Boulder’s homelessness language to get critical look

Shay Castle / Boulder Beat

Saturday, Jan. 23, 2021

“Public space reclamation officer.” “Maintaining safe and welcoming public space.” These are phrases Boulder has employed — in official capacities — to discuss clearing encampments of unsheltered persons that have cropped up around town in recent months.

The connection might not be immediately apparent to those unfamiliar with the topic, seeing as neither contain any reference to homelessness, camps or their removal. That opacity and, some say, bias have drawn the ire of activists and experts who bemoan the lack of clarity and what they see as the city taking a clear stand on one side of a multifaceted and controversial issue. 

City staff defends its language choices as reflective of one major part of the discussion around homelessness: The impact to parks, open space and other city property and the residents who use them.

Elected officials OK’d a review of the way the city speaks bout homelessness, per a suggestion from the Human Relations Commission. The group championed a similar analysis of sex and gender language that last year led to wholesale changes to city code and charter.

“When we’re talking about language,” said HRC chair Loberg, “we’re talking about idea construction. Language is used to uphold entire ideas that can be dehumanizing.”

‘Denial of humanity’

The HRC has taken specific aim at staff’s frequent reference of certain unhoused persons as “service resistant.” As Loberg said Tuesday, that term “can assign reluctance or obstinance to people may or may not be there. Often the services just don’t work for people, or they’re not able to use them.”

Stan Deetz, Loberg’s peer on HRC, put it this way: “Referring to them as resistant populations is a way to make it not a deficiency in our system but a deficiency in the individual.”

National experts on homelessness agree, and echoed the HRC’s concerns about dehumanization.

“It’s not a legitimate thing at all,” said Steve Berg, Vice President for programs and policy at the National Alliance to End Homelessness. “It usually comes about because the community is offering people things that are not what the people want. It’s not that they’re resistant to (help) in general. They may be resistant to what you’re offering them.”

“It’s a misleading determination,” said Donald Whitehead Jr. executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless. “We don’t provide people experiencing homelessness with options. It’s a one-size-fits-all model.” 

Unhoused persons are often not asked what services they would utilize, perhaps because they are seen as not capable of engaging. Such an oversight is a “denial of people’s humanity,” Berg said — “the refusal to see people as members of their community that they deserve a say in their own fate.”

Particularly with a housing-first approach — which Boulder employs — where the end goal is a place to live, Whitehead said the idea that an unsheltered person would reject that outcome is ludicrous.

I’ve been doing this work for almost 30 years: I’ve done it at every level, from outreach to case manager to finance person. I’ve seen thousands of homeless people.

“I’ve never once in my entire career had anybody who was offered housing turn it down.”

Sweeps, cleanups or removals?

Recent examples of potentially problematic language includes characterizing encampments as having “taken over” public property, and the removal of camps as the process of “taking back” or “reclaiming” those spaces.

“Public space reclamation supervisor” is a new position Boulder is seeking to fill to coordinate and oversee encampment removals. “Maintaining a Safe and Welcoming Public Space” was the title of Tuesday’s discussion on encampment policy and, more broadly, policies around homelessness.

Others have been irked by the city’s broad definition of “ending” homelessness. An official city press release and notes to council parroted the point that Boulder has “housed” 1,000 individuals since 2017, but fewer than half have actually been placed into housing (residents can also find housing through participation in other programs, like Ready to Work). Some 388 others were “diverted” or “reunified,” terms that cover a number of situations, such as being provided transportation out of town or placed back in the home of a friend or family member.

As critics note, there is no follow up with these individuals to see if they stay housed. This is a function of limited resources, staff counters, but the city continues to tout them as successful “exits” from homelessness.

Boulderites have found fault not only with what the city says regarding unhoused persons, but also for the information it leaves out. Staff did not include outcome data in reports about safe parking and camping, as the HRC and Housing Advisory Board pointed out. Reports from those boards — which directly contradict staff recommendations — have twice been left out of official notes to city council.

Also, no city officials have directly addressed Centers for Disease Control guidance to not remove encampments during the pandemic — except for Police Chief Maris Herold.

At a Jan. 14 police town hall event, she said Boulder is in “complete compliance” because “we have services to offer and sheltering to offer.”

“I’ve heard this argument many times,” Herold said. “It just does not apply to Boulder at all.”

The CDC’s “consideration for encampments” states that encampments should be allowed to remain if “individual housing options are not available.” (emphasis added) There is some room for interpretation, since the guidance also says “safe shelter” should be offered as an alternative to camps without “sufficient space.”

CDC considerations for encampments

If individual housing options are not available, allow people who are living unsheltered or in encampments to remain where they are.

  • Clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers. This increases the potential for infectious disease spread.

Encourage those staying in encampments to set up their tents/sleeping quarters with at least 12 feet x 12 feet of space per individual.

  • If an encampment is not able to provide sufficient space for each person, allow people to remain where they are but help decompress the encampment by linking those at increased risk for severe illness to individual rooms or safe shelter.

Work together with community coalition members to improve sanitation in encampments.

Ensure nearby restroom facilities have functional water taps, are stocked with hand hygiene materials (soap, drying materials) and bath tissue, and remain open to people experiencing homelessness 24 hours per day.

