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Boulder Council unanimously approves opening severe weather shelter nightly through March

Decision reversed from last year

The homeless encampment at Mapleton and 30th Street along Goose Creek path in Boulder.
 (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)
The homeless encampment at Mapleton and 30th Street along Goose Creek path in Boulder. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

In a reversal of a decision denying a similar proposal made just a year ago, Boulder City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to keep the severe weather homeless shelter open every night through the end of March.

With four newly elected Council members since the matter was discussed last year, the city’s severe weather shelter operator, the nonprofit Bridge House, will shelter homeless nightly at 2691 30th St., without regard to temperature forecasts.

After March, the shelter will return to operating when it did previously until May: on nights when forecasts are for 32 degrees or lower and no precipitation, or 38 degrees when precipitation is expected. The proposal was brought forward by Councilman Aaron Brockett.

A majority of Council last year declined to vote to open the shelter nightly in winter months, citing a desire to continue the same parameters for collecting data on the county-wide coordinated entry program meant to help the homeless navigate social services and obtain permanent housing.

Mayor Sam Weaver last year declined to support the shelter opening every night for the entire cold-weather season and instead proposed a compromise that would have raised the temperature triggers for when it opens. This year he said the relatively low number of extra nights the shelter would be open this year if it ran every night through March instead of on nights with lows below the thresholds convinced him to support the proposal this time.

Based on data collected over recent severe weather sheltering seasons, the shelter when tied to temperature thresholds is open more than half of nights over two week increments from December into early April, according to Boulder Housing and Human Services Director Kurt Firnhaber.

“I’m going to be watching for in the data, whether this policy is diverting people from getting into navigation services and coordinated entry,” Weaver said, referring to the countywide systems of social services seeking to place homeless people into housing, often subsidized, as a solution to homelessness.

Councilman Adam Swetlik said “this is the very beginning” of this Council attempting to improve its policies surrounding homelessness and associated services.

Council is set to discuss the issue and potential new directions to explore for tackling the issue in April.

Those talks could include implementing a non-shelter area to rest with sleeping bags or blankets without fear of receiving a ticket for violating the city’s urban camping ban, safe areas to park in for homeless people sleeping in their cars or a tiny home villages for the homeless, among other possible ideas.

Councilwoman Rachel Friend reiterated her desire to consider easing the burden or altogether repealing the urban camping ban, which is enforced with citations from police more often in Boulder than Denver.

“I’m also sensitive to wanting to follow data and not to encourage people to not use what’s going to be healthiest,” Friend said.

Firnhaber said the severe weather shelter’s more frequent operation could attract more homeless people to Boulder.

“We have concerns about it drawing more individuals to the community and us being able to have the services to support those additional individuals,” Firnhaber said. “However I think there is a good communication plan that has been implemented by Bridge House over the last couple years talking about the capacity that we do have for programs. I think that’s certainly been pretty effective.”

He also confirmed he told Councilwoman Mary Young that other cities, including as far away as Colorado Springs, send homeless people to Boulder via ride-sharing services.

“I would say it’s prevalent enough to have an impact,” Firnhaber said of the influx of homeless to Boulder from nearby. “… That is something we want to start collecting data on.”

There has been some data collected on that trend, Firnhaber said, but it has been less reliable than the city’s other data.

“We have started reaching out to those places that have referred people to Boulder,” Firnhaber said.

The city will look at whether the policy of nightly sheltering at the 30th Street facility through March draws enough new people experiencing homelessness to detract from officials’ work with longer-term Boulder-area homeless residents. The city will also see if it makes engaging with social services less attractive for the people already here, ahead of next year’s cold-weather season and decide whether to keep the new plan in place. A record number of homeless people in Boulder obtained housing between 2018 and 2019.

“Whatever we do with making sure people don’t become harmed on our streets through this shelter program, we need to make sure that we keep focus on the people who are long-term homeless in Boulder,” Weaver said. “We have seen from our data there is a large contingent of folks who use this who have been here less than six months, and that’s OK, we want to keep them from harm as well. But those folks may or may not stay on longer, so our focus has to be on getting people into housing.”