Boulder Shelter to rebrand following director’s departure

Friday, Sept. 24, 2021

Boulder Shelter for the Homeless will get a new name and new leadership, as longtime executive director Greg Harms leaves the organization amid an evolution to focus more on housing and less on emergency shelter as a solution to homelessness.

Harms’ resignation was reported Wednesday by Boulder Beat and announced officially by the organization the following day. He has led Boulder Shelter since 2002.

Homeless services have undergone many changes since then. A 10-year plan to end homelessness in Boulder County was unsuccessful; the number of people without stable housing has not noticeably decreased and in 2020 (pre-pandemic) grew for the third straight year. A new approach was implemented in 2017 in which individuals are screened to services through a single, coordinated system and housing is the ultimate goal. More than 500 people have been placed in homes since that time.

Boulder Shelter’s new organizational name will reflect how housing has become, as Harms said, “our singular focus or almost our singular focus.”

“We are now supporting as many people in housing as we are in the Shelter,” he said. “We’ll have 125 people here tonight (at the shelter). We have over 120 people in supportive housing spread throughout the county that we are supporting on a regular basis to help them maintain that housing.”

“We’re hoping to rebrand so that people understand that we’re more about permanent supportive housing,” said board chair Bobby Pelz. “The name” — which is to-be-determined — “will incorporate both aspects” of the organization.

“We’re continuing on with what the Shelter has already done under Greg’s leadership,” Pelz said.

Scarcity of housing

Housing first is a nationally recognized approach for ending chronic homelessness. However, experts and critics note that it is meant to be one part of a continuum of care.

As Steve Berg, vice president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, told Boulder Beat in January, it is also the responsibility of the system “to keep people safe” while they’re homeless.

Critics of the shelter and Boulder’s approach generally allege that is not being done. They point to the shelter’s strict rules and the unusually high number of people banned for minor infractions as factors in the persistence of encampments. The deaths of two individuals in particular are held up as examples of gaps in the system: Benjamin Harvey, who froze to death in 2017 while banned from the shelter, according to the Daily Camera, and John Aldridge, who secured then lost housing for unknown reasons and died in a freak summer snowstorm last year.

Harms has been a vocal opponent of expanding services, arguing it will take funds away from housing. He compares the homeless services system to a crowded highway, with housing as the exit ramp: Adding lanes (i.e. services) only creates more traffic.

When you don’t have enough housing resources to house everybody,” he said, “other programs become less important.”

Shelter officials (and other homeless service leaders like Boulder’s Housing and Human Services Director Kurt Firnhaber) also contend that a robust system of services will attract unhoused individuals from around the country. National and regional experts, including Berg and the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative, have repeatedly debunked this line of thinking, known as magnet theory.

Pelz and Harms insisted that local data back up their claims. Unhoused individuals in Boulder County come from across the U.S. — but then again, so do housed residents.

“Like any other individual,” Pelz said, “you look for what your best opportunity is.”

Board looking for new skills

There is evidence of a rift between Harms and the board. Harms, who does not have immediate plans to retire or seek another job after leaving, said the board “has shifted a bit” in the “last few years” and was “looking at new skill sets, different skill sets for me or who was coming in after me.”

“There wasn’t this great chasm,” he said. “I just decided that it was time for me and for the organization for a change. I hope it works out well for the Shelter and for me to get new blood in and new energy.”

Whatever lead to Harms’ resignation “is an internal situation at the board and at the Shelter,” Pelz said. “It is not a matter of public interest. If I had someone who worked for me and they were asked to do one or two things differently, (does that mean) something is wrong? We did not ask Greg to resign. He chose to resign.”

Harms will stay on to work with an interim CEO who will be hired “hopefully in the next few weeks,” according to Pelz. In an email to Boulder Beat, Harms wrote that he will leave in the fall; the Shelter’s press release said Harms would step down “by the end of the year.”

A national search is underway for a new director. A hire should be made within three to six months.

Harms said he plans to “take a little time off” after leaving. He may seek new employment or simply volunteer. “I don’t think I’m probably finished in some kind of service work. But I don’t know what exactly that’s going to look like yet.”

As to his reasons for leaving Boulder Shelter, “frankly, I was getting a little tired,” Harms said. “You take a lot of abuse in that job. You make no one happy. You get accused for killing people. You get accused for a lot of really bad things. After a while, it adds up. I’ve had enough of that.

“I’m not an elected official. I’m just a guy who joined an organization to try and do some good.”

— Shay Castle, @shayshinecastle

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