City: Homeless camp removals not working yet, but full enforcement yet to begin

Photo by Adam Thomas on Unsplash

Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021

A year of renewed encampment removals has not yet been effective in Boulder, staff wrote to city council this week, but the full rollout of a new approach — which includes a dedicated team and police officers — will not begin for several more weeks. Once hiring is complete, camp removals will occur with more frequency.

City council in April allocated $2.7 million to hire additional cops, urban park rangers, downtown ambassadors and an in-house removal team. The Downtown Boulder Partnership also contributed funds for the ambassador program. The city then passed a tent ban to allow for immediate removal and prevent camps from being established.

Enforcement began Aug. 9. Four tickets had been issued as of Tuesday, Aug. 17, according to Deputy Chief Carey Weinheimer. No tents have been confiscated, he wrote in response to emailed questions.

The efforts are the latest in an ongoing attempt to deal with unsheltered homelessness in Boulder. While the city’ camping ban has been in place for years — prohibiting “activities of daily living” such as sleeping with a blanket, bag or shelter — enforcement has been inconsistent, with long gaps in between active removals.

Removals stopped in early 2020 as the city grappled with COVID. They began again in earnest last August, after tremendous pressure from residents upset about needles, trash and crime associated with encampments.

So far, there has been limited success. Residents simply relocate or return to the same location soon after cops leave.

“While progress has been made, encampments tend to quickly reemerge in many areas,” staff wrote in an update to city council this week. “Several sites have been cleaned multiple times.”

Hiring, turnover challenges

The city is hoping for more success once the new approach has been fully implemented. Here’s where that stands:

Cops — Four officers have been dedicated to the removal and “safety improvement” team, staff wrote. They were not named. The department has lost 16 officers since council’s April approval for six new hires. As of July 28, there were 30 vacant positions.

Urban park rangers — Recruitment has begun. The city hopes to have two rangers hired and trained by the end of 2021.

Downtown ambassadors – 16 ambassadors were hired and began work downtown and on University Hill by July 4. They referred 42 individuals to services and recorded 89 ordinance violations through July 28. Moving forward, ambassadors will also track biohazard cleanups, parking questions, safety escorts and restroom checks.

Ambassadors’ primary role in observing ordinance violations is to inform people about the rules: no pets, skating, smoking or amplified music on the mall, etc. They are not “calling in” ordinance violations to the police unless “there is a safety issue or ongoing or escalating situation,” said Chip, head of the DBP.

mbassadors do not report or inform violators of the camping ban, Chip said. “The ambassadors will not be reporting camping violations, nor will we be “informing” people in violation about the ordinances as we do with the other previously mentioned violations. This is both at the direction of the Police, and in accordance with the program’s values.”

BTHERE (outreach team) — Of the three original members, only one remains. Replacements are being hired now, according to Housing and Human Services Director Kurt Firnhaber, including a formerly unhoused individual.

Internal removal teamA supervisor was hired in February but “voluntarily left the city to pursue other opportunities” after just three months, according to staff. Other members of the team are being interviewed and equipment has been purchased. The plan is to have a fully operational crew “by late August or early September.”

More frequent cleanups coming

Removals will become more frequent at that time, from once a week to three times a week. Police intend to support two removals per week; three per week during and after the back-to-school period.

A push has been made to remove the encampment behind Boulder High School. Classes started Thursday, Aug. 19. Already, the presence of unhoused individuals there has lessened, Joe Tadduecci, director of utilities, confirmed.

“We plan to have more frequent cleanup attention … in the near term,” he wrote in response to emailed questions. “We also hope to continue to build on the cleanup frequency as we establish our internal crew and resources.”

Activist groups, service providers and unhoused individuals this week reported that people living in that area had moved elsewhere in Boulder, mostly the nearby downtown area. Enforcement has not noticeably increased or changed, they said, and impacts of the tent ban aren’t yet being felt broadly.

Years ago, it was uncommon for unsheltered individuals to use tents, as Jen Livovich said on the Sharing Boulder podcast released this week. Livovich is the executive director of Feet Forward, a nonprofit that provides clothing, hot meals and other services to people experiencing homelessness.

Weinheimer wrote that “it’s simply too early to say” if the tent ban is working to discourage encampments.

Residency requirement repealed for some

Research on encampments and removals is nascent. The dozen-plus studies that have been done indicate that removing camps is not likely to discourage unsheltered individuals from leaving the area, and costs more than providing housing. Connections to services can help, particularly if they are low-barrier and tailored to the needs of specific populations, but multiple studies have found that removals had no effect or a negative effect on residents’ likelihood to seek shelter or services.

“While these and other enforcement strategies may temporarily assuage public outcry against homeless encampments,” wrote Terrah Glen in Solving Unsheltered Homelessness for the National League of Cities, “they do not appear to work as therapeutic and cost-effective long-term solutions for the unsheltered homeless. In the absence of a complimentary policies that emphasize the provision of a sufficient quantity of shelter and crisis services, enforcement activity alone may make conditions worse.”

More shelter is available to those living outside after Homeless Solutions Boulder County repealed a rule limiting services to residents, defined as having lived in Boulder County for at least six months. In 2020, 58% of those screened through Coordinated Entry were non-residents, according to HSBC data.

HSBC said the move was to “align” local practices with regional and national ones. Boulder appeared to be the only jurisdiction with a residency requirement. HHS’ Firnhaber said the rule was repealed because there were empty shelter beds available; 30 a night, on average.

Newly screened non-residents will now be able to access shelter, but beds — which are tied to programs — will be prioritized for “those with disabling conditions and other barriers to housing,” according to staff. Stays will also be limited to 90 days per year, regardless of weather conditions. Boulder Shelter for the Homeless currently has 140 beds each night, plus 20 hotel rooms during the winter. 

It’s unclear what will happen to those previously screened as non-residents who were barred from comprehensive services for a further two years. HSBC spokesperson Alice Kim said the organization is still evaluating whether or not to allow such residents to access services.

“We still have to determine this across HSBC,” Kim wrote in response to emailed questions, “and are working on ways to balance the need for rescreening in a trauma-informed and equitable way.”

Defining success

Also in the works is what defines success under the city’s new enforcement regime. An internal staff team has been put together to determine objectives as metrics, as well as standardizing procedures for camp removals and storage of belongings.

That Boulder didn’t have goals in place before approving city funds was a sticking point with elected officials opposed to the programs.

“What’s the expected decrease in camping these interventions will result in? How much will this decrease our overall crime rate?” asked councilman Adam Swetlik at the April 27 meeting. (Both questions were met with silence and nonspecific answers.) “With such large sums of money, having a goal needs to be a requirement.”

The job of the aforementioned city team will be “trying to figure out (data) they do collect, what they’re able to collect and what they should be measuring,” Firnhaber said. 

Boulder will also be researching how other Front Range cities approach encampment removals.

— Shay Castle, @shayshinecastle

Author’s note: This article has been updated to clarify the role of the downtown ambassadors.

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