As ‘hundreds’ wait for housing, Boulder will spend $3M removing camps

Photo by Adam Thomas on Unsplash

Friday, April 30, 202

Boulder city council this week approved nearly $3 million in new spending to increase removal of homeless camps, including a new, dedicated police group specifically to deal with encampments and persons experiencing homelessness. Elected officials also rejected spending for or further exploration of alternatives for those living unsheltered, and will next week contemplate policy changes to further discourage camping alongside an annual report on homelessness locally.

The number of people experiencing homelessness nationally has grown for the past four years, and in 2020 more people were living unsheltered (that is, outside) than in shelters. Those numbers — drawn from a count taken before COVID descended on America — are only expected to worsen due to the pandemic and resultant economic crisis.

By an informal vote of 6-3 — Adam Swetlik, Aaron Brockett and Rachel Friend were opposed — city council approved $2.7 million in new spending for an 18-month pilot to increase removal of encampments and discourage camps from being established.

It includes reinstatement of unarmed urban park rangers, introduction of downtown ambassadors (paid for in part by business owners) and a city removal team. Six police officer will also be hired to staff a unit dedicated solely to assist in removal of camps and patrol areas with high concentrations of persons experiencing homelessness (University Hill, downtown Boulder, Civic Area).

More cops, ‘new model’

The actions are in response to hundreds of complaints about encampments: 335 have been received so far in 2021. A newly established outreach team has identified 21 unique camps and 129 unsheltered individuals since Feb. 1.

All council members were on board with interventions to deal with the trash, public safety concerns, etc. brought on by encampments. But Swetlik, Brockett and Friend didn’t want to add police officers to the city’s ranks. The six additional officers and vehicles for them account for more than half the cost: $1.5 million ($1.23 million in salary in benefits; $273,000 for outfitting, training and three new patrol SUVs).

“We’re spending $1.5 million on additional cops,” Swetlik said. “That’s 25,000 nights of hotel stays”

“The ambassadors and park ranger programs were pitched to me as alternatives to policing,” said Friend. “I can understand police support as needed. I don’t understand why we need armed people there without something having escalated.

“I’m not saying we should have no police ever at encampment clearings. I don’t understand why we automatically default to, if we’re dealing with somebody who’s unhoused, we need police presence. That seems like inherently targeting a population, and I’m not entirely comfortable with that.”

Multiple studies have shown that frequent interactions with police are disruptive, stressful and traumatic for persons experiencing homelessness. It makes them less likely to seek help in an emergency, though they need police protection more than perhaps any other group: Unhoused persons are much more likely to be victims of crime.

It is standard for 3-12 Boulder police officers to attend a single encampment removal, depending upon their size or reports of weapons and/or residents with a “propensity for violence,” Police Chief Maris Herold said Tuesday. She argued that such heavy presence is necessary to support and protect staff, who have been assaulted and threatened during removals. 

The police department has been shifting cops around to accommodate camp removals, which restarted in earnest last August. That has left gaps in coverage, Herold said.

“If we want to enforce the camping ban, have clean and safe spaces, I need additional resources.”

Read a Twitter thread of Tuesday’s discussion

BPD is currently down 27 officers from the 184 approved in the 2021 budget. Sixteen additional officers are in various stages of training and will join the force later this year. “It’s going to take every bit of two years” to fully hire out these additional positions, Herold said.

In the meantime, existing officers will be trained and re-assigned to this work. Their training will include crisis intervention, de-escalation, knowledge of legal standards regarding use-of-force, according to Herold. She expressed hope the role would be more attractive to “service-oriented individuals.”

That’s why councilwoman Mary Young supported additional police, she said.

“The reason I believe these police officers would be essential, as Chief Herold said, they will be trained differently,” Young said. “They will be trained in a matter I think we should be moving in in this country, in a model that is new. It’s not only a pilot project for the (removal) team, it is a pilot project for a reformed approach to policing.”

What does success look like?

Friend and others questioned how the city would know increased enforcement was working. No metric or goals were laid out by staff; the city has only estimates for the number of encampments and individuals residing in them, and few if any records of how often the same people are subject to removals. Their most accurate measurement of the camps is the amount of trash removed from them.

