Boulder needs to step up its sweeps of homeless encampments to combat a rise in methamphetamine use and an increasingly uncomfortable public, city staff will argue before council on Tuesday. The city is requesting two additional employees and up to $950,000 to perform more frequent clean-ups and make areas of town “less accommodating” to un-housed residents — including the hiring of a private security firm to oversee camp removals.
Boulder Municipal Judge Linda Cooke raised the issue of meth use to council in early October. At the time, police suggested that as many as 80 percent of the city’s un-housed residents were abusing meth, a claim that was repeated in notes to council ahead of Tuesday’s meeting. Staff supplied scant data to support that assertion, which is mostly based on the observation of the Boulder Police Department’s Homeless Outreach Team.
Reports from health providers, arrests and court cases suggest that meth use is increasing, locally and statewide. Admissions to substance abuse treatment for meth specifically have grown by 63% since 2013, according to the Colorado Office of Behavioral Health. Overdose deaths attributable to the drug more than doubled between 2015 and 2017, from 139 to 280, the Colorado Department of Public Health found.
Although officials believe the meth is not being manufactured here, Boulder County’s Public Health Department has noted a rise in the number of homes contaminated by the drug. Six such houses were identified in 2010; 65 were in 2018, a record number.
Boulder PD has found that a growing number of arrests involve inmates that recently used meth: 3.8% of arrests in 2016 did; that grew to to 6.4% in 2018. Still, that leaves just 6% of inmates in Boulder County Jail who have used meth.
Mental Health Partners post similarly low figures, estimating that 9% of substance abuse patients use meth as their primary drug; the state’s office of Behavioral Health reported 6% of patients across Boulder County were seeking help for meth addiction specifically.
As staff’s memo to council states, “No specific data is available about meth use among people experiencing homelessness in the city of Boulder.”
The 80% figure cited in October, though presented as applying to all Boulder’s un-housed, in fact applies to “a subset of the homeless population that are high utilizers of justice system services and seeking housing” that HOT frequently works with.
HOT itself reports interactions with between 90-100 individuals, an estimated 5-25% of the total houseless population.
“They are painting with an incredibly broad brush,” said Darren O’Connor, a local advocate for homeless rights. “They start by talking about homeless people are using meth at this high rate, but when you look at all the qualifiers, it’s a very small set of people.”
Meth use is increasing, O’Connor said — which he knows because it is of great concern to his friends and contacts within the homeless community, who view the small group of drug-users as threatening to their safety and wellbeing. O’Connor’s concern is that the city is using the growing prevalence of meth as an excuse to crack down on the entire un-housed populace.
Indeed, staff admitted that although needles are being found in public spaces “with growing regularity,” they are not being tested to determine what substance they were used to inject. And the suggestion for more frequent sweeps of encampments was “in response to community concerns” rather than data or best practices.
Currently, the city contracts ServPro to conduct camp cleanups, alongside city staff, twice a month. The city is requesting an additional two full-time employees be added this year, at an additional cost of $130,000 to $180,000, as well as a continued relationship with ServPro, which has been hired for $200,000 to $250,000 in 2019.
The city also wants to make the land itself less inviting to the un-housed, through vegetation maintenance (for $50,000 to $150,000), the strategic placement of rocks and boulders (cost: $75,000 to $85,000) and changes in grading and surface material ($115,000 to $125,000 per location; the number of locations wasn’t specified).
“Physical characteristics (can be) altered to reduce the attractiveness of becoming an established encampment,” staff said in notes to council. “There has been some success in Boulder to mitigate encampments by making areas less accommodating through thoughtful configuration of infrastructure, landscaping and surface treatments.”
The proposed changes are not expected to eradicate the existence of camps; merely move them along. To that end, the city would like to start tracking “encampment migration” as well as how much and what type of hazardous materials are removed from sites. No mention was made of collecting data on impacts to the residents themselves.
A further $500 to $2,500 per month is being requested to retain a private security firm to accompany ServPro and city staff on cleanups “as necessary.” Site cleanup will no longer happen if a member of HOT or a private security firm isn’t available.
“Staff and contractors increasingly report feeling uncomfortable in the clean-up of these sites, particularly if the site is occupied,” council’s notes read. Two city employees were assaulted during a cleanup, according to the documents, and ServPro has requested that its work be “supported by police presence.”
All the above suggestions were made by an “interdepartmental” working group formed after Judge Cooke’s update in October. Between $600,000 and $950,000 will be needed to implement them all, staff estimates.
It’s the wrong approach, O’Connor said.
“It’s really disheartening to see the city ready to spend $1 million on a process that isn’t going to house anyone; it’s going to push people spot to spot. We call it whack-a-mole,” he said. “It fuels the criminalization of homelessness and does absolutely nothing to solve the underlying problem these folks have.”
Several efforts are ongoing throughout the county to address substance abuse and mental health issues in the un-housed community. The working group is recommending that Boulder continue to support those, but also move forward with enhanced encampment cleanup by adding to the 2019 budget in May. If funded, regular sweeps would begin in the summer or fall.
A settlement in Denver recently changed the way camp sweeps will be handled in the city. Police will have to give written notice well in advance of cleanups, and seized property will have to be stored.
Boulder’s HOT does notify residents of impending sweeps, according to council documents, though no specific process or timeline was discussed. What happens to removed belongings was also not addressed in the memo.
Sweeps can have serious implications for un-housed individuals, O’Connor said. Paperwork and personal records are taken right alongside gear necessary for survival. Since accessing services requires identification, losing documents can also further complicate residents’ attempts to get housing or medical help while they seek replacements.
“All it takes is one person, one cop, one cleanup crew to take that and set you back six months,” O’Connor said.
He pointed to council’s recent decision to not expand winter sheltering for a few extra days each season, at nominal cost, because members argued that all available resources should go toward directing people to long-term services. This doesn’t further that goal, O’Connor said.
“One million dollars could go a long way toward providing beds” for substance abuse treatment, something Boulder County is short on. “The city is willing to spend up to $1 million doing this and they’re not going to solve a damn thing.”
There will not be opportunity for public comment during this discussion Tuesday night, although speakers can address the issue through open comment. (Online sign-up is available here.) Homeless issues will be discussed again at the March 19 city council meeting, when the first full year of data from the new coordinated entry system is available.
City council meeting, 6 p.m. Tuesday, March 5, 1777 Broadway.
(A briefing on the South Boulder Creek flood mitigation project will begin at 5:30)
Shay Castle, firstname.lastname@example.org, @shayshinecastle