Boulder city councilman proposes Tuesday vote on all-winter homeless sheltering

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Photo by malcolm garret on Pexels.com

Saturday, Jan. 18, 2020

Boulder City council may vote Tuesday on extending the winter homeless sheltering season, while larger service expansions and policy changes  — including safe parking for those living in their cars, designated campgrounds, and LGBTQ and women-specific sheltering — will be visited later this year.

Councilman Aaron Brockett signaled his intent during the weekend agenda-setting retreat to call for the vote at the upcoming meeting. Homelessness dominated much of the discussion of the half-dozen projects added to the 2020 workplan. Among the suggestions for new and/or revised services:

  • All-winter sheltering (Brockett)
  • Safe parking, an end to the camping ban, designated campgrounds (Rachel Friend)
  • Sheltering options for LGBTQ and women (Mary Young)
  • A “Vision Zero” for ending homelessness (Adam Swetlik)
  • Day sheltering or other services (Junie Joseph)

Friend also suggested convening a working group to generate possible solutions. No one on council has experienced homelessness, she said. Those voices need to be included.

Kurt Firnhaber, director of housing and human services, said he was “not excited” about the prospect of a working group. The current county system is the appropriate forum for new ideas to be introduced, he argued. And the governing board — Homeless Solutions for Boulder County — does have one representative who is or has been unhoused.

If the system is working so well, Friend countered, why haven’t these ideas come up before?

They have, Firnhaber said. But the focus is “getting people into housing. Things that take away from that, we try to stay away from.”

Cost and complexity of council proposals vary. Keeping shelters open every night from October to May, for example, would be add a relatively small $40,000 to the budget. But providing daytime shelter could run upward of $750,000 annually, according to staff, who utilized numbers from a previous analysis.

Similarly, the idea of a campground has been explored in the past. But the two local providers of homeless services — Bridge House and the Boulder Shelter — declined to operate it, Mayor Sam Weaver reminded proponents.

But, he noted, it may be a “two-way street.” First the city has to say what it wants, then look for partners, perhaps outside Boulder.

Though other members raised safety concerns associated with a city-designated campground, councilwomen Friend and Joseph — who has worked in camps for displaced peoples in Haiti and Central African Republic — argued that should not be a reason not to pursue one.

“People are already not safe right now sleeping outside,” said Friend.

Indeed, community members have become increasingly concerned about encampments near neighborhoods and public spaces. Councilwoman Young raised the issue and asked what was being done to address it.

“I feel as a staff, we have not been confident that council would support the removal of encampments,” said City Manager Jane Brautigam. “It would be super helpful to hear your views on that.”

A staff proposal last year, hidden in a discussion over increased meth use and peppered with misleading data, would have allocated between $600,000 and $950,000 to increased clean-up of encampments and landscape features to discourage camping. It was abandoned after pushback from the public and city council.

But this year, nearly every council member said they would support sweeps under certain conditions. Brockett tied his approval to an affirmative council vote for keeping severe weather sheltering open all winter.

If we’re moving people along, he said, we should make sure they have somewhere to legally go.

There is no guarantee encampment residents would go to a shelter rather than moving to a new location. The populations at two camps of particular concern — the 9th Street bridge over Boulder Creek and an area near 30th/Mapleton — are highly reluctant to access services, according to Interim Police Chief Carey Weinheimer. Many struggle with mental health and addiction issues, he said.

Other council members agreed to enforcement if the camps were removed in the “most humane” way possible as Brautigam and Firnhaber outlined. That includes advanced notification to camp residents — at least a week out — with staff on-site every day thereafter to make “every effort possible” to connect people with services, Firnhaber said.

It has been the policy of the police department to not force those in encampments to move on, Weinheimer said. But he admitted coercion may be necessary.

“Unless they go willingly,” he said, “we’re going to have to use some level of force that we’ve been reluctant to use for such a low-level violation.”

The preferred approach is to ticket individuals under the city’s camping ban, a policy that has been successfully challenged in Denver and 9th Circuit courts. The latter ruling was allowed to let stand by the Supreme Court.

The ban prevents people from covering themselves while sleeping outside with anything considered shelter, which can include blankets, tarps and tents. Enforcement, which risks health and safety, amounts to cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment, the courts found.

Boulder should re-evaluate that ordinance given recent rulings, councilwoman Friend suggested. City Attorney Tom Carr said he does not believe the “interpretation” of those laws will stand in the 10th Circuit, of which Colorado is a part.

No other council members pushed for an end to the camping ban. Firnhaber believes lifting it would be counter to the city’s goals.

“I think if we allow camping throughout the community, it would be possibly harder to get people into housing,” he said.

Members of council pushing for change rushed to reassure staff that they were happy with the progress made so far under the housing-first approach, which includes placing 366 long-term local unhoused residents into permanently supportive housing. But more work is still needed, particularly for those falling through the cracks.

“This may not be something we solve in the next 10 years,” Swetlik said. “We may have to keep grinding.”

Council will use an April study session to firm up the list of solutions they would like to have analyzed. Staff will return with that report in October.

View a recap of Saturday’s discussion here.

City council meeting: 6 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 21 1777 Broadway

— Shay Castle, boulderbeatnews@gmail.com, @shayshinecastle

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