how to pay for it. It’s typical to get snow by mid-October, but an unusually warm autumn worked in their favor. Snow didn’t fall until November.

Even though the weather hasn’t gotten too harsh yet, the new shelter has hosted almost 40 people on some nights. Organizers believe that number will jump when winter shows up and cold snaps last longer. It doesn’t appear to be as easy an answer as they had hoped.

As the new cold weather shelter flirts with capacity, the city’s other shelters and affordable housing units have surpassed theirs. Waiting lists are getting so long, some places won’t even take applications.

As apartments get harder to come by, rent prices climb and project funding gets more competitive, more people in Weld County can’t afford a home.

Demand has increased for supportive housing at all levels, and it’s grown so fast, assistance agencies just can’t keep up.

Waiting game

The United Way runs the 2-1-1 hotline, where people can call and ask for help when they realize they won’t be able to make ends meet. Maybe they can’t pay the electric bill, buy a car seat or pay rent.

The organization collects data from the calls to assess community needs, said Community Impact Director Melanie Falvo. Its employees also work directly with service providers, such as Greeley Transitional House, 1206 10th St.

One of the greatest — and most misunderstood — needs is emergency shelters.

“There’s this misperception that there’s enough space available,” she said.

But there isn’t. Some shelters will get families who call from their car, saying they are on their way. It’s not that simple.

“We are always full,” said Jodi Hartmann, Greeley Transitional House’s executive director. “It’s really been consistent for probably the past five years or so.”

The Transitional House has 12 bedrooms, where it houses families for a few months in an attempt to get them back on their feet. The idea is it’s easier to get a job and catch up on bills if the family isn’t sleeping in a car. It’s also easier when a family is becoming more financially literate thanks to the classes it offers, getting employment tips and learning how to eat better.

About 80 families spend time in the house every year. They have to apply to get into the program. Once they’re approved, families go on the waiting list.

Today, the application process is closed.

“We do this probably four or five times a year,” Hartmann said. “We stop taking applications altogether.”

Employees and caseworkers needed to catch up. They’re just about there, Hartmann said. The facility is still full, but the list is down to four families.

“We whittled down our waiting list, (but) it’s just like, as soon as you do that, you get people pouring in and applying again,” Hartmann said.

People trying to find a more permanent place to stay have to wait as well.

The Greeley-Weld Housing Authorities will close its application process on Dec. 9, said Director Thomas Teixeira.

The organization uses federal money to help people pay for rent, using housing vouchers. People have to find apartments under a monthly rent cap. They pitch in as much as they can, usually about a third of their income, and federal funds make up the rest.

The housing authority helps all kinds of people — from single young men, to elderly couples, to large families. The agency couples two programs — one serving Greeley and one serving Weld County.

Like the Greeley Transitional House, the housing authority’s waiting list has grown so long, the agency needed to clear some people first before accepting new applications.

About 900 applicants wait for housing vouchers in Greeley, Teixeira said. More than 1,000 other applicants wait for help in Weld County.

“That’s why we’re closing it,” he said. “There’s no sense in giving people false hope.”

The housing authority and the federal agency that oversees it have to make priorities. For example, someone who is disabled or elderly is going to get a voucher before an able-bodied young single person, Teixeira said. So the able-bodied may simply be out of luck.

“It’s going to be a couple years before we pull them up on the waiting list,” he said.

What’s going on

During the oil and gas boom, many workers saw a spike in wages. That brought up the average wage, as well as the demand for housing.

Even with the influx of high-paying energy sector jobs, average wages didn’t grow as quickly as the average cost of an apartment.

As people packed into the city, the rental market got tighter. For much of 2015, only 1 percent of apartments were open. Supply and demand. The rents went up.

From May 2005 to May 2015, average wages in Greeley increased about 47 percent, according to figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and Colorado Occupational Employment Statistics Wage Survey. Last year, Greeley workers made about $25 an hour on average. Back in 2005, they made about $17.

Over the same time, Greeley’s average rent jumped 60 percent — to $986 from $615.

The growth in population and rent has made it hard on the housing authority.

“We’re supposed to be able to support 446 families (in Greeley),” Teixeira said.

There are many more families who need help, but the Housing Authority is struggling to pay the housing vouchers it has already doled out.

The federal agency overseeing the authority — the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development — assigns the number of vouchers. Greeley-Weld Housing Authorities got their last voucher increase in about 2000.

“As the county has grown, we haven’t had any increase of vouchers this century,” Teixeira said.

There were about 78,000 people in Greeley in 2000, according to Census data. The city celebrated hitting the 100,000-population mark last year.

Weld County also had a surge in population in that time, to 285,000 people in 2015 from 183,000 people in 2000.

