Aside from a few exceptions, tents and propane tanks are now prohibited in city parks and public spaces in Boulder.
In a 6-3 vote, Boulder City Council on Tuesday passed an emergency measure meant to address tents and propane tanks primarily used by people experiencing homelessness who live in encampments in the city. Councilmembers Rachel Friend and Adam Swetlik and Mayor Pro Tem Junie Joseph were the dissenting votes.
This new ordinance comes on the heels of a decision by the Council to spend $2.7 million over 18 months on efforts to enforce its current camping ban, including an extra Boulder Police Department unit and an internal cleanup team to clear encampments.
While a report from the National Homelessness Law Center states that criminalization is the “most expensive and least effective” way to address homelessness, the Boulder Police Department and other city officials have said that prohibiting tents and propane tanks is a necessary step in the city’s efforts to enforce its urban camping ban. The City Council earlier this year expressed its intent to continue with such enforcement.
“(The emergency measure) will allow the police department to remove a tent right away, not just after sunset, to further clarify that parks and public spaces are not for camping,” Interim City Attorney Sandra Llanes said.
In terms of the new propane tank ordinance, Mayor Pro Tem Junie Joseph asked whether it made more sense to enforce use rather than possession. That change might have allowed her to get on board with the measure.
If the idea is to enforce the ordinance, the answer to Joseph’s question is no, according to Deputy Chief Carey Weinheimer.
“It’s much more difficult to enforce use because we have to actually catch the person in use as opposed to being in possession,” Weinheimer said.
Either way, propane tanks are a fire safety hazard “since typically there’s an open flame component to them and they’re used near tents or temporary structures,” Llanes said. Additionally, the city says it’s concerned about propane tank theft.
Police department data indicates that in 2018 there was one reported case with two tanks stolen. In 2019, there were three cases with five tanks. In 2020, there were 11 cases with 91 tanks stolen. Thus far in 2021 there have been four reports with 14 tanks stolen.
Per the council’s suggestion, the city collected anecdotal data regarding reasons people use propane tanks in public spaces. Most reported using propane for warmth or for cooking food, according to Llanes, while some said they use the tanks to make cannabis concentrates.
Both ordinances include exceptions for those who obtain a city permit. Further, temporary shade structures will be allowed in city parks during the day.
A few people spoke during Tuesday’s public hearing and all were in the favor of the emergency measure. Boulder resident Barbara Appel said she was in favor but also urged the city to support people experiencing homelessness by providing resources for those with mental health and substance use disorders.
“It is your duty to get them the support they need and get them off the streets,” Appel said.
The council majority agreed.
“I think we need to be clear eyed about our current conditions,” Councilmember Mark Wallach said. “Encampments have been an ecological and environmental disaster. They have been a public safety disaster.”
Others, however, were less convinced.
Councilmember Adam Swetlik did not disagree with Wallach’s assertion, but he maintains that the ordinance won’t have much impact on the problem as a whole.
“It doesn’t sound like much of a solution, and I don’t want to set the public up for thinking that it’s really going to change things,” he said.
Although he voted in favor of the ordinance, citing safety issues, Brockett agreed.
“Make no mistake,” he said. “It’s not going to solve any problems around homelessness. The same number of people will still be homeless with these rules as before.”