Boulder will (again) weigh sanctioned camping for unhoused residents

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Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021

Boulder will take another look at expanded services for people experiencing homelessness, including sanctioned encampments that have proven successful but are opposed by the group that sets homeless service policy in Boulder County. The discussion, which has yet to be scheduled, will simultaneously look at new ways to remove and discourage encampments.

City council on Tuesday spent more than an hour hashing out what, exactly, needed to be addressed. On Jan. 19, elected officials decided not to pursue more jail time for camping ban violations and to expand residential treatment options for drug users, but they did not touch on other recommendations from staff for managing encampments.

Read a Twitter thread of Tuesday’s discussion

Then and now, three council members insisted that the two topics — services and enforcement — not be separated.

“I’m not going to vote in favor of an all-enforcement regime going forward,” said Adam Swetlik, who was joined by Aaron Brockett and Rachel Friend. “If you want my vote on some of those, we have to look at the other side.”

Council members Sam Weaver, Bob Yates and Mary Young expressed confusion at requests for a “holistic” discussion, and questioned why the two need to be considered in tandem.

“For me, a holistic discussion and (enforcement decisions) is like apples and oranges,” Young said. “So we’ve got the apple part being held up by the oranges.”

Plus, Yates added, council has already rejected service expansion multiple times, most recently in July.

“I think staff was pretty clear,” he said, “and the majority of council was, too.”

At its recent planning retreat, city council agreed not to revisit issues unless circumstances or information had materially changed. This counts, Friend, Brockett and Swetlik argued.

Enforcement actions recommended by staff represent new spending: More than $1 million, at least, for the package as a whole. The rationale against increased services given repeatedly in the past is that the city should not spend on anything that takes money away from housing people experiencing homelessness. (Homeless Solutions Boulder County, the group overseeing homeless services, does not recognize safe camping or parking as part of its housing-first model; national and regional experts on homelessness disagree.)

“If we’re going to spend a substantial amount of additional money on these issues, I think we need to consider what (else) we might do with those dollars,” councilman Brockett said. “It belongs as part of this discussion. This is all apples.”

Since the July rejection of safe camping, parking and tiny homes, staff’s report to council was revealed to be incomplete. Data on outcomes in multiple cities with such programs was left out of the report on costs and number of individuals served, though it was noted which programs had ceased operation.

Denver has also launched its own sanctioned encampments in that time, providing ice fishing tents, access to restrooms/showers and on-site case management and medical services. On Tuesday, while Boulder was debating whether or not to even talk about such services, Denver city council voted 10-1 to allocate $900,000 to three camps.

Young and others warned not to expect that level of support in Boulder.

“I really don’t want to revisit the encampments and safe parking, in terms of having it be city-funded,” Young said. “I really don’t see us having any kind of impact, holistically, with city resources.”

Mirabai Nagle praised residents who reported raising enough money over the Feb. 12-14 weekend to place 78 individuals into hotel rooms in Boulder, Lafayette and Denver. (The fundraising was a joint effort of SAFE Boulder, Boulder Valley Mutual Aid and Comrade Co-op)

“It would be great to have unlimited funds,” she said, “but we don’t. It’s going to take community to jump in and third parties to jump in.”

The discussion(s) will be split into two parts: items with budget implications and non-monetary policy changes. Council left scheduling up to the council agenda committee. Director of Housing and Human Services Kurt Firnhaber said staff would need between six and eight weeks to pull together the necessary information and more fully flesh out enforcement recommendations.

On the table

Services

Sanctioned encampments (aka safe outdoor spaces). Councilman Brockett last month suggested the city revisit this idea, in the wake of Denver’s success. A site and services “could be provided either by the city or a private service provider,” Brockett wrote in an post to the city’s public email line. This would provide “a safe, warm, clean alternative to the unauthorized encampments that have been becoming more and more common” since they are “required to have security, maintenance and measures in place to mitigate impacts” to surrounded properties. It would also lessen the disruption caused by removals, allowing services providers to follow up with residents more successfully.

“Safe camping sites in Boulder could reduce the impromptu encampments while giving the people that occupy the new sites a level of stability that would enable them to engage in services, get on their feet, and obtain access to long-term housing.”

Enforcement

More police officers. A six-person team would be stationed in areas prone to camping to dissuade establishment of further encampments. The city has already started this, to some extent, stationing overtime patrols in and around the Civic Area since late 2020. Cost: $771,888 annually + $321,600 startup costs

Urban park rangers. This would put a “uniformed presence” on multi-use paths and in parks where tents tend to be prevalent, again to discourage camping. Cost: $70,000-$100,000 annually + $76,000 start-up costs

In-house removal team. Rather than relying on outside contractor ServPro, city employees would be responsible for all removal and cleanup activity. The city has already moved toward this with the (pending) hire of an encampment removal managerCost: $240,000 annual (minus $170,000 in current spending) + $80,000 startup costs

Landscape design changes. This entails removing flat surfaces via the use of boulders and sloping to make it more difficult/uncomfortable to set up tents. One big project on this list is building a skatepark underneath the library. Cost: $62,500-$125,000

Downtown ambassador program. Newly introduced on Tuesday, the Downtown Boulder Partnership would employ “ambassadors” to provide a “uniformed, welcoming, friendly” presence that reduces the reliance on police to manage public space, according to DBP leader Chip.  The program “is about providing support to businesses” downtown, but the aim is to “build relationships” with unhoused residents, visitors and businesses to help mitigate conflict so that “public spaces work for everybody.”

Crime reduction and safety are one goal, Chip said — “Having a presence deters violent or vandalous behavior — but he also envisions ambassadors working to fill in “gaps” between individuals and services. “You don’t build relationships with people by calling the police.”

Details are still being worked out, but ambassador programs are used in many cities. Cost: Unknown (Also unknown is whether the city would contribute to funding)

Policy changes

Outlawing propane tanks in parks. A series of explosions and fires preceded this suggestion from Yates and/or Weaver. Boulder Revised Code Section 5-4-10 would be added to prohibit tanks not attached to grills: “No person shall possess a propane tank in any public property, park, parkway recreation area, open space, street, or public way, unless such tank is affixed to a grill or other device intended for the preparation of food.”

Banning tents in parks. The camping ban makes it illegal to “conduct activities of daily living, such as eating or sleeping” in a tent, tents themselves are still allowed. Yates suggested explicitly banning them, and staff proposed this amendment to current codes: “Tents and Nets Prohibited. No person shall erect any tent, net, or structure on any public property, park, parkway recreation area, open space, street, or public, unless done pursuant to a written permit or contract from the city manager.”

Emergency shelter limits. Beginning Jan. 1, a new policy limited the number of nights a person could seek emergency winter sheltering to 30 (unless they engage with offered services). That was recently extended to 60 nights amid pushback, subzero temperatures and the death of another unhoused man. As councilwoman Friend noted Tuesday, residents may still run out of time in early March, prompting a revisit of this policy.

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

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