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‘Move on to where?’ Questions arise after Boulder police clear fire-prone homeless encampment

Council to discuss possible new approaches in April

Carole Cassio, who lives on Pearl Street near the Sunshine Creek stream that feeds into Boulder Creek, said she saw someone move belongings into this tunnel in the 200 block of Pearl Street that serves as a stream bed. (Sam Lounsberry / Staff Writer)
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Heaps of trash that include beer and energy drink cans, clothing and other human belongings remained strewn alongside Boulder Creek beneath the Ninth Street bridge Monday after police last week cleared out about 20 people illegally using the area as an encampment for months.

With Boulder’s urban camping ban still intact, and a City Council majority in support of police clearing campsites as of January, some residents and government leaders believe there is a major question that hasn’t been answered.

Thomas John Hamilton, 31, who is homeless, lies down Feb. 17, 2019, steps away from where Boulder police cleared an illegal encampment along Boulder Creek beneath the Ninth Street bridge last week. (Sam Lounsberry / Staff Writer)

Where should people experiencing homelessness be directed to go by officers clearing encampments if they’re unfit or unable to use a homeless shelter?

Carole Cassio, who lives on Pearl Street near the Sunshine Creek stream that feeds into Boulder Creek, said she witnessed a person making multiple trips to take belongings into the tunnel below Canyon Boulevard that acts as a stream bed over the weekend, and believes it was someone who was cleared out of the Ninth Street encampment. A chair and a cart of clothing, among other belongings, were inside the tunnel Monday.

“It’s a super tough issue, but we have to address it, because the status quo is just not tenable,” Cassio said. “I just don’t think homeless people have a right to pitch a tent and lay their gear anywhere the want. That’s not right. You have to make it uncomfortable for them to be in Boulder. I hate to say that, but that I’m afraid is the bottom line. Boulder has been extremely hospitable. … It may not be politically correct.”

Alternative camping options

Cassio said people experiencing homelessness have used the tunnel to camp in before, but she found it problematic that the campsite clearance upstream may have led to people relocating to illegally camp in the tunnel near her home. She supports the city exploring “providing (the homeless) a place to be that isn’t impacting residential neighborhoods.”

Council members Adam Swetlik and Rachel Friend have pushed the city to analyze just that, and Longmont has started a pilot for safe places to park overnight for a period of time for people living in their vehicles.

The idea to consider allowing homeless people to park their cars or pitch a tent in a designated area where urban camping violations will not be issued has gained steam. A federal court ruling that does not apply to Colorado, and a separate Denver court ruling that does not apply to Boulder, found urban camping bans unconstitutional when shelter space or another alternative to illegal camping is unavailable.

“When police say, ‘We’re not putting people in jail, we’re not issuing tickets, we’re telling people to move on,’ the inevitable question is move on to where?” Mark Silverstein, legal director of American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, said in an interview last month. His organization has challenged the legality of urban camping ban violations.

Both Friend and Swetlik said they wished the conversation Council is set to have in April about potential pilot projects that could include safe parking and camping areas, as well as providing tiny homes for the homeless, would have occurred sooner, ideally before police engaged in clearing an encampment.

“What options are going to be out there for individuals experiencing homelessness to make sure we’re not just causing people to move around the city and create more difficulty for them, more work for law enforcement and staff and more heartache for the community, who get upset every time a new encampment pops up,” Friend said.

Swetlik was disappointed that the city appeared to take the position that it would be acceptable to begin clearing campsites if the severe weather shelter was open nightly for most of the rest of the cold season, instead of only when forecasts called for lows of 32 or cooler on dry nights and 38 or colder when precipitation is expected.

“Clearings are not a solution,” Swetlik said. “… I just want the solutions to come a little faster, because that will make it so that people won’t have to set up those (illegal) campsites in the first place, and if they are, there should be enough other alternatives it makes it more reasonable to be clearing campsites.”

Unsafe conditions

People who had been living in the Ninth Street campsite were given notice by city officials that the site would be cleared in advance, there were no arrests made and officers offered rides to the residents, five of whom accepted, according to an email from Deputy City manager Tanya Ange to Council. Officials transported nine truckloads of belongings from the site so people could have their personal possessions moved without losing them, and “did not move anyone along,” Ange said in the email.

A homeless encampment is seen in a drainage tunnel between Canyon Boulevard and Pearl Street on Monday in Boulder. (Photo by Jeremy Papasso/Staff Photographer)

Two people were connected to social services by the Homless Outreach Team of police officers, and hand warmers were distributed, and one person was given a new pair of socks, while two people were given bus passes, which were made available to the campers. Temporary fencing will remain up in the area while reclamation by the creek takes place; the city’s cleaning contractor will finish removing discarded trash and hazardous materials.

“Conditions at this campsite were unsafe, it was filled with rotten food, meth pipes and needles,” Ange said in the email. “A homemade smokestack that burned part of a tent and 20 full-size propane tanks were recovered in addition to 70 propane tanks already collected in the weeks leading up to (Thursday). If a fire had started in this encampment there would have been lives lost.”

Boulder Interim Police Chief Carey Weinheimer, while responding to comments Cassio made to Council about the Sunshine Creek tunnel becoming more heavily used after the downstream campsite was cleared, said the tunnels in that western area of the city have hosted illegal campers in the past, and “have been a source of concern for many years.”

“We knew that one side effect of removing the encampment at Ninth Street was that those who were living there would likely camp somewhere else,” Weinheimer said. “Fortunately, a few entered into services but others did not. However, I cannot say with any certainty that the person (Cassio) observed was previously staying at Ninth Street.”

Housing-first not for everyone

The city is pondering piloting a designated area to camp in, with a vehicle or other shelter from the elements, where the urban camping ban would not be enforced and social service providers could potentially engage residents who have not succeeded with the Homeless Solutions for Boulder County coordinated entry system that seeks to move people from shelters into permanent housing or reconnect them with family or employment. However, Swetlik acknowledged that might not solve the entire problem.

“There are a lot of people who still won’t be able to navigate the system to get a home,” Swetlik said. “… There might always be people who choose to live the life of camping. A lot of those people could even have jobs and want to choose that life. In my mind we’re just trying to figure out how we can fill all those holes.”

Thomas John Hamilton, who is currently homeless and walked just outside the littered Ninth Street encampment site Monday to smoke a cigarette, might fit the description Swetlik provided. Hamilton, 31, who said he has struggled with a mental health issue in the past and receives a disability benefit, has been homeless off and on in Boulder for about 10 years after moving to the city at 18, but prefers to camp rather than stay in a shelter, though he has used a shelter before.

“I just like being outside,” Hamilton said. “… They have a lot of homeless services here, like free meals and stuff.”

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