Guest opinions: Point, counterpoint on Boulder’s homeless strategies

The National Park Service evicts unhoused persons from McPherson Square Park in Washington, D.C. on Feb. 15, 2023. Photo by Elvert Barnes via Flickr Creative Commons

Tuesday, April 11, 2023

On March 6, Boulder city councilman Bob Yates sent out his monthly newsletter, Boulder Bulletin. The topic was homelessness; specifically, the city’s policy of giving three-day’s notice before removing encampments of unhoused residents.

It’s not the first time Yates has written on homelessness, or the first time a community member has responded to his newsletter. This time, it was Bill Sweeney, a longtime provider of homeless services in Boulder.

Here, I present Yates’ newsletter with comments from Sweeney — fact-checked and appropriately sourced wherever possible — as an illuminating example of the continuing debate over homelessness and encampment policy in Boulder. Both have been edited for length, style and clarity, including adding hyperlinks for context.

This is not meant to equate the two men, or the two “sides” — Sweeney is an expert in the field; Yates, while better informed than the average citizen, is a politician. But the newsletter and response are a good microcosm of the larger conversations happening in the community.

This is a non-standard journalistic choice, to be sure, which is why I’ve labeled this an opinion piece (although there are plenty of facts therein). Homelessness is an incredibly complex topic; trying new things to help foster understanding seems like a good choice. If I missed the mark, if there’s something you wish I’d done instead, let me know.

This is long; so long, I broke it into two parts. Read Part 2, on sanctioned encampments.

Three Days by Bob Yates (read the original, un-annotated version)
A Response by William Sweeney (Sweeney’s comments are italicized and marked with —>)

Boulder’s city manager requires the police and the civilian encampment clean-up crews to give those illegally camping on public spaces at least three days’ warning before the city’s camping ban is enforced. Some folks are not happy about this.

—> No amount of notice is sufficient to prepare one for the confiscation of all one’s goods,
documents, money, food, and keepsakes, and the dangerous and humiliating trauma of being
dumped in the open, stripped of resources. Many people are horrified at the inhumane trauma
inflicted on our unhoused residents by the use of the tax dollars and the authority we give to the

But, before we get into that debate, l start with a dozen facts about camping ban. Sources for each fact are linked. Some facts you might like, others you may not.

–> Yes, facts are facts. Facts are definitionally agreed upon. Facts selected and stated with
qualifications are the foundations of arguments.

1.) Like 72% of cities across the country surveyed by the National Law Center, Boulder has a law that bans camping in public spaces, including in parks, creek ways, open space, bike paths, and sidewalks. That law has been in place since 1980, and was re-affirmed by those of us sitting on city council in 2016, and expanded by council in 2021 to prohibit tents or propane tanks in parks.

—> Boulder, in its self-understanding of uniqueness, does not usually align with “most cities.” The other 28% of cities — what is happening there? What are the comparative outcomes? The text of the present camping law is indeed traceable to 1980. The spirit of the law is traceable to earlier racist policies; “sundown” rules, for example, dating from Boulder’s Klan era. The confiscation of native lands and the genocide of native peoples. Virtually all of those 72