Boulder boards ask for action on homelessness

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Monday, Jan. 11, 2021

Last year, Boulder’s volunteer boards and commissions independently made the same request of city council: limit bureaucracy and address the city’s housing crisis. The subjects cropped up in unlikely places, like the Arts Commission.

This year’s common theme: Homelessness. But boards differ on their concerns and how they’d like to see them addressed — mirroring the divide in the broader community over what to prioritize in dealing with unhoused residents.

Politics and purview

Six separate groups raised the issue, including obvious ones like the Human Relations Commission, but also unusual suspects such as the Design Advisory Board.

“We are disappointed with the reduction in the capacity for sheltering in the City of Boulder for people experiencing homelessness,” DAB wrote in its annual letter to elected officials, also touching on the failure of Bedrooms Are For People to earn a spot on the ballot and the success of No Eviction Without Representation. 

Homelessness and housing are a bit outside of DAB’s purview to review larger construction projects in the downtown area. Chair Lauren Folkerts said that council’s questions — the same for every board: What has made your board or commission happy in the past year? What has made your board or commission sad in the past year? — warranted personal responses, rather than one that fit neatly within DAB’s official scope.

A city board doesn’t feel happy or sad; that’s an individual experience,” Folkerts said. “It really asks us to reflect on our emotional experience. We each brought our own opinions and passions to the table and then worked them from an emotional, reactive place to a more thoughtful, proactive place. We’re all drawn to this board because we believe in the power of the built environment and understand the costs of homelessness for both the unhoused and our community.

“You don’t sign up to be on a city board, or at least one like this that’s somewhat political, without caring about the politics of the town.”

Parks & Rec draws hard line

Three boards focused on the impacts of encampments on the public and businesses, in varying levels of details.

The University Hill Commercial Area Management Commission listed “transients” as a one-word priority, with a proposed action to “update the 2018 UHGID Comprehensive Transient Strategy in partnership with the City Attorney’s Office and the Boulder Police Department.” The Downtown Management Commission wrote that it “remains concerned by or would seek … ongoing City response to and/or ability to address encampment and crime-related safety concerns as they relate to perceived district safety.”

It was the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board who went the most in-depth on concerns “arising from the un-housed (sic) and encampments situation,” including hazardous and human waste, environmental degradation and threatening behavior. There has been an “increase in the number of community members who are reluctant to visit some of our parks or facilities” because of these things, PRAB wrote.

“While we recognize that this issue is extremely complex and challenging, and that the city’s approach will take a sustained effort to make progress, it is clear from the input we have received that the current conditions are not acceptable to a broad swath of the community. In short, allowing unregulated camping on public park property is not a policy PRAB can support.”

‘Human rights issue’

The city has struggled to strike a balance in its response. Some residents have pushed for renewed sweeps, urging officials to enforce its camping ban; others have protested, citing health guidance and questioning the efficacy and morality of such policies.

“The camping ban … is a human rights issue,” wrote members of the Human Relations Commission. “Not all people can access shelter and are also prevented from sheltering themselves.”

HRC in November unanimously passed a resolution asking council to establish an oversight committee to assess Boulder’s homelessness policies and also to “formally begin an investigation into possible human rights violations by the City.”

HRC resolution

Whereas the City of Boulder does not allow unhoused individuals to self-shelter and at the same time, based on the triangulation of independent assessments of the City of Boulder unhoused populations, the City of Boulder does not provide nearly enough sheltering options to provide shelters for unhoused individuals,

Whereas it appears that the City of Boulder does not count nor maintain records on the actual number of unhoused in the City and individuals in the City who cannot appropriately use the existing City option for sheltering,

Whereas it appears that the City of Boulder consistently uses dehumanizing language in reference to underserved populations,

Whereas it appears that the City of Boulder has enacted policies and practices to exclude some unhoused individuals from receiving appropriate services,

Whereas it appears that the City of Boulder has propagated public relations messages misleading the public as to nature of the underserved population,

And, whereas it appears that the City of Boulder has not adequately pursued carefully documented options—such as tiny homes, safe parking, sanctioned encampments, and others—that could provide cost effective options for underserved unhoused individuals,

The City of Boulder Human Relations Commission recommends that the Boulder City Council immediately appoint a diverse and representative (including three individuals with unhoused experience) oversight committee for City programs regarding the unhoused and formally begin an investigation into possible human rights violations by the City.

The resolution drew a scathing rebuke from councilman Mark Wallach, who posted an email to the public Hotline.

“Accusations of human rights abuses are a very serious matter, and if the HRC believes these have occurred I suggest that they forward their complaints to the proper prosecutorial authorities so that legal action may be taken,” Wallach wrote. “Without supporting evidence, this claim resembles nothing so much as the claims of rampant voter fraud (in the 2020 presidential election) in Pennsylvania. Until HRC provides more specificity, I am left wondering if there is any there, there. But why not make the allegation and see if it sticks? It seems to work elsewhere.

“And then HRC asserts that the necessary remedy to combat these unspecified human rights violations by the City is to establish an oversight committee to root out abuses. This could possibly be one of the worst ideas in recent — and perhaps distant — memory. The very notion is disturbing: a committee to enforce conformity to a specific vision of social policy under the threat of potential charges. … (G)iven the current state of public discourse in this country, accusations of human rights violations are pretty much par for the course.”

Council: Work within the system

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that camping bans constitute cruel and unusual punishment, violating citizens’ Eighth Amendment rights. The U.S. Supreme Court let the ruling stand, but Boulder is in the 10th Circuit, so city attorneys have argued that the case doesn’t apply here. A Denver County court similarly found that camping bans are unconstitutional.

State and national experts on homelessness also say that camping bans and encampment removals are harmful for unhoused residents. During COVID, they are potentially dangerous: The Centers for Disease Control has advised allowing camps to remain in place as a way to limit transmission and community spread.

But Boulder has faced mounting pressure from residents, businesses and, now, boards to do something about encampments — including indirect pleas from Police Chief Maris Herold. Council in February gave instruction to begin removing camps in exchange for expanding winter sheltering; however, renewed sweeps began in earnest in August.

Council mostly let boards’ criticism pass without much response on Tuesday — a change from past years, when elected officials have harshly rebuked feedback or suggestions from board and commission members. The only remark resembling pushback came from Junie Joseph to HRC chair Lindsey Loberg, urging them and others to work “within the constraints and regulations we have.”

“It’s so easy to draft a policy and proposal and send it to council,” Joseph said. “It’s so crucial to work with these different bodies to come with a strategy that is… that will get you closer to where you need to be.”

That hews closely to advice Mary Young gave to the HRC regarding its resolution. At a Jan. 4 scheduling meeting, Young said she was “working with” representatives to only bring forward recommendations that “stand a chance” of being supported by a majority of council.

In an interview, Loberg said they understand Young’s advice to focus on “actionable” solutions to complaints. “Incremental change is one approach,” they said. But HRC will not abandon its mission just because it might be unpopular.

“These are human rights issues,” Loberg said. “There’s going to be dissent from the HRC that council can’t get behind.”

City council on Jan. 19 will give direction as to whether or not encampment removals should continue and possible policy changes. The discussion will also include a check-in on council priorities and department work plans for 2021.

City council: 6 p.m. Tuesdays. Watch: Online, YouTube or Channel 8

Author’s note: This story has been updated with comments from Tuesday’s study session.

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

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