Providers lay out ‘Vision Zero’ for homelessness. But they need Boulder’s help to realize it.

Photo by Adam Thomas on Unsplash

Friday, Jan. 21, 2022 (Updated Saturday, Jan. 22)

After three years of cajoling by concerned council members, Boulder is finally looking for extra shelter for people experiencing homelessness. But the organizations who provide food, clothes and shelter to those without say the city needs to do much, much more if it truly wants to care for those living on its streets.

This week, representatives from a half-dozen agencies sent their collective vision to city council. In it, they wrote of the need for a centralized “services center,” one that would provide several options for legal shelter, “access to basic needs” and services like laundry, showers and storage.

A centralized site would work toward a “Vision Zero” for homelessness, providing a “safe, legal place to be” for “those entering homelessness, those working to achieve their homelessness exit plans, and those in homelessness not yet ready for exit-oriented programming,” backers wrote.

“No one dies unattended (and) the cumulative damage of unsheltered life is mitigated,” including unhoused people living in public spaces and using the library as a de facto day shelter.

“It’s what we envision collectively our homeless service structure should look like,” said Jennifer Livovich, executive director of Feet Forward, one of the nonprofits who signed on. (Disclosure: The author of this article volunteers at Feet Forward’s weekly outreach event.)

“Providers are collectively screaming we need additional services, we need your support to do it.”

The letter was co-signed by Bridge House, TGTHR, Mother House / The Lodge and two organizations advocating for sanctioned camping and parking. (Boulder Shelter for the Homeless participated in the provider group but did not co-sign their proposal. Spencer Downing, interim director for the Shelter, did not respond to a request for comment.)

Representatives from each said the city is not doing enough to address unsheltered homelessness, leaving housed and unhoused residents alike to deal with the fallout.

City leadership has been incredibly resistant to any service expansion. Even now, with a shelter running out of room, the ACLU dangling the threat of a lawsuit and the recent death of an unhoused woman and her baby, the smallest of additions — more emergency beds during the winter — seems out of reach. 

Service center not possible without city

This is not the first time a centralized location has been suggested. Municipal Court Judge Linda Cooke has spoken about the difficulty of dispersed services; transportation is a significant barrier for the unhoused.

Finding a physical space is the biggest obstacle to realizing this vision. On that front, providers are on their own: The city’s Request For Information (RFI), released earlier this month, indicated that anyone wishing to provide overflow shelter would need to come location in hand, with a letter of commitment from the facility.

Providers say that is a virtual impossibility, especially within the timeline provided by the city. Responses are due Jan. 26.

“It took Mother House about a year to find a place for The Lodge,” said Mother House executive director Lisa Sweeney-Miran. “The amount of time it takes to locate a space and have it go through city approval, it’s not an overnight process.”

Bridge House had a similar experience placing Path to Home, the navigation services it provided for two seasons on 30th Street.

“It was ridiculous how long that took,” said Scott Medina, director of community relations. “We had to jump through all the hoops of bringing that up to code. It was so frustrating.”

“Having support directly from the city is the only way it’s going to happen in a quick turnaround,” Sweeney-Miran said.

In response to emailed questions, Boulder’s homeless policy adviser Vicki Ebner said that the short timeline was dictated by council. The RFI specified that providers would need to come up with their own facility because “the city has no readily available resource to provide overflow sheltering for an additional 20-50 people.”

Boulder Shelter for the Homeless did add five beds after Boulder Reporting Lab, analyzing city data, reported that two dozen people had been turned away due to capacity before winter officially started. Extra hotel rooms will also be available during the most severe weather (10 degrees or below and/or six inches-plus of snow) but it still may not be enough for the estimated 100-150 people living unsheltered in the city.

ACLU Colorado has warned the city that it could face legal consequences for penalizing unhoused folks when shelter is not available. Boulder Reporting Lab revealed that at least 12 camping or tent ban tickets had been issued on nights when there were no beds, in December alone.

Even with the looming threat of legal action, additional sheltering appears unlikely. Providers interviewed by Boulder Beat universally agree that, without the city, overflow sheltering won’t happen this winter.

“The reality is the provider is not going to have the means to put that in place,” said Medina. “The city is going to have to make that happen.”

People wait in line at Feet Forward’s weekly outreach event. (Courtesy of Feet Forward)

Money is there — political will might not be

Various board, commission and council members have, for the past three years, proposed day shelter, safe parking and safe camping — approaches Denver and other leading cities ramped up during the pandemic. Those were rejected at every turn by the majority of elected officials, staff and shelter leadership by arguing that service expansion would divert money from the successful housing-first approach. 

Now, there are millions of dollars available from the federal government via the American Rescue Plan Act and settlements with opioid manufacturers. The city has yet to allocate $16 million of the $20 million it will eventually receive under ARPA.