Getting a voucher can take years, and once a family gets one, they might not even be able to use it.

When people qualify for vouchers, they have 60 days to find an apartment. Because of rising rents and the authority’s tough rent caps, that has proven difficult.

For example, the cap for a two-bedroom apartment is $986, which coincides with the city’s average. But that $986 has to cover utility costs too. Residents have to keep the lights on, the trash removed and the water running, Teixeira said. So if someone is going to pay roughly $100 for all utilities, the amount of money going to only rent would be $886.

The low vacancy rates have also made it tough on the Housing Authority and its clients. Everyone is competing for apartments, and landlords can opt for tenants who have the cash over tenants who bring the baggage of housing vouchers.

Now with the oil and gas slowdown, average wages are sagging, and many Greeley families continue to struggle to make even that.

“Ninety-five percent of the families that come in here are living at the federal poverty level or below,” Hartmann said.

For 2016, that income level is $11,880 for individuals and $24,300 for a family of four. Because that number is so low, many social programs — including some sponsored by Weld County — let people qualify for help if they make 1.5 times the poverty level.

When people want to study the two sides of Greeley, they often break it into the two zip codes: 80634 in the west and 80631 in the east.

On the east side, about a quarter of the entire population is living under the federal poverty level, Hartmann said. More than 70,000 people in Weld County qualify for Medicaid, the federal and state governments’ joint program to help pay for low-income health insurance, Teixeira said. That’s about a quarter of the population.

What’s the fix?

Local experts have many ideas, of course, but most of them agree that permanent supportive housing would alleviate the problem.

Under this model, families and individuals move into apartments those programs help cover, and they get the social services many existing agencies already provide.

Catholic Charities is building a supportive housing complex on its campus, and it’s going to hold 47 units. Planners expect people living in the Guadalupe shelter will transition over to the apartments and live there as long as they feel they need to.

The complex will create a Guadalupe campus. Today, Sunrise Community Health, North Range Behavioral Health, the High Plains Library District and many other partners drop in and help residents. That help would be extended to apartment residents, as well.

Catholic Charities measures rehabilitation success, generally, with three questions: Are they earning income now? Have they built up a decent amount of savings? Have they secured housing? The housing issue, unfortunately, holds up successful rehabilitation.

Justin Raddatz, the executive director of the housing division at Catholic Charities in Denver, is overseeing the apartment project.

“The success rate of people coming out of the (Guadalupe) shelter and other similar shelters in the area is usually pretty high, except for their ability to find affordable housing,” he said. “That last one, just based on supply, is extremely hard to meet.”

In fact, only 36 percent of those coming out of the community’s emergency shelters do find permanent housing, according to a study conducted by the Corporation for Supportive Housing.

The Guadalupe apartments will open next year, and planners expect people living in the Guadalupe shelter will fill many of the units. The new Mission Village, at 23rd Avenue and 4th Street, is another low-income housing addition in the area. It had many buildings open this year, and they’re already filling up, Teixeira said.

Even with that break, hundreds — if not thousands — of families will still be waiting for a home they can afford. Almost 2,000 people are waiting for homes on the Greeley-Weld Housing Authority’s list alone, and that is only people who have applied.

It’s not easy to build low-income housing, Raddatz said. It’s prohibitively expensive to do it alone.

“Effectively, an affordable housing project cannot be built without the competitive federal tax credits,” he said. “You’ve got a 20 percent probability of getting an award, and without it, you can’t build anything.”

Federal agencies give developers a break in taxes to make up for construction costs. Only 1 in 5 projects on average get the break, and even the application process is tremendously costly, Raddatz said. For the Guadalupe apartments, Catholic Charities had to pay $40,000 to fight for the tax credits.

Another way to help families and individuals find a permanent home is a practice called “rapid rehousing.” Agencies work to either keep people from falling over the edge into homelessness or help them get back into an apartment. Usually, the program includes something like help making a deposit on a new apartment or help paying for utilities.

Weld County has about 500 people needing rapid rehousing every year, according to the Corporation for Supportive Housing study.

Agencies such as the United Way want to find a way to supply that, either by donations or seeking other funding, Falvo said.

This model is preferable for many over housing projects, most of which get built in Greeley. If someone has a life — kids in school, a job — in Fort Lupton, but they fall into homelessness, rapid rehousing helps find a home somewhere nearby.

Obviously, leaders have their work cut out for them. Area agencies have to fight an uphill battle. Funding is short for everyone. Space is hard to come by. Regulations make things tough.

Then again, Jon Engrav had a warm place to stay for a night. Maybe the community can take a cue from his wheelchair. On the back, written in silver ink, it says, “Never give up, respect, always smile, never lose hope.”