Boulder’s unhoused have ‘lost hope’ in the system, providers say

Image by Jon Tyson via Unsplash

Saturday, May 1, 2021

No problem has been more persistent or captured Boulderites’ attention this year more than homelessness. Some residents raised their voices against encampments, calling in complaints by the hundreds; others have turned their criticism toward the city and its inability to adequately provide alternatives to unsheltered living.

Boulder is far from alone. Nationally, the number of people living outside or in vehicles is at its highest level ever. Homelessness has grown for four straight years amid escalating housing costs — and that was before a pandemic thrust millions into joblessness.

While other cities added shelter beds, hotel rooms and housing for the anticipated influx of unhoused residents, Boulder did the opposite. The number of shelter beds was cut in half as services consolidated.

Staff pointed to empty beds the previous winter and a high rate of housing placements as justification, which elected officials were happy to echo. Even now, there continue to be vacant shelter beds: Proof, the city says, that more services are not needed.

But despite the empty beds, 100-plus people continue to sleep outside every night. This group is often dismissed as not from here, and therefore not eligible or interested in help. That’s true in come cases, but as outreach efforts and even the city’s own data suggest, it is not the whole story. A recent survey revealed that even those who have attempted secure housing are eschewing services in lieu of the streets.

I think a lot of the homeless have lost hope that Boulder is really going to do anything productive for them,” said Shanan Collins, program director for Mother House, a nonprofit serving women, transgender and non-binary adults and children in crisis, and operations manager of The Lodge, Mother House’s emergency shelter. “I think they’ve gotten the message very loud and clear that Boulder does not want them here and is basically trying to do everything it can to get them out.”

To learn more about why people aren’t engaging in services, Boulder Beat spoke with four providers. Here are the key takeaways:

People are interested in help — and housing

As they survey revealed, 90% of respondents said they wanted housing to end their homelessness. A similar number would access services if they believed it would lead to housing. That figure held true even for those who hadn’t gone through coordinated entry screening, though most respondents (67%) had attempted to access the system.

“We hear a lot of, ‘I’ve tried it, it didn’t work for me,'” said Garrett Schilling, street outreach manager for TGTHR (formerly Attention Homes) and part of the city’s BTHERE outreach team. Some people have gone all the way through the system and fallen out; others take one or two steps and never make it any further.

“Somewhere between making that first contact and finding that stable housing option,” Schilling said, “there’s some sort of fallout.”

It’s easy to become discouraged given the amount of work involved, said Riley Bright, executive director of Harvest of Hope food pantry, where many of the survey responses were gathered. That kind of work is difficult enough for someone with stable housing, ready access to phones or the internet and somewhere to store paperwork. Take all those things away, and each step toward housing becomes exponentially harder.

“It just so happens that someone doesn’t answer the phone or coordinated entry is closed at that time, (and) any inspiration they had at the time is deflated,” Bright said. “I think there’s this sort of myth if you go out there and say we have housing, you just have to get your ID and birth certificate and open a bank account, and then you get housing.

“If you’re talking about any sort of major change, it doesn’t happen quickly.”

Others don’t fit particularly well within the system. Finding housing for people with criminal histories — common among the unhoused, whose everyday activities become illegal when conducted outside — is a challenge. So, too, is securing treatment for mental health and substance use disorder; both are massively under-funded.

To try and use a cookie-cutter to capture a huge group of people who have experienced different trauma and different mental health barriers… to try and pretend like there’s a one-size fits all model is unrealistic,” said Bright.

They’re not all out-of-towners

Nationally, older adults are among the fastest-growing segment of the unhoused population. Collins sees that same trend playing out locally.

“I know many individuals who were born and raised here and have lived 70-80 years and were very active in the community and were very influential in creating what Boulder is today, and when property taxes went up, they couldn’t afford their housing anymore,” Collins said. “I’ve met individuals who were CU professors for decades and, for whatever reason, ended up on the streets. These are people who have invested time and money and their lives to Boulder, in one way or another. This is their home.”

What percentage of the unsheltered population is “local” is not clear. The survey identified 32 individuals who were screened to Boulder Shelter (indicating they had been in the community long enough to qualify for housing) who were not utilizing that service.

Some 58% of people who went through coordinated entry (Boulder County’s screening tool) in 2020 had been in Boulder less than six months, the cut-off for services. The only thing they qualify for is paid transportation out of town. Few take it — 17% in 2020, according to Homeless Solutions Boulder County data — but sometimes end up back in Boulder anyway.

Said Schilling: “We hear a lot of, ‘I was able to connect with this family member but I didn’t have the support to deal with my mental crisis, I didn’t have the support to deal with substance abuse. I got kicked out and I’m back out here again. And if I call coordinated entry again, I’ll be put on that same path.’

“The effort and the services that are put into that diversion program, people just aren’t supported enough to get into stable housing and to keep it.”

Individuals who are identified as non-residents and sent to diversion are barred from receiving any other services for two years. Some say they intend to move on when Schilling encounters them in encampments. The rest will remain.

“More often than not, it’s people wanting to stay,” Schilling said. “They like Boulder; they have connections here. So they (are) continually setting up camps. Usually it’s 1-2 people finding their own spot. Those people are pretty adamant: ‘I’m staying. I don’t want to be told to move and told to leave when I’m trying my best to be part of the community.'”

Transportation is a challenge

Very few people surveyed shared why they weren’t staying at the Shelter when beds were available. Of those who did, transportation was among the top issues. That’s something Schilling sees as well.

“People are struggling to access the shelter,” he said. “We locate them in downtown Boulder, and they’re in a wheelchair or have trouble navigating a disability. It’s really hard for people to be put out in the street from 7-5 or 8-5 throughout the day and then make it back each day or each night” to the Shelter, which is located in north Boulder.

