Saturday, Sept. 26, 2020
Boulder city council this week opted to stick with a staff-proposed winter sheltering plan that halves the number of beds, has no overflow options aside from hotel rooms for those at risk of COVID and decreases spending by more than $300,000. Homeless service providers are hopeful that a slimmer shelter system will reduce demand from out-of-town transients and keep the focus — and money — on finding permanent housing for local residents experiencing homelessness.
Boulder Shelter for the Homeless will be the sole location for all services this year, with an expected 140 beds. (They are currently at reduced capacity, due to COVID, at 120 beds of the typical 160.) The city will pay for up to 20 hotel rooms every night, to be reimbursed by FEMA, for residents considered at-risk for serious complications from coronavirus.
The hotel room nights are not season-specific; they are available now, but rarely utilized. Staff expects them to be used more often during colder months.
An additional 20 hotel rooms will be provided on the harshest nights — below 10 degrees Fahrenheit or with 6+ inches of snow expected — again, only for high-risk populations. Shelter will also be available during the day under those weather conditions. Otherwise, it will remain open until 11:30 a.m.
Council pushed back a bit on not having day services for people experiencing homelessness, particularly with the libraries closed. When nonprofit Bridge House operated winter sheltering on 30th Street, the facility would be open during the day for 3-4 hours.
“Ten degrees seems pretty cold to me given that the libraries aren’t open this year,” said councilwoman Rachel Friend. “I would think there are health hazards (even) at a higher temperature. … If it’s 12 degrees and I have to leave, I don’t know where I would go.”
She and councilman Aaron Brockett were worried that, with 100-plus reduction in beds and no backup plan, people would be forced to sleep outside under Boulder’s camping ban, which prohibits people from covering themselves with a tent, sleeping bag or blanket.
“We are looking at many fewer beds this year,” Brockett said. “I appreciate the overflow option, but I’m concerned we’re going to fall a fair amount short on the need that exists within our own community. Last year, we had the (30th Street) facility as well as the Boulder Shelter. Obviously that’s more beds, but it also provided for backup and reinforcement options. I’m really concerned we’ve lost that.
“If we find out we’ve almost got it right in terms of the need of the community but we’re consistently 3 or 5 or 8 beds short, I really don’t want to see those folks turned out in the cold, night after night.”
During the 2018-2019 season, the standalone severe weather shelter (72 beds) went over capacity 63 nights. The entire system (282 beds) was over capacity three times that season.
Staff said they could cobble together an overflow plan fairly quickly, provided they did not have to find a separate facility. In the event of turnaways, they could seek a few additional hotel rooms.
Boulder housed 69 people from the Shelter between January and July of this year. It typically takes 2-3 persons being placed in housing to free up the equivalent of one shelter bed, Firnhaber said Tuesday. More than 150 people were “exited” from homelessness — places in programs, sent to live with family and friends, etc. — through July of this year.
Firnhaber continues to insist that an increased supply of shelter bed creates demand by drawing in unhoused residents from around the region, a claim advocates have contended is not grounded in evidence.
“Normally in October, there will be a couple days or a day of turnaways,” he said. “It’s important for that to happen before it gets too cold. We would have some flexibility to increase over those 20 beds … however, in not defining a number of beds you also end up with the situation of expanding the turnaways.
“If you always provide a bed for everyone who comes every night and you keep expanding every night, it does increase the number of individuals until you get to a point where you can’t expand anymore, which is what happened years ago, and then you have a huge number of turnaways.”
Plans are to communicate the lower availability of beds to unhoused people currently residing in Boulder, in the hopes that some move elsewhere for the winter.
Winter sheltering will be open every night from Dec. 1 through March 15, and weather-dependent — nightly temperatures below 32 or below 38 with a 30% chance or greater of rain or snow — for the remainder of the season, Oct. 1 to Nov. 30 and March 16 to May 31.
Residents seeking shelter will be required to go through coordinated entry after one “grace night” during the season, a new requirement from last year. And they will be limited to 30 nights of use; previously there was no limit.
Most people access winter shelter for 3-4 nights each year, Firnhaber said, “but there are people who stay much longer, who are part of our community and use it as their shelter on a more ongoing basis.”
The idea with the additional qualifications this year is to force more residents to engage with available programs, staff explained.
Said Vicki Ebner, homeless initiatives program manager, “We prefer people engage with our services to help them with their homelessness.”
— Shay Castle, firstname.lastname@example.org, @shayshinecastle
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Homelessness Aaron Brockett Boulder Boulder Shelter for the Homeless COVID COVID-19 Greg Harms homeless shelter Homeless Solutions Boulder County homelessness Housing First Kurt Firnhaber overflow pandemic Rachel Friend severe weather sheltering shelter unhoused