“If we’re talking about outcomes of encampment (removals),” said Mayor Sam Weaver, “I think absolutely, we would like less people camping on our public lands.”

The three council members opposed to enforcement each asked the same question in return: Where will people living outside go?

“We do have people who fall through the cracks,” Brockett said.

Sanctioned camping was pitched, in part, to capture some of that population, or to provide a legal alternative for those who can’t or won’t engage with services. Many who haven’t been in Boulder long enough to qualify for help have accepted paid transportation out of town (called diversion) — but many more haven’t.

Out of a total 460 screen to diversion in 2020, just 17.6% were actually diverted, according to Homeless Solutions Boulder County. Once identified in the system as a non-resident, people cannot access services for two years if they choose to remain in Boulder.

Then there are the people who can qualify for housing but haven’t yet been housed: 147 out of 226 in 2020, HSBC data shows (79 were housed).

We literally have hundreds of people waiting for housing right now,” Boulder Shelter director Greg Harms told Boulder Beat Friday. Some are in the Shelter or temporarily lodgings managed by other providers.

Others are, presumably, living unsheltered, but how many is unknown. Data on high-system utilizers identifies at least two such individuals within encampments; a recent survey suggests that even those who could be housed are not accessing services, and are therefore more likely to be living unsheltered.

“It’s important to know if we’re moving the same people around town when we clear encampments,” Friend said. “Without that concrete, drilled-down data, how do we know if whatever steps we’re taking are working? How could we have any measurable outcomes?”

Housing first — for everybody

National and regional experts on homelessness have continued to argue that enforcement is the more expensive and less effective option than expanding services for unhoused individuals. Cities held up as examples have all invested in additional paths out of homelessness or protections for the unsheltered: buying hotels, adding shelters for targeted populations, increasing case management and, most importantly, building housing.

“To take away the resources for a segment of the population that continues to grow… We’ve seen many communities (pursue) criminalization of homelessness, and it’s a really flawed strategy,” said Donald Whitehead, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless. “It does nothing to end homelessness. In fact, it exacerbates it.”

Instead, cities should “make a housing-first policy that isn’t limited to those who are chronically homeless … that included the entire homeless population,” Whitehead said. “We know that once people get into that housing, they begin to address every issues and therefore the cost to the community is a little less for those individuals.”

Boulder spends a great deal on homelessness: Nearly $4 million in 2020, according to Housing and Human Services staff. And while the 2020 sheltering budget was reduced by some $300,000 through consolidation, that money was re-invested, largely into housing.

There were other reasons a safe campground was rejected — lack of an experienced nonprofit partner and strains on staff time — but Boulder’s leaders have consistently rejected any expansion of services amid warnings from staff that it would take money away from housing efforts. On Tuesday, sanctioned encampments met the same fate, under the same logic.

“This is about prioritization of limited resources,” said Bob Yates. “Every hour that we ask staff to work on something like this, every dollar we ask staff to spend on something like this, is an hour or a dollar that’s lost on helping people get out of homelessness. We need to continue to spend staff time and money on those programs we know that work.”

For funding, that’s typically true. The cost of removals will be spread across four departments: police, parks & recreation, utilities and community vitality. All services, meanwhile, come out of the HHS budget.

But the actions approved on Tuesday are part of a pilot program. The city is using excess revenue to pay for it — money that hasn’t yet been claimed by any one department, that could be allocated anywhere, to any purpose that council desired.

As Swetlik, Brockett and Friend argued, some of those dollars could have gone to solutions that got people off the streets, even if temporarily, addressing residents’ concerns about encampments in a way that doesn’t further traumatize and alienate people experiencing homelessness.

“There’s still holes in our sheltering system, there’s still holes in our transitional housing system, there’s still holes in our system of health care,” especially around substance use and mental health, Swetlik said. “Start eliminating the reasons why people can’t go to shelter or won’t go to shelter.

“I’m looking for new solutions, and additional police isn’t a new solution.”

The city will do an adjustment to base in late May, subject to a council vote, to pay for the enforcement actions. 

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

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