Deaths climb as Boulder County’s unhoused population ages

Shay Castle / Boulder Beat

Thursday, Jan. 7, 2020

At times it was hard to hear over the wind and the traffic or the cries of protesters. But the frames were clearly visible on the Glen Huntington bandshell, gleaming in the sunlight, bedecked with red roses and white candles.

They lined the entire length of the curved stage — the ranks of the dead, who were experiencing or had experienced homelessness at some point during their lives. Lives that ended sometime in the past 12 months.

An annual memorial for the deceased unhoused of Boulder County was held Sunday, Dec. 20, part of the National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day on Dec. 21 — so chosen because it is the longest night of the year. In events all across the U.S., names are read and lives remembered. 

“Every name tells a story,” said Reverend Pedro Silva of First Congregational United Church of Christ.

Unhoused getting older

It can be hard for the general public to know those stories. People experiencing homelessness are often disconnected from friends and family. And the people who perhaps interacted with them most regularly — nonprofit and government service providers — are legally barred from sharing details on their clients, even after death, by non-disclosure agreements required by Homeless Solutions for Boulder County, the group overseeing regional response.

Not all on the list were unhoused at the times of their deaths. But homelessness no doubt played some role in their all-to-often early demise, said Scott Medina, volunteer coordinator with Bridge House.

“If you’ve been on the streets experiencing homelessness, it takes a huge toll” on the total number of years you will live, Medina said. “They died in one way or another on the streets.”

Homelessness shortens lifespans by an incredible amount — as much as 30 years or, in one common measure, 10 years for every one year spent without adequate housing. 

“The trauma of living homelessness is reducing their ability to literally live,” said Bill Sweeney, formerly of BOHO, which merged with Bridge House. “Virtually every life we have seen lost here was lost prematurely.”

The past two years have been record-setting in terms of deaths. That’s due to an expanding and aging population of unhoused residents, Sweeney said, who are living unsheltered for longer.

In many places, older adults are the fastest-growing segment of the unhoused population. From 2007 to 2017, the number of people aged 62-plus who experienced homelessness rose by 68.5%, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. In September, the New York Times reported results of a grim study predicting the number of unhoused seniors in the United States to triple over the next decade.

If trends continue, it may mean that dozens of deaths each year among the unhoused will no longer be an anomaly; instead, they could become the norm.

Sheltering reduced, sweeps increased

Last year’s long list of the dead prompted alarm among some city council members, who promised to look at expanding sheltering. Though they did vote to extend the winter sheltering season last year and then again during COVID, elected officials this year also approved a consolidation plan that halved the number of available beds, reduced overall spending and imposed new rules to cap the number of nights persons experiencing homelessness can seek shelter during the winter.

All that was done in the name of putting every available dollar toward a housing-first strategy. Boulder has placed more than 400 people into supportive (paired with services) housing.

But, as critics note, they don’t all stay there: John Aldridge, who died in September’s freak snowstorm, had secured housing through the system. It’s unclear how he ended up back on the streets; officials from Boulder Shelter for the Homeless, citing the county’s nondisclosure agreement, declined to provide details on Aldridge’s life, death or even aspects of his personality.

The city has also recently stepped up sweeps on homeless camps, in defiance of health guidance and to the dismay of advocates and activists. The bandshell area itself was swept four days before the memorial event; it’s been cleared five times since August 1, according to city spokesperson Shannon Aulabaugh.

“We do not have a location specific cleanup schedule,” Aulabaugh wrote in response to emailed questions. “Our goal once an area is cleaned is for it to remain clean. It has been our experience, unfortunately, that after we clean an area tents often re-appear in the same location, or nearby.”

Mayor, interrupted

The futility of and harm caused by sweeps has been noted by activists throughout the pandemic. Members of Boulder Valley Mutual Aid were present at the memorial event, shouting down Mayor Sam Weaver’s official remarks and waving banners reading “Stop the Sweeps” and “Sweeps Cause Spread.”

“Thank you to everyone who came to this except Mayor Weaver and city council,” they chanted in a call-and-response. Council members Adam Swetlik, Aaron Brockett and Rachel Friend were in attendance.

“We’re gathered today to remember those lost to us,” Weaver said from the podium, raising his voice to cover those of the protesters. “And to put aside for a time any differences we may have.” 

Clean-up of encampments are done under the auspices of Boulder’s ban on camping. In the past, staff have sought council approval for periods of sustained or increased enforcement; in August, Police Chief Maris Herold asked a group of community members to petition elected officials for action on camps. None had been undertaken since February, she said — the last time council gave explicit direction for clean-ups.

Regular sweeps began days later, despite no official word from elected officials. The city maintains that the policy of encampment cleanups has been consistent throughout the year and that direction came from the city manager’s office.

City council is scheduled to address encampments January 19. There is not currently a public hearing scheduled, but if council votes on a formal motion, a hearing is required.

Addressing the crowd after Weaver’s speech, Bridge House’s Medina said “there is definitely a place for politics in all of this. All voices are welcome here.”

— Shay Castle,, @shayshinecastle

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