Many people fear the shelter

Transportation isn’t the only barrier keeping shelter beds empty. There are persistent beliefs among unhoused persons that Boulder Shelter — the sole location for navigation and housing-focused services — is not a welcoming place.

Staff revealed earlier this year that on any given night, up to 30 people are banned from the shelter for violating its policies. Bright, Schilling and Collins regularly hear from clients who feel the shelter rules are arbitrary or capricious; they report being kicked out for small offenses like carrying nail clippers or using course language.

“Whether all these stories are true or not,” Collins said, “it doesn’t matter, because that’s what’s believed on the street.”

Shelter Director Greg Harms has defended the facility’s rules — recently and in the past; these accusations are nothing new, and they come from other providers and advocates as well as unhoused individuals — as necessary for the safety of staff, residents and volunteers.

The rules are not meant to be punitive,” Harms said. “It’s about trying to keep it a safe place.”

He does agree with one other frequently cited reason people avoid the shelter: That it is, in Harms’ words, “not a great place to be.”

Congregate living simply doesn’t work for some: Those with pets, those who don’t wish to sleep separately from their partners. But even without those barriers, it’s a scary situation.

“You don’t know what to expect,” Collins said. “‘Are people going to be fighting? What am I going to catch, what disease? What if someone talks to me, how do I talk to them?’ You’re just kind of thrust in there with hundreds of people. All the sudden, you go from, ‘I’m in control of my life’ to ‘I don’t have control over where I sleep, who I’m with and how I take care of myself,’ basically. It’s terrifying to lose that control over your life.”

The negative beliefs and stereotypes that many people hold about the unhoused don’t magically disappear when someone becomes homeless themselves, Collins said.“We’ve had people new to homelessness that are like, ‘I can’t sleep in the same room as these people because I’m not one of them.'” 

It is not necessary to go through the shelter to access housing, Harms and city staff noted. People have been placed straight from the streets before; that work will continue.

There’s not enough housing

A quick path out of homelessness is not guaranteed even for the rare person who does everything “right,” who plays by all the rules, who engages the system at every step. They may still wait years for housing to become available.

“We literally have hundreds of people waiting for housing right now,” Harms said, whether in the shelter or other temporary situations through other providers.

More money would help — “We would love $3 million extra,” Harms said, nearly the amount council recently approved for camp removals — but it’s not the whole answer. Boulder has invested millions in housing, adding to the budget to keep people from becoming homeless in the first place and diverting sheltering resources to fund vouchers.

But even those with vouchers can find themselves waiting. There simply aren’t enough homes for everybody, or enough landlords willing to rent to those with vouchers.

“Unit scarcity is problem,” Harms said, “but we’re leaning into that.”

A new hire will help with “landlord relations” — trying to find willing property owners. New construction should help, too: Boulder will require every affordable housing development to set aside units for unhoused individuals, and the shelter is hoping to get tax credits to build 55 dwellings in Longmont, where it’s easier and cheaper to locate a building specifically for the homeless population.

A full highway, with only one exit

Even so, the rate at which new housing is being added is very slow. In the meantime, as the ranks of the unhoused swell, people either funnel into the existing system or remain unsheltered. 

Harms likens it to a freeway, every lane packed with cars waiting to get off on the one exit: Housing. He argues that every available dollar should be spent trying to widen that exit. Adding services — whether safe camping or parking or more case management — only adds to the traffic jam.

Said Harms, “Doing outreach when you have nothing to offer people is worthless.”

That line of thinking has seemingly adopted by city council, who have repeatedly declined to expand services this year, always arguing that it would siphon funds away from housing. Critics of that approach argue that Boulder has a duty to make that packed highway suck less: That is, give people safer and more humane ways to be homeless, until more housing becomes available. 

Such interventions might actually increase the likelihood of someone becoming housed, experts contend. Living unsheltered, after all, is illegal, subjecting residents to police interactions, jail, court proceedings, loss of belongings. Providing legal ways to live unhoused could increase stability, reduce stress and trauma, allow for safe storage of necessary documents, and give providers the opportunity to build relationships.

“Studies show it can take up to 15-20 encounters until someone experiencing homelessness can feel comfortable to engage in services and referrals,” staff itself notes in notes to council ahead of the May 4 meeting.

Bright, Collins and Schilling agree.

“No one can think about getting into housing if they haven’t slept, eaten or have water,” Bright said. “It’s short-sighted to focus on one (part of the solution). You’ve succeed with people who are there, but you’ll never build a bridge with the other people who need to get there.”

Here, Harms again disagrees.

Safe camping might “make someone more comfortable in their homelessness,” he said but at the end of the day, “they will still be homeless. I’m not willing to sacrifice the best option” for a temporary intervention. It doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense to try and increase those services when we don’t have a great exit system.”

Without an infusion of cash for housing from the federal or state government, the situation is likely to worsen. While he may not have all the answers for the unhoused residents he encounters, Schilling still feels the outreach he and others are doing is valuable.

“The data is showing we are missing the mark as a community and as a nation in providing services to these individuals,” Schilling said. “We are meeting people where they’re at, building rapport, building trust, being able to bring the services to them and not entirely telling them where to go.” 

To view unhoused people as a drain on a system is to miss their strengths that could be put to good use, Schilling said. They are “resilient, and resourceful and loyal and communal. These aren’t people who are intruding on our community. These aren’t people who are being anti-community members. These are people who live with us. We just really want to find a way to utilize their skills and uplift them.”

— Shay Castle,, @shayshinecastle

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