If toilets or handwashing facilities are not available nearby, assist with providing access to portable latrines with handwashing facilities for encampments of more than 10 people. These facilities should be equipped with hand sanitizer (containing at least 60% alcohol).


Herold had her own suggestion for what language around homelessness needs to change: Abandoning use of the word “sweeps” to refer to removal of camps, in favor of the term “clean-ups.”

Sweeps are indicative of a time when the objective was “to arrest as many people as possible,” Herold said. Today, the police department isn’t even the primary responder, added Officer Ross Maynard, a member of the Homeless Outreach Team.

“Cleaning up isn’t enforcement of the camping ban,” Maynard said. “It’s enforcement of other city statutes. … It’s entirely health and safety driven.”

“I’d like to get away from sweeps entirely,” Herold said. “That terminology is not correct in my mind.”

This particular issue of language was recently taken up in the U.S. District Court of Colorado. According to Westword reporter Connor McCormick-Cavanagh, Judge William J. Martinez said “clean-ups” was not accurate enough to be used in official records.

“There is a difference between a daily cleaning and removing people,” Martinez said.

A spot for spin

Generally speaking, the best practice for government communication is “to be very clear and precise,” said Barbara Wichmann, founder and CEO of strategic communications and marketing firm Artemia, headquartered in San Francisco. Matter-of-fact messaging “will help the public trust that your information is viable, (that) they’re not being sold a bag of goods.”

“There’s still a spot for spin, but ideally you stay away from that as much as you can.”

The public has come to expect more transparency over the years, Wichmann said, particularly around controversial subjects. There are “lots of examples” in the corporate world where companies who tackle a tough issue head-on “have done much better than the ones who have not.”

“Maybe a couple years back, you could walk your way around the topic,” she said. “Personally, sugar coating, I think that time has passed.”

Still, Wichmann acknowledged that Boulder is in a “difficult situation” when it comes to homelessness, and defended the city’s language around public space and reclamation. The word “encampments” has its own negative connotations, she said. Plus, the city is in charge of public property; it’s not spin to say so, even if it is “alienating” to activists and advocates.

“This is a function of city government. It’s not inaccurate.”

That’s how staff defended the choice of Public Space Reclamation Supervisor, a job title that went through a few iterations.

“Public spaces, as a city government, that’s what we’re responsible for,” said Utilities Director Joe Taddeucci. (The position will fall under the utilities department because it is the most impacted, financially, by encampments.)

City staff are looking at both “sides” of the issue, Taddeucci insisted. They’re striving for balance but somewhat bound by the responsibilities of their jobs.

“There’s one group of community members who feel like their center of gravity is the human rights aspect,” he said. “On the other side” are people saying, ‘This is our city and our paths and parks.’ We’re sort of stuck squarely in the middle of those two viewpoints. 

“We’re trying the best we can to approach it from (a standpoint of) ‘This is our policy, this is what’s expected of us as staff’ and try to do it as respectfully and humanely as we can.”

A little grace

The job title could change through the hiring process, Taddeucci said. As it stands, it’s meant to reflect utilities department jargon and the position’s technical responsibilities. But it also reflects the way Boulder already talks about homelessness: Utilities staff are relatively new to that conversation and so followed the lead of established vernacular.

“The terminology is kind of where we’re at as an organization right now,” Taddeucci said.

Much of the way the city speaks about homelessness originates within the Housing and Human Services department, helmed by Kurt Firnhaber. Firnhaber said verbiage is constantly evolving, the result of input from the public and elected officials.

A prime example is the naming of Tuesday’s discussion. The first title was Severe Weather Shelter Update, but council decided that a more robust look at encampments and services warranted another name. They suggested the simple “Homeless policy.”

“We were uncomfortable with that because this issue is not just a homeless issue,” Firnhaber said. “It’s much wider than that, and it impacts a lot of different departments.”

Staff recommended moving to a title that included the word “encampments” but, per Firnhaber, Mayor Sam Weaver was uncomfortable with that.” (A feeling apparently shared by Taddeucci, who said that referencing encampments in the new job title felt “too harsh.”)

In an interview, Weaver said he couldn’t “speak to” how the eventual title was arrived at. “Staff did that,” he said. “That would not have been the way I framed it up. I think it’s OK to call it that. I’m not so attached to the name. I’m much more attached to the agenda.”

Next came “Maintaining Safe and Welcoming Open Spaces.” At a scheduling meeting, Weaver said swapping in “public space” would be more appropriate since it covers all city property. And there it stayed.

While “I don’t disagree” that the reclamation language feels one-sided, Firnhaber said, it does represent an increasingly vocal number of residents who have reported dozens of camps and sent hundreds of emails to city council.

“We are getting a ton of (feedback) from individuals who are negatively impacted by the encampments,” he said. “Staff feels very frustrated.”

At the same time, Firnhaber wishes everyone would understand how many things have impacted the city’s ability to maintain public spaces this year, including deep cuts in staff and budget, as well as factors driving homelessness that have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

“I think the community needs to give us and the individuals experiencing homelessness a little more grace this year,” he said. “It is a more difficult year. And we’re not going to have all of our parks as pristine and beautiful as they normally are.”

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to remove out-of-date links to City of Boulder and CDC web pages that no longer exist. The City of Boulder launched a redone website in 2021.

— Shay Castle,, @shayshinecastle

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