Boulder boards, staff split on homeless response

Friday, July 10, 2020 (Updated Tuesday, July 14)

Two of Boulder’s boards are recommending the city expand its suite of services for people experiencing homelessness. The big ask is in direct opposition to suggestions from Homeless Solutions Boulder County, which is pushed for consolidation of locations that will reduce the number of shelter beds by more than half and preserve sparse funds for the current strategy of prioritizing spending on permanent housing.

Although some council members have argued for increased rights for unhoused persons — such as making it legal to live in vehicles or use a blanket when sleeping outside — they are in the minority, and it seems likely the body as a whole will continue with the approach implemented in 2017. Council will provide direction at Tuesday’s study session.

The current strategy has data and national best-practice on its side. Using a housing-first lens and coordinated entry screening, Boulder County has placed 393 people into homes, as of January.

But others say that stripping shelter capacity is inhumane, particularly because demand will outstrip supply of beds in the winter. Alternatives to shelters are needed, they argue — and that was before a pandemic, when crowded facilities may facilitate spread of a potentially deadly virus and a predicted wave of evictions could push hundreds into homelessness.

4,779 individuals screened through coordinated entry
1,492 referred to shelter with intent to find housing (31%)
3,287 referred to Navigation services – a quick path to housing or placement in work programs or substance abuse treatment, etc. (69%)817 total exits from homelessness
393 placed into housing (48% of total exits; 26% of those earmarked for housing)
295 reunified with family, friend or shelters in another community (36%)
97 entered long-term programming (12%)
31 entered residential treatment (4%)

Source: Boulder homeless services dashboard

Calls for change

There have always been people experiencing homelessness who are resistant to seek services, particularly those who have been unhoused for a significant time and/or struggle with mental illness. But there are others who do not feel safe or comfortable in a shelter environment, including families, women and LGBTQ individuals.

All of Boulder’s sheltering programs are for individuals. Family homelessness is primarily dealt by prevention via emergency rental assistance, and the city has lacked a women’s shelter since the switch from faith-based services in 2016.

Nonprofit Mother House last month announced its intention to open emergency sheltering for women, transgender and non-binary individuals. The Lodge will operate in a number of locations and host 10-20 people each night, beginning in the fall.

Suggestions for change in how Boulder approaches homelessness mainly focus on alternatives to coordinated entry and the Boulder Shelter, along with services to help support unhoused people, such as access to bathrooms and showers.

Boulder’s Human Relations Commission and Housing Advisory Board on June 29 advanced the 20/20 Unhoused Vision Plan as a supplement to current efforts. Included is 11 items, including pilot programs for safe parking, designated campgrounds, tiny home villages, the establishment of a resident oversight group and relocation of the Homeless Response Team from within the police department to another city department.

That last move would help to “dispel the perception of homelessness as a criminal issue by resources services over penalties and social services over police actions,” HAB and HRC wrote in a joint recommendation to council.

“Boulder’s coordinated entry is a great first step in creating a path forward for individuals experiencing homelessness,” the boards wrote. However, “Boulder has realized significant gaps created or left open simply by focusing on this one program. … (20/20 Unhoused Vision) recognizes, preserves and prioritizes the human dignity of all in our community.”

A ‘Vision Zero’ for homelessness

Council members Rachel Friend and Adam Swetlik at the annual retreat requested a review of homeless services, with Swetlik going so far as to recommend a “Vision Zero” type plan to end homelessness, similar to Boulder’s goal of eliminating fatalities and serious injuries from vehicles.

Mary Young asked that the lack of women or LGBTQ-specific shelter be addressed. Junie Joseph pushed for more information on day shelters. Friend’s suggestions included safe parking and camping.

The issue of parking came up again Tuesday night, as council voted 6-2 (Friend, Swetlik dissenting; Aaron Brockett absent) to disallow overnight parking of any campers, RVs or trailers on city streets. There was already such a code on the books, but the municipal court ruled it unconstitutionally vague in a case where the defendant successfully argued that moving a large vehicle slightly each night did not violate the law.

Read a live-tweet thread of Tuesday’s parking discussion

Friend and Swetlik, along with four members of the public, argued that the law was discriminatory against working-class people who are more likely to use trailers for work but are less likely to own private property on which to park them. The ordinance also makes it illegal for anyone living in large vehicles to park them anywhere in the city for more than 48 hours.

Vehicle dwellers have become more numerous in recent years as housing prices skyrocket. Officials counts are hard to come by, though Longmont officials estimate up to 140 residents there live in passenger or recreational vehicles.

Another Boulder code explicitly prohibits using vehicles as dwelling places. Both laws will be revisited Tuesday as part of the discussion on homelessness.

