Survey: 90% of Boulder’s unhoused residents want housing

Image by Toby Wong via Unsplash

Saturday, April 24, 2021

The overwhelming majority of people living unsheltered in Boulder would take housing if they could get it, according to an informal survey. But more housing isn’t on the table for Tuesday discussion on encampments.

Instead, city council will weigh increased spending to remove and discourage camps, including the hiring of more police officers. The set of actions being suggested by staff would cost $2.7 million over 18 months — enough to house 90 of the estimated 100-150 nightly campers in Boulder that have sparked a wave of complaints among residents and a renewed focus on the worsening issue of homelessness.

Boulder’s focus on enforcement sets it squarely against the advice of experts, who unanimously warn that removing camps only extend and worsen homelessness. Best practices call for expanded, tailored services and eliminating barriers to accessing them.

“Instead of exacerbating the cycle of homelessness, cities are recognizing the barriers that are keeping people in homelessness,” said Lauren Lowery, housing and community development program director for the National League of Cities. 

Staff still skeptical of safe camping

Council members will consider one form of service expansion Tuesday: Sanctioned camping, recently embraced in Denver and elsewhere as an alternative to indoor shelters during COVID. Some members of council, as well as Boulder’s Housing Advisory Board and Human Relations Commission, pushed for a more serious exploration of the alternative to unlawful camping.

Using case studies from other cities, staff admitted that safe camping can be part of a housing-first strategy — something  the policy-setting body Homeless Solutions Boulder County had thus far not acknowledged — but wrote that it could not be implemented without significant tradeoffs.

Pursuing city-sanctioned campgrounds would delay other work (Housing and Human Services lost 44 employees due to pandemic cuts) and “would require reduction in other expenditure categories (i.e., housing, severe weather shelter, shelter support),” staff wrote.

Such arguments are absent when discussing funding for enforcement — “Staff believes that such expenditures are warranted,” they wrote, “given Downtown and University Hill’s significant roles in tourism, hosted events and sales tax revenue generation” — likely because of where funding for each initiative would be sourced from.

Because of the way Boulder budgets, any city spending for camps would come from Housing and Human Services. Camp removal costs, meanwhile, are spread across several departments: Utilities, Parks & Recreation, Police, Community Vitality, etc. Council could possibly use funding from multiple departments to fund homeless services, given homelessness’ documented impact on these departments, but that approach has not been discussed.

Another argument against sanctioned camping is that it costs just as much as permanent housing: “Permanent supportive housing costs the city, on average, $1,666 per person, per month,” staff wrote, whereas estimates for safe campgrounds are $1,906 per tent per month.

Notably, more than a quarter of that cost includes expanded case management, which presumably would also be needed if more individuals were engaging with the system through other avenues. Additionally, tents can accommodate more than one person, however, such as couples who cannot room together in the shelter.

These estimates also exceed those in other communities. Denver is currently supporting three sites, spending $28 per tent, per month. Gainesville, Fla.’s temporary camp operated for $299,000 per year and has placed 128 people into permanent housing, a 90% success rate; Portland hosts 60 people per night for $300,000, though residents contribute work hours and $50 per month. Ontario, Canada, an example of a failed camp, had an annual operating budget of $300,000 for 68 people.

Absent city support, sanctioned camping could still happen on private property with private funding, staff noted: “There are currently no limits for a private entity to provide this service.”

Estimated sanctioned camping costs

Operating: $42/tent/night x 25 tents = $477,750
Plus $39,800 startup costs = 
Plus $197,300 case management services = $714,850

Over 15 months = $47,656 per month
Divided by 25 tents = $1,906 per tent

Author’s note: These figures differ from those provided by staff to council. An HHS spokesperson told Boulder Beat the city’s figures were incorrect and verified that Boulder Beat’s calculations were accurate.

Much more enthusiastically endorsed by staff is a suite of enforcement options that include hiring more police officers, reinstating urban park rangers and bringing all camp removals in-house. A summary of options being presented to council and associated costs:

Option 1: Internal cleanup team – $435,000 for 18 months
– City currently contracts with ServPro, which can clean 2-4 sites every other week
– Some removals take 5-7 hours
– Utilities department has coordinated removals at 20 spots along waterways for past few years
– Parks & Rec responsible for downtown removals along Boulder Creek
– $230,000 one-time expense; $545,000 ongoing (minus $170,000 currently spent on ServPro)

Option 2: “Integrated Presence Strategy” $2,276,588 total 18-month budget
Downtown ambassador program – $568,000
– Non-armed presence to assist visitors, business owners
– Would intervene in low-priority situations in lieu of police
– Could perform light maintenance (graffiti, trash removal, etc.)
Downtown Business Partnership would contribute $300,000 to funding
– $10,000 startup costs; $660,000 for admin and ambassadors downtown; $108,000 for Hill ambassadors; $90,000 for Civic Area ambassadors

