Homelessness in Boulder
As Boulder grapples with how best to address homelessness, the Daily Camera looks at what city and community leaders have done so far, and examines some of the proposed solutions.
Introduction: Boulder seeks balance in homeless solutions
If you go
What: Boulder City Council study session on homelessness
When: 5 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Boulder Municipal Building, 1777 Broadway
Info: To read the complete City Council memo on homelessness, go to bit.ly/1pOxdw9.
For the first summer in years, the lawn between the Boulder Main Public Library and the city's Municipal Building is essentially free of drum circles and pot smoke.
On a recent weekday afternoon, a woman played with two babies on a picnic blanket and a group of older children battled with foam swords.
But there was no one else in sight.
"I wondered if someone loaded them on vans," said Chris Mitchell, a formerly homeless man who works in community outreach through FEED, which organizes outdoor meals, and with Hope Church.
"I work with them and look for them, and I can't find them."
The highly visible presence of homeless people who drink, smoke and sometimes fight has been a flashpoint for tensions in Boulder for a long time.
Over the last two years, the city has stepped up foot patrols from police, closed the parks at night and, more recently, restored the possibility of jail time for municipal offenses. But as the City Council was in the midst of getting tough on a problem that had festered for years, five homeless people died outside this spring, galvanizing activists and provoking rounds of soul-searching.
Experts and advocates agree that the long-term solution is more housing, including permanent supportive housing for the chronically homeless who make up about 15 percent of Boulder's homeless population.
Yet many people also see a desperate need for an expanded day shelter in Boulder, which would give homeless people a place to go that isn't the library or a park. Those needs end up competing for some of the same human services and housing funds, as well as political will, in a community where some wonder whether providing more services will bring more homeless people to Boulder.
The Boulder City Council meets in a study session Tuesday evening to discuss what to do about homelessness. The discussion will start at 5 p.m. with a briefing on "understanding poverty" and continue with an update on Boulder County's 10-Year Plan to Address Homelessness.
'Seemed like it got worse every year'
Billy Roberts said he lived at Seventh Street and Arapahoe Avenue for seven years before leaving last year for far northeast Boulder. Ongoing negative interactions with homeless people were the main reason he moved.
"The trail was her personal toilet, and there was zero regard for the fact that there were strangers walking by," he said, describing an incident along Boulder Creek that he called "probably the last straw."
"It seemed like it got worse every year, and the groups got bigger," he said. "Downtown Boulder can still be an amazing place, but it got to the point where it was really stressful to be down there."
In response to concerns like Roberts', the City Council increased foot patrols in the area and restored the possibility of jail time for first-time municipal offenders, something the council had abandoned in 2012 in response to the court crunch created by dozens of homeless defendants insisting on trials for their camping tickets.
Potential initiatives to address Boulder homelessness
To read the complete City Council memo on homelessness, go to bit.ly/1pOxdw9.
The following are eight key recommendations for the council to weigh:
1. Set specific goals for additional homeless housing and track progress.
2. Do a thorough evaluation of current shelter options and needs; update targets.
3. Look at the feasibility of expanding day services through Bridge House.
4. Do more to prevent eviction and resolve landlord/tenant conflicts.
5. Lobby for changes to the Section 8 voucher program so that it better keeps up with rising rents and so that Boulder gets the maximum number of vouchers it can.
6. Ensure Boulder is getting its full share of federal funding for homelessness and housing.
7. Develop prioritization system for services, rather than "first come, first served."
8. Require improved record keeping, information sharing and efficiencies as a condition of city funding.
Source: City of Boulder
City Manager Jane Brautigam used her rule-making authority to ban smoking on the municipal campus — the area between Ninth and 13th streets and between Canyon Boulevard and Arapahoe Avenue — and then the City Council made violating a city manager's rule a crime.
The City Attorney's Office asked for "exclusion orders" that barred three chronic offenders from the municipal campus area. And the City Council considered new restrictions on panhandling.
'We get these faces from the community'
One homeless woman, who asked to go by Renee, said she can feel the disgust of other people in the community, even when all she is doing is riding the bus or sitting on a park bench.
"We're not all the same," she said. "We come from different circumstances. But we get these faces from the community, if they see you with your backpack, like we're all scum.
"You have people say we should be put on a bus and sent somewhere."
And then in the midst of these efforts, people started dying in the parks and drainage ditches and underpasses of one of America's wealthiest cities. Five in a 10-week span.
Homeless advocates went on the offensive, renewing calls for year-round shelter and forming Boulder Rights Watch to call for a less punitive approach. The City Council dropped a proposed panhandling ordinance without even bringing it to a vote.
'Back away from criminalization'
In a memo to the City Council, Boulder Human Services Director Karen Rahn highlights the importance of housing in ending homelessness. Many cities have drastically reduced their street homeless population with aggressive programs to house the chronically homeless in simple apartments with intensive case management.
When 31 apartment units for chronically homeless people set to open at 1175 Lee Hill Drive this fall, the county will have all the permanent supportive housing called for in the 10-Year-Plan.
And yet the most recent Point-in-Time survey to identify homeless adults found 105 chronically homeless single adults just in Boulder.
In recent years, the Boulder Shelter for the Homeless has had to turn away more than 2,000 people per season due to lack of room, even though it is offering more "bed nights" than ever before.
Bill Cohen, a retired attorney and member of Boulder Rights Watch, said Boulder needs more coordinated services and less criminalization.
Boulder spending on homeless services
2013 Human Services Fund, homeless services
Temporary shelter and support services: $566,190
Preventing homelessness: $103,575
Permanent housing with support services: $12,000
2008-2014 City Housing Funds, homeless investments
Temporary shelter and support services: $2 million
Permanent housing and support services: $2 million
Total: $4 million
Source: City of Boulder
"We have to do a better job of making the services that are available work more efficiently, and we have to back away from criminalization," he said. "We know that this does not work, and it costs more money. When communities shift to a more service-oriented approach with cooperation between the service providers and between police, that is what makes a difference."
Isabel McDevitt, executive director of Bridge House, which operates a day shelter and provides case management services, said city leadership could play a big role in bridging community differences and encouraging cooperation to make a real difference.
"Nobody wants people to have no choice but to be on the street, whether you are coming at it from a human rights point of view or a 'this hurts my business' point of view," she said.
Joy Redstone, a social worker and addiction counselor who worked on an alternative set of recommendations with Boulder Rights Watch, also said the discussion has the potential to move Boulder beyond the current divisions.
"I hope we are in a community that is far less divided about these issues, where the conflicting needs of homeless people and community members and business people are all being weighed, and I would like to see much, much deeper collaboration from all three agencies," she said, referring to Bridge House, the Boulder Shelter for the Homeless and Boulder Outreach for Homeless Overflow.
Gary Fifer, executive director of Congregation Har HaShem, which has been heavily involved in providing services for the homeless, said he won't pretend to have all the answers or understand the big-picture funding decisions.
"Har HaShem has taken an approach of saying we can help people not be at risk on bitter cold winter nights," he said. "That's what we can do. We can also work with people selectively to help them be employed, and hopefully the money they earn can help them get back on their feet.
"You might imagine if there were more people doing what we do, more people would get back on their feet."