The group estimated that the entire suite of services would cost $1.3 million, less than half what Boulder recently dedicated to an 18-month pilot for more cops and camp removals. That figure is likely low and notably does not include the cost of buying or renting a building.

But, said Chris Nelson, TGTHR’s executive director, “the money is there, if people want to allocate it to this.”

Plaguing providers is the sense that the city doesn’t want to do anything more for those living unsheltered. Despite all being highly visible and respected leaders in the homeless services space, members said they met “on the down-low” and without a “chaperone” from Homeless Solutions Boulder County, the official group overseeing homeless services. They spoke of the “complications” of “political pressure” that discourage solution-finding and speaking out.

City and county officials seem to have different “philosophies” of care, Nelson said, wherein improving the lives of those on the streets is antithetical to the work of housing people. See Kurt Firnhaber’s quote to Boulder Reporting Lab about the proposed service center:

“If it becomes a place that allows people to remain homeless and live on the streets successfully, then I’m not sure it’s accomplishing what the community would want to see,” he told a reporter.

This group of providers believes that “people should have access to basic needs whether they’re in the pipeline for housing or not,” Nelson said. “That if they are engaged with some service, the more likely they are to get into some housing, eventually.”

All available research backs that up, including the city’s own data. “Studies show it can take up to 15-20 encounters until someone experiencing homelessness can feel comfortable to engage in services and referrals,” staff wrote to council last year before a May 4 discussion.

Said Mother House’s Sweeney-Miran: “Asking providers to try and patch together programs that still leave huge portions of needs unaccounted for, that are not well funded and that are difficult to find space for isn’t a good way to make sure that our city can provide for the needs of all of our community members.” 

The recent death of Jessica Aldama and her baby, combined with the 2020 increase in hypothermia deaths, indicates that Boulder is not fulfilling its obligations under that continuum of care.

“I think the young woman who died giving birth was an eye-opener and a reminder of how the system is not always working for everybody,” Nelson said. “Most members of our community, regardless of their feelings about homelessness, are tired of hearing that people are dying on our streets.

That’s why this group’s letter is not a response to the city’s RFI but a “step above” it, Bridge House’s Medina said. 

“What we see as needing to be done (is) way above and beyond” what the city is doing, Medina said. “It’s sort of like we’ll see your RFI and raise it.” 

Staff stretched thin

While Boulder is exploring day services, even those would be for “individuals in a housing queue or recently housed,” staff told city council this week.

Supportive services are critical to keeping people in housing once they’re placed. But, as councilwoman Nicole Speer noted Tuesday, it does nothing for people already living in parks — an issue that has caused consternation and rising complaints from the city’s housed residents.

“The problem as I see it is we’ve got people living in our public spaces,” Speer said. “Everybody is aware of it; nobody thinks it’s OK.”

Even if everyone agreed on the solutions to unsheltered living, staff does not have the capacity to take on any more work, Firnhaber told council this week. The city’s Housing and Human Services department — hit hard by COVID staff reductions — has been responsible for so much of the response to COVID, the King Soopers shooting and now the Marshall Fire.

“Half my staff have been working every day since the fire,” Firnhaber said. “They are doing jobs on top of jobs.”

Of five distinct ideas for addressing homelessness brought forward by council members for 2022, Firnhaber could not commit his employees to accomplishing any of them without disrupting or stopping existing or staff-planned work. Specific tradeoffs for a day shelter include deferring work on housing for users of methamphetamine, according to a staff presentation.

During their weekend retreat, council members unanimously agreed that a day shelter was a priority for 2022. Planning work includes setting up a working group that includes providers and people who have experienced homelessness.

The city and the nonprofits, “they are too far apart,” Sweeney-Miran said. “City council should consider what that means moving forward in terms of the usefulness of including all the various perspectives in a conversation.”

Even with the collective will of council, it could take a year or more to set up. Feet Forward’s Livovich worries that a pending pivot at Boulder Shelter for the Homeless, the sole location for emergency sheltering, to an even heavier housing focus will further shrink available options.

Every week at the Boulder Bandshell, Livovich sees the outcomes of policies that ignore people living on the streets. Dozens of people who, for one reason or another, don’t fit within the traditional system but have been able to make progress through the reliable presence of Feet Forward and the providers who join her on Tuesdays.

Without someplace safe and legal to go during the day, they are still reliant on the traditional pillars of unsheltered living: the library, the emergency room; often, the jail.

“We’re breeding new high-system users; we’re doing nothing to prevent that,” she said. “No matter what side of the fence people are on, I think we can all agree homelessness isn’t going away here.

That leaves a bulk of people without anything,” she said — with the worst of winter yet to come.

Author’s note: This article has been updated with additional comments from this weekend’s council retreat.

— Shay Castle, @shayshinecastle

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