Saturday, Sept. 12, 2020
A 57-year-old man died this week in Boulder of what authorities believe to be exposure to cold weather, according to the city’s police blotter. A single-occupant campsite was found nearby.
The man, who was not named, was found unresponsive Wednesday morning in the parking lot of Unity Church, 2855 Folsom. Paramedics and fire responded and administered CPR before transporting the man to Boulder Community Health, where he was pronounced dead.
“Boulder Community Hospital believes the male died of cold weather exposure, as his core body temp was 75 degrees,” the blotter item reads. An investigation is ongoing.
The temperature Tuesday night into Wednesday dropped to 30. Boulder received 4 inches of snow overnight, the Daily Camera reported.
Beds were available at Boulder Shelter for the Homeless, according to Zach McGee, housing and human services spokesperson. Severe weather sheltering — triggered by cold and/or precipitation — doesn’t begin until Oct. 1, but Boulder Shelter made 33 unused beds available.
Via email, McGee wrote that 25 beds were used Tuesday and 11 on Wednesday for severe weather sheltering. “There were no people turned away for capacity.”
Residents were allowed to stay one night before being required to go through the coordinated entry system. Curfew was 7 p.m.
It’s unknown if the deceased man interacted with the Shelter on Tuesday. Police earlier in the day identified a camp belonging to the man, 25 yards away from where he was later found.
Kurt Firnhaber, director of housing and human services, on Tuesday relayed to council efforts to inform unhoused residents about available shelter. The city primarily relied on nonprofits and other organizations serving people experiencing homelessness. The police department’s Homeless Outreach Team was also utilized, according to McGee.
Firnhaber said the efforts might not be fully effective in contacting people experiencing homelessness in Boulder: “A lot of systems we had in place last year might not reach that population.”
A point-in-time count by Metro Denver Homeless Initiative revealed 689 unhoused persons in Boulder this January. Recent reports from residents revealed dozens of encampments throughout the city; city spokesperson Shannon Aulabaugh on Friday told the Daily Camera that more than 100 camps have been swept since February.
Sweeps of encampments have increased since early August. Aulabaugh said it does not represent a new approach but a continuation of work begun in February. Police Chief Maris Herold on August 6 told members of a community policing group that the department did not feel it could restart sweeps without direction from city council. She urged community members to contact elected officials and request clean-ups.
Dozens of emails to council were received prior to and following that meeting, and sweeps of high-profile downtown camps began less than a week later. Some of the first encampments to be removed were those close to the homes of the community group that Herold addressed.
Aulabaugh said it was not a tit-for-tat, and that increase in sweeps was not related to political pressure on council. “That is an incorrect conclusion,” she wrote in response to emailed questions.
She confirmed that council did not give direction to the police department to increase sweeps; rather, the city manager did.
“In early August, we began to see encampments becoming even more prolific, and with the hot weather, conditions at these campsites became even more hazardous. The city team working on a strategic response to this issue became increasingly alarmed, and the city manager directed them to step up their efforts.”
The removal campaign has divided the community. Many residents have expressed gratitude and relief to have growing encampments — which they and police characterize as full of drugs — removed from their neighborhoods. Critics of the policy note that it does nothing to actually solve homelessness and is counter to Center for Disease Control guidance to allow camps during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Aulabaugh said “some” residents were connected with services while others relocated within the city. On the first day of the sweeps, many residents reported they would simply move elsewhere in Boulder. It’s unclear how many unhoused residents were still in town by the time this week’s storm hit.
BCH treated five patients with hypothermia this week, according to spokesperson Richard Sheehan. It’s unknown if those individuals were unhoused.
The city’s housing and human relations boards, along with residents, are exploring designated campgrounds. Councilwoman Rachel Friend on Saturday sent a public email stating that a proposal was imminent. Friend intends to request a vote of council to approve the camp or camps.
Council members will receive an update on the city’s plan for winter sheltering at their Sept. 22 study session. There is currently no standalone severe weather shelter location; it closed in May, taking with it a standalone navigation services location. Boulder Shelter for the Homeless absorbed both, halving the number of beds available on a given night.
“The situation is definitely dire in terms of the lack of a plan,” said Isabel McDevitt, executive director of Bridge House. The nonprofit ran navigation and severe weather sheltering last season but could not continue due to lack of resources, McDevitt said. “We were told there were no resources to continue at 30th Street.”
“Unfortunately, I don’t think the plan that’s been put forth for the study session looks that viable,” she said. City and county staff have been “adamant about reducing bed count” but, given Colorado’s harsh conditions, “there needs to be a severe weather shelter on top of the core beds.”
Firnhaber has said in the past that part of the city’s plan for this winter is to communicate to unhoused residents that Boulder will not have available beds for them in the cold weather, in the hopes that they will relocate to other communities.
This approach — sweeping camps, reducing beds, adding residency requirements for even basic services — discourages residents from engaging even when services are available, McDevitt said. “When there is an emergency of some kind, people are disenfranchised from being communicated with.”
That’s why available beds should not be the only measure to determine whether the system is adequate. Elected officials should also look at who is choosing not to access services, and why, and making sure programming meets people where they’re at.
She penned a May op-ed in the Daily Camera including suggestions that should be continued after Bridge House stepped away from navigation and winter sheltering. They have mostly been ignored in favor of a laser-focus on housing first, she said, which has been “pretty upsetting.”
Then and now, McDevitt believes it’s possible to balance a housing-focused approach with provision of basic, life-saving services. But, she said, under the current approach, “the pendulum has swung way too far.”
City council meeting: 6 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 22. Watch online or on Channel 8.
Author’s note: This article has been updated to include comments from Isabel McDevitt of Bridge House and to correct the number of beds used Tuesday.
— Shay Castle, firstname.lastname@example.org, @shayshinecastle
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Homelessness Boulder City council Boulder Police Department Boulder Shelter for the Homeless camping ban CDC Centers for Disease Control city of Boulder COVID-19 encampments homeless homelessness Housing Advisory Board housing and human services Human Relations Commission Kurt Firnhaber Maris Herold pandemic Police Chief Rachel Friend unhoused