Friend also asked for changes to the city’s camping ban, something advocates for unhoused persons have continually requested. The law prohibits people sleeping outside from using shelter — including blankets or sleeping bags.

“It also shouldn’t be breaking the law to shelter one’s self with even a blanket when there is no alternative,” Darren O’Connor, of Boulder Rights Watch, wrote to council this week.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and a Denver county court ruled that such bans constitute cruel and unusual punishment. The 9th Circuit decision was allowed to let stand by the U.S. Supreme Court, but Boulder has argued that neither case applies here.

man in black long sleeve shirt sitting on floor
Photo by Arian Malek khosravi on

Limited budgets play big role

In notes to council ahead of Tuesday’s meeting, staff rejected all suggestions from council and community members. Any expansion of services would take money away from finding permanent homes for residents, they argued, and therefore does not support the housing-first strategy.

  • Day sheltering would cost $700,000 annually, according to staff estimates
  • Designated camping in Ontario, Canada, costs $300,000 per year to serve 68 residents
  • Safe parking has wildly varying costs, from $55,000 per year in San Diego (for 78 spots) to $360,000 annually in Seattle for 26 spots for passenger cars and 15 for RVs.

Safe parking in being piloted in Longmont, supporting by local faith organizations; as little as $70,000 would be needed to pay for two full-time security guards. That program does not include RVs. A separate lot for larger vehicles could cost up to $280,000 per year plus $275,000 if restroom facilities are provided.

Read more: For people without homes but wary of shelters, Longmont’s ‘safe lots’ could be a haven. Colorado Sun

Tiny home villages came closest to getting staff’s green light, though Boulder’s land use regulations don’t allow the structures. Even if they were allowed, staff wrote, such dwellings may not be the most efficient use of resources.

“Costs and benefits, particularly regarding density and land usage, do not indicate that this is an effective intervention in Boulder,” notes to council read.

Limited funds are cited as the overall reason for all staff-recommended changes, including consolidating severe weather shelter and Boulder Shelter for the Homeless.

SWS for the past two seasons was operated at 2691 30th Street, site of the former Robb’s Music. Developers offered a reduced-rent lease to the city while they pursued federal tax credits for the eventual construction of affordable housing. That lease lapsed in May.

Finding another location for winter shelter would cost approximately $500,000 per season — money the department doesn’t have due to COVID-related budget cuts, according to staff.

Boulder Shelter already absorbed navigation services, previously provided by nonprofit Bridge House, resulting in the loss of 50-beds. The shelter is operating at limited capacity due to COVID, which will leave 25 to 50 beds, on average, available each night, exceeding the estimated 70 persons who will seek shelter on winter nights.

Some people are likely to be turned away once the facility reaches capacity,” staff wrote. 

Bed reductions were of concern to council when staff first suggested combining navigation and long-term shelter last year, enough that it nixed the plan. But the contract with Bridge House lapsed, and Boulder Shelter was the only bidder to provide those services, according to county staff.

To mitigate turnaways, some people will be put up in hotels. Staff also intends to start spreading the word among the homeless community that there simply won’t be enough room for them come winter, in the hopes that they will relocate elsewhere.

“Communication will start early in the fall with persons experiencing homelessness to let them know that beds will be limited,” the memo read.

As a large percentage of the population using this service are not community members” — 71% reported being in Boulder County for less than six months from January to April of this year — “this program change aligns with prioritization of limited resources for people who are current Boulder County residents.”

Hundreds housed in BoCo

There are five questions that guide every program and service that Homeless Solutions recommends:

  • Are Boulder County residents and most vulnerable prioritized in resource allocation?
  • Does it respond to/align with data and evidence?
  • Does it meet city goals for ending homelessness?
  • Is it cost effective?

And, perhaps most importantly: Does this fall under housing first — does it ultimately get person to permanent shelter?

This is the national best practice for truly ending homelessness, and it has had success locally. Nearly 400 people have been placed into permanently supportive housing  (housing plus services such as mental health counseling or substance abuse treatment), though information on how many people stay housed is not provided.

Data bolsters the claim that the focus on area residents and permanent housing is making a dent in local homelessness. The share of winter sheltering users who self-reported living in Boulder County for more than six months has declined by two-thirds over the past three years, though the datasets are not directly comparable.

Severe weather shelter users who report residing in BoCo less than 6 mos.
2017-2018: 48.6%
2019: 62%
January to April 2020: 83%
Source: City of Boulder

Placing people in housing is also the most cost-effective strategy. The city spends between $18,500 and $20,000 each year to house someone and $30,000 to $50,000 annually per person experiencing homelessness, on things like cops, courts, jails and hospitals. (Though critics contend that criminal justice spending would be less if homelessness wasn’t criminalized.)

