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Boulder may choose to put more resources toward managing encampments of people experiencing homelessness.

Boulder City Council on Tuesday will decide how it wants to proceed after a presentation from the Boulder Police, Housing and Human Services and other city departments. The discussion, which the city is calling “maintaining safe and welcoming public spaces,” takes a look at the city’s current encampment response but focuses on a number of new ideas for the Council to consider.

The staff memo outlines the suggestions up for consideration, which include:

  • Additional enforcement, including a new police unit to be stationed downtown and limited commission urban park rangers to focus on code enforcement and to provide support.
  • Environmental improvements, including establishing an internal hazardous materials clean-up team and building a skate park in the empty space underneath the library.
  • Building residential recovery housing options for methamphetamine users.
  •  Adjusting the city’s camping ordinance by requiring mandatory minimum jail sentences for repeat offenders.

The suggestions that entail annual costs, such as adding staff, total more than $1 million.

For example, the city estimates that it would cost $771,888 annually to fund six full-time police officers, plus a one-time start-up cost of $321,600 and an ongoing annual expense of $48,600 for training, uniform, equipment and vehicles. Establishing a team of urban park rangers would cost the city anywhere from $70,000 to $100,000 annually plus another $76,000 in the first year for training, uniforms, equipment and a vehicle.

Likewise, hiring an internal clean-up team would cost Boulder $240,000 a year for a team of four, as well as $80,000 in start-up costs for equipment and training.

Once the Council provides input and indicates which options, if any, it would like to proceed with, the city will provide a more detailed cost analysis that determines what services would be discontinued to provide these additional resources. Additionally, there has been some discussion about searching for other funding mechanisms such as one adopted in Denver in 2020 that includes a 2.5 cent sales tax per $10 purchase to be used to expand homelessness services.

Although this work is ongoing, the research that will be presented on Tuesday began a year ago when the Council set it as a priority during last year’s retreat.

Furthermore, the city has received a lot of complaints about encampments in Boulder, resulting in 700 emails to Council in 2020 and 567 reports when in the third quarter of 2020 the city decided to have people report encampments through Inquire Boulder, the city’s online customer service portal.

“Community fear is real,” the staff memo reads.

The city notes in its memo to the Council that firefighters “routinely respond” to fires at encampments, including one last month at Valmont City Park wherein numerous propane tanks exploded.

While city officials acknowledge that most individuals experiencing homelessness are law abiding, the staff memo notes that police data shows some relationship between crime and homelessness in Boulder.

The Boulder Police Department indicates that in 2020, 490 offenders were accused of committing 614 serious offenses, including homicide, assault, robbery or burglary. Of those 490 suspects, 181 were identified as unhoused, according to the staff memo, which cites police data through Dec. 29.

A note from the prosecution division of Boulder’s city attorney office acknowledges the complexity of homelessness.

“There is no one answer to ending camping in the city of Boulder when the underlying causes of unsheltered homelessness remain unsolved in our society,” the memorandum reads.

A 2018 report from the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty examines some of the causes of homelessness, which for single people included a lack of affordable housing, unemployment, poverty, mental illness and the lack of needed services and substance abuse and the lack of needed services.

In Boulder, the matter is exacerbated by the global pandemic and the cost of housing, with Zillow reporting that the typical home is valued at more than $800,000.

To combat the problem, the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness suggests eight solutions, including providing housing and access to health care, building career pathways, strengthening crisis response systems and reducing criminal justice involvement.

Similarly, Steve Berg, vice president for programs and policy with the National Alliance to End Homelessness, said providing housing is the best tool.

“The one and only cost effective way to deal with homelessness is to get as many people into housing as you possibly can as fast as you can,” Berg said.

While Boulder prioritizes housing through the “housing first” approach, the city recognizes in its staff memo that “some people experiencing homelessness choose not to engage in services, are unable to engage or require assistance beyond what is provided by the system.”

Additionally, the city focuses its most intensive services and programs on those who have lived in Boulder County for more than six months, and the city estimates in its staff memo that two-thirds of those living in encampments do not fall into that category.

Berg said the communities that are most successful are those where the police, city officials, service providers, activists and those experiencing homelessness all work together.

“Everybody works together, and people aren’t going to work together if the police are coming to what is people’s home and throwing out their belongings,” Berg said. “You’re not going to have people working together if that’s what homeless people are experiencing.”


If you watch

What: Boulder City Council meeting

When: 6 p.m. Tuesday

Where: Council and city staff members will participate from remote locations. Residents can watch the meeting on Boulder’s YouTube channel or on Channel 8.

Agenda: bit.ly/3q9KcLr