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Boulder officials nixed hotels for homeless, rely on rec center as downtown gathering worries city amid coronavirus pandemic

Building vacancies presenting chance for break-ins result in added security

Boulder homeless have created a temporary encampment on the Pearl Street Mall on the lawn of the courthouse.
(Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)
Boulder homeless have created a temporary encampment on the Pearl Street Mall on the lawn of the courthouse. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

Private security patrols were added last month in downtown Boulder as the county courthouse building’s lawn becomes a gathering point for people experiencing homelessness.

Business owners and city officials alike are concerned as the coronavirus pandemic keeps the area empty of eyes and ears, removing the ability to self-police.

The homeless are faced with a tough choice by the outbreak, as noted in a lawsuit filed this month by Boulder County activists and advocacy organizations across Colorado against the state health department. Choices are entering crowded shelters where the virus may be more likely to spread or living outside, facing the elements and the city’s prohibition on urban camping.

Boulder officials declined to pursue using hotels as shelter for the homeless amid the pandemic, with travel greatly restricted and resulting widespread lodging vacancies. Broomfield and cities throughout the nation have explored and used hotels to temporarily hold people experiencing homelessness since the outbreak struck.

Rather, local leaders are touting the transformation of the East Boulder Community Center into a recovery facility for people experiencing homelessness and symptoms of the virus-caused COVID-19 to isolate while they heal, to prevent spread of illness within the area’s homeless shelter.

Maintaining the goal of placing the homeless being served at shelters in the city into permanent housing situations was also a reason hotels were not further considered, as officials said more supportive services can be offered through permanent housing than through hotel stays.

The community center facility for sick homeless, known now as the COVID-19 Recovery Center, or CRC, “is a resource that many cities have not been able to put in place,” Boulder Homeless Initiatives Manager Vicki Ebner said. “… We determined that the hotel model utilized by some larger cities was not the most effective response for Boulder County. … We as a community have made significant strides to increase the number of permanent supportive housing options over the last year and are currently working collaboratively to target key-risk populations for rapid housing options.”

Costs of using hotel rooms were cited as part of the local government’s decision to rely on the community center instead.

“The CRC allows us to maintain the health and safety of those living in our congregate shelters while also providing a place for people who are ill to recover and rest. In many other communities, hotels are being utilized to meet this goal,” Ebner sad.

“However, the CRC and housing options are more cost effective measures for the community while achieving the goal of protecting and supporting vulnerable or ill people. Hotel placement requires a significant staff resourcing in addition to the nightly charge including administration, food delivery, client check-in and damage mitigation.”

Meanwhile, the Downtown Boulder Partnership membership organization was authorized to use the funding to beef up security downtown. It will use money the city normally provides for community events it sponsors that have now been postponed or cancelled.

Downtown Boulder head Chip, who does not use a last name, said the costs are currently about $2,000 per week, and likely to go up, for private security personnel patrols between Ninth and 20th Streets, and Walnut Street and Canyon Boulevard on the south, and Spruce and Pine streets to the north. The organization is pulling the cash for the costs from a number of places in its budget.

“Their focus has been in and around the core and alleys,” Chip said.

Plain clothes police officers have also been patrolling the Pearl Street Mall and University Hill. Private security was added on the Hill, too. Fears of break-ins, with many businesses currently shuttered per public health orders, and a lack of almost any foot traffic led the city to decide on the added presence.

“We’re in talks with downtowns all over the country and we are seeing a lot of downtowns experience more problems,” Chip said. “We want to be as prepared as possible.”

Vandalism in Boulder has increased year-to-date citywide, Interim Police Chief Carey Weinheimer told City Council this week, including prior the outbreak taking hold locally, and he had no solid understanding of the reasons.

The biggest vandalism increase occurred in January, and was up 40% this year through March compared to last year, but the Pearl Street Mall had not seen an increase since the virus-related shutdowns. Burglaries were up in the first quarter of 2020 to 134 compared to 87 at the same time last year.

Weinheimer called out a “notable” increase in domestic violence cases in March with 28, as compared to 15 for month last year.

Officials are monitoring whether to close the public restrooms in the 1300 block of Pearl, since they may be drawing gatherers and shielding illicit activity to take place, but have determined that placing portable restrooms in the area would trade one set of problems for another.

“We’ve been spending some time with plain clothes officers in the Hill and Mall area patrolling and trying to set up and prevent burglaries because we’re concerned about vacant spaces, both homes, apartments and businesses throughout the city,” Weinheimer said. “We know from our experience with the University (of Colorado) population we tend to get hit with burglaries at spring break, and we have kind of an extended spring break going on now for some people.”

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