Thirty unhoused persons who interacted most frequently with the municipal court racked up a combined $753,100 in emergency medical services between Jan. 1, 2018 and Oct. 31, 2019, according to notes shared with council.

Keeping the target on getting people into homes will make the best use of resources limited by COVID budget cuts, staff argue.

For example: The $700,000 that would be spent on day shelters is enough to place between 35 and 118 people in permanently supportive housing. And the cost to find another location for winter sheltering could pay for three months of rental assistance for 333 households (assuming an average monthly award of $500).

“There are approximately 7,200 people in the city living below the Federal Poverty Line (adjusted to eliminate college students),” staff wrote. “The needs of these families, as well as others above the poverty line but still very poor, should be considered if any additional budget for homeless services is considered.”

Illegal solutions

COVID’s economic devastation is exactly why a more robust response is needed, advocates of expanded services say. If even a fraction of those 7,200 people are evicted, where will they go?

Under the current regime, some realistic outcomes are illegal. According to the nonprofit Emergency Family Assistance Association, the most common tactic for families who lose housing is to live with another family or friends. Depending on the makeup of the household, such arrangements often violate Boulder’s ban on more than three unrelated persons sharing a home. (Disclosure: The author has completed paid work for EFAA in the past, though is not currently under contract with the organization.)

By staff’s own admission, families are more likely to live in their cars than individuals experiencing homelessness — also prohibited.

HAB and HRC’s plan “is not in conflict with the goal of getting people to access to services, but rather a complement to existing, if far too spare, services,” O’Connor wrote in an email to the local NAACP chapter encouraging members to support 20/20 Unhoused Vision. “The model is that first you provide housing (and a tent or safe car to sleep in counts when there is nothing else), then make services accessible.”

Members of the board took enormous issue with staff’s information, calling it biased and incomplete. Just one example was the framing of car-dwelling as an “unhealthy living situation for children” and one that “encourages the spread of disease.”

But it lacked the context of what other options may be available to families and failed to acknowledge the risks of shelters or exposure to the elements without the relative shelter of a vehicle. If COVID lingers through the winter, car living may be the safer alternative to a shelter environment, since it affords a way to isolate, as Colorado Sun noted in its exploration of Longmont’s safe parking pilot program.

Preventing homelessness key, but costly

Though it has a stated value of deferring to board expertise, council has applied this principle selectively in the past. Recommendations from HRC and HAB were not included in the memo.

Board feedback is typically documented and shared with council; staff on Monday the recommendations were not prepared in time. It’s a regular occurrence for documents to miss the cutoff for inclusion, though such late additions are typically provided to council and the public in some official capacity.

Councilman Bob Yates, in an email to a concerned resident, said council members had received the documents and would discuss them Tuesday. A copy of the email with the recipients’ name redacted was shared with Boulder Beat; it will eventually be made public.

“While a few of the recommendations from HRC/HAB may not be practical or affordable in Boulder,” Yates wrote, “I support a majority of the HRC/HAB recommendations and I will advocate for those on Tuesday.”

It’s unclear which those might be. Council has in the past been reluctant to support safe parking, camping or an expansion of shelter, though operations were extended this year due to COVID. It may be that folding severe weather sheltering into Boulder Shelter is a step too far, given council’s past capacity concerns.

Elected officials are most likely to favor focusing efforts on prevention. They have already added to the budget for family rental assistance in past budget cycles and this year advanced aid intended for the latter half of 2020.

Demand quickly outstripped cash supply. The $313,000 received by EFAA was intended to cover rent for 450 households; 400 applied for help in just six weeks.

It’s unclear if and when more money might be forthcoming. In May, city officials said they would put some of the $485,000 in federal block grant money awarded for pandemic response toward rental assistance. Beyond that, the city’s plan largely hinged on more help from the feds.

6 p.m. Tuesday, July 14. Streamed live online and Channel 8.

Author’s note: This article has been updated to correct the estimate for how much a standalone severe weather shelter location would cost, as well as clarifying Longmont’s role in the safe parking pilot.

— Shay Castle,, @shayshinecastle

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5 Comments Leave a comment

  1. It’s like I’ve said for over a decade, after I became a homeless camper in Boulder and its environs (I declined almost all government social services and private nonprofit giveaways and stayed to myself ) the homeless shelter / services industry has no interest in “ending homelessness” as they claim is their goal. It’s ALL about gaining as many $$$ from both public and private sources as possible, and the do-gooders are NOT the least bit inclined to put themselves out of business.

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