Urban park rangers – $260,000
– Parks & Rec department historically employed rangers; they were folded into OSMP during a 2001 merger, and remaining positions eliminated 
during the Great Recession and/or 2014 reorganization
– Staff suggesting 2 rangers during 18-month pilot
– $10,000 startup; $180,000 ongoing; minus $10,000 currently spent on private security services

Dedicated police officers – $1.5 million
– 6 officers requested to assist removals and patrol downtown and Uni Hill
– $273,000 startup; $1.229 million ongoing

Other strategies include bringing more people back downtown, a well-known crime-fighting strategy. Some 65 events are planned at the bandshell over the summer, and “temporary infrastructure” will be deployed in the Civic Area, such as creating a “skate spot” under the library.

Despite being presented as separate “options,” staff noted that each approach is “dependent on one another to some extent.” Notably, more cops are necessary in either instance, they wrote.

“Having an internal clean-up crew and increased presence by ambassadors may only be done safely with additional police officers. Therefore, staff requests that Council consider the strategies presented below together to ensure a holistic approach.”

Boulder Police Department is down 27 officers from desired staffing, due to retirements and resignations. Local law enforcement agencies have reported difficulty hiring amid the current climate; staff noted that “it is possible the department will not find enough qualified candidates to fill all positions.”

Nearly all want housing; few get it

Notes to council also provided more insight than ever before into who is not served by the current, consolidated shelter system, and are therefore more likely to be camping illegally. A survey of 106 individuals by HSBC is by no means scientific, staff cautioned, but it does reflect anecdotal data.

The survey showed that 86% of respondents have completed required screening, but 67% have not accessed services they were referred to.

While staff painted a picture of a highly transient camping population, more than half (51 people) of survey respondents who had completed screening were matched with Boulder Shelter for the Homeless or HOPE in Longmont (7 people), meaning they had lived in the community long enough to qualify for housing. (It’s possible that there is a bias baked into the survey itself: That is, persons more likely to engage with services might also be more likely to complete a survey than disenfranchised individuals.)

The majority of those who were meant to be in the Shelter or HOPE did not go there. Two dozen individuals answered questions about why: transportation, behavior and issues with rules at Boulder Shelter and Hope were among the most commonly cited reasons, but the responses amount to just a handful of individuals. 

Ninety percent of survey respondents indicated they wanted housing to end their homelessness, and 86% said “they would access services if they knew it would increase their access to housing.”

It would cost between $3 million and $4.5 million to provide 18 months of housing and services for the 100-150 campers the city estimates it has every night. But money is only one obstacle to ending homelessness in housing-strapped Boulder.

The city added 277 affordable homes last year. A fraction are reserved for individuals experiencing homelessness, but 226 people were screened to housing-focused shelter in Boulder, according to HSBC (79 were housed). Even if there were enough cash and units to go around, many unhoused persons in Boulder would not qualify. HSBC employees a six-month residency requirement to access services — a rarity among municipalities serious about tackling homelessness.

“To my knowledge, they’re the only community that has these requirements around residency,” said Jamie Rife, communications director from the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative. Multipole national experts confirmed.

HSBC’s rationale is to prevent Boulder County from becoming a magnet for unhoused individuals seeking help. The same argument was made against safe camping: Such offerings “may likely make Boulder more attractive in the national network for individuals experiencing homelessness, heightening pressures on community resources,” staff wrote.

This line of thinking has been thoroughly debunked by experts working with unhoused individuals, whose travel patterns often match those of housed residents. (The top two states reported at coordinated entry, for example, are Florida and Texas: Both are among the states sending the most transplants to Colorado.)

There is no evidence that unhoused people travel to find services, multiple national and regional experts told Boulder Beat.

“People experience homelessness where they were last housed,” Rife said. Residents do tend to move around within the region — which is why collaboration is so important — but the idea that unhoused people come here for services, “that’s one of the common misconceptions.”

Regardless of where people come from, Rife pointed out the irony that Boulder County’s residency requirement seems to ignore. It would be cheaper to simply house everyone — local or not — than to keep spending money removing camps.

“Law enforcement, emergency room visits, trash removal — it’s way more costly to have people staying outdoors,” Rife said. “From a fiscal lens, it makes more sense to work on housing people. … Homelessness ends in a home. Safe outdoor space can be a plan to get people into housing. You have to have ways to connect people in the interim.”

— Shay Castle,, @shayshinecastle

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