(Guest Opinion) Boulder’s encampment strategy: Shifting policy or shifting people?

Photo by Adam Thomas on Unsplash

Friday, July 15, 2022

By Adam Swetlik

Boulder recently received a brief update about our city’s year-long attempt to reduce the number of encampments in public spaces.

This has been in the top two most talked about topics in Boulder over the last decade. Since 2020 especially, the number of Nextdoor posts, Letters to the Editor and emails to city council regarding this topic has skyrocketed.

Walk around almost any section of Boulder; you can find an encampment. They may not be in the same place every week, but given enough time you can usually find a new one in its place.

A temporary change in whether a tent is in one place or another is not the result elected officials, city staff or the citizens of Boulder had hoped for when nearly $3 million of additional funding was allocated by council in April 2021 to address the increasing number of encampments. Several council members and citizens — myself among them — thought this funding should be allocated differently, believing that the “more is better” approach to simply moving people and their belongings around was not going to net the results most people hoped.

Now, here we are, and in six months the initial program will need to be assessed and funding again allocated to address the same topic.

I’d like to quickly assess the results each program, which have been mixed. I think it is worth mentioning that as a member of council at the time this was voted on, the only policy I didn’t think was worth testing was for the additional police unit; most of these other expenditures were unanimous votes.

In-house camp removal team
Moving the camp clean-up team away from Servpro to a dedicated in-house team was the first idea. This was meant to create a better line of communication and action since a third party no longer was responsible for encampment dismantling. While we would need to ask staff if this was a success from an efficiency standpoint, there have been cost overruns and it has already been indicated by staff that the number of encampments has not been reduced.

Downtown Ambassador program
Downtown ambassadors probably gained the most interest by the council at the time, and appears to be the most successful and welcome implementation of this additional funding. This program is based on building relationships and trust, and addressing the issues experienced by all people who visit our downtown, from residents, businesses, vacationers and even those experiencing homelessness.

Enticing people downtown is critical to the future of our city. Boulder’s budget depends on sales tax, so we need people to enjoy being downtown. Despite the excellent work and trust-building, encampment levels near downtown have not decreased.

Park Rangers
Urban park rangers also gained a fair amount of interest from council. Who wouldn’t want to keep the parks accessible, clean and welcoming? More staff to enforce the rules makes sense when people are not following them.

However, as we’ve seen, the number of encampments in parks has not decreased.

Dedicated police unit for camp removals
Finally, the most contentious topic of all the proposed polices needs discussion. Adding additional police officers to act specifically as a task force for removing encampments was our most split vote.

At the time, Police Chief Maris Harold mentioned she was having a hard time recruiting officers, and I questioned if hiring additional officers didn’t seem likely, why should we budget for it? I realize she was planning for the best hiring scenario, but as stewards of the budget, council should look at the planned outcomes — not the ideal ones.

As of the one-year update, only two of six positions for this task force are filled, and there has not been a reduction in encampments.

When you look at the past year and our approximately $2 million expenditure, you could see one of two things: A system that is just holding the line on encampments and is OK with the status quo remaining going forward, or a set of policies that do not give the result the community is hoping for, no matter the amount of money we allocate.

If the former is true, buckle up for the next recession because this is the tip of the encampment iceberg. If the latter is true, we may need to reassess the policy of shifting people from place to place in the city in hopes that they will leave.

Putting people in jail who have little to lose due to camping also may not be wise. You are paying a high price for housing them in jail, and it doesn’t change their situation at all once they’re out.

It’s fair to say no member of our community enjoys having encampments. Whether you think it is a human rights failure or you just want our city to look orderly, encampments are a difficult thing to encounter. Housing the unhoused, solving the mental health and trauma crises, and treating substance use disorder are all intertwined in addressed homelessness, and you can see
this crisis play out in the form of tents on the creekside every day.

You are welcome to come to any conclusion you want about what we should do next, but my suggestion would be to put our
tax dollars toward shifting policy to address underlying problems. Otherwise, we can just keep shifting people.

Adam Swetlik served on Boulder City Council from 2019 to 2021. He has recently considered turning his couch into an NFT to buy some avocado toast. 


Boulder Beat Opinion Panel members are writing in their own capacity. Their views do not necessarily reflect those of Boulder Beat.

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3 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Where’s our housing money from Google and the other tech companies that moved here and helped cause our housing crisis in the first place? The public sector cannot solve this problem by itself unless the State constitution changes and Boulder could impose an income tax. The tech overlords that took over Boulder give money to charities providing housing on the west coast because activists pressure them on the west coast. There hiring practices directly lead to housing crises and mass homelessness everywhere they set up shop. Where’s Boulder’s share, our housing market got screwed the day Google moved in and it’s gotten worse ever since.

    • I would love to know what the tech sector does or does not contribute to homelessness and affordable housing in Boulder. As Will says, they’ve had an enormous impact on the skyrocketing housing costs. Giving them incentives to locate here was extremely short-sighted. Or perhaps the city didn’t care about these outcomes.

      • Hi, just a quick note that the city does not, and has not for many years, provide incentives to businesses to move here. Perhaps during the earlier tech booms of the 90s, they did, but they haven’t in at least the decade I’ve been here. Thanks for your comments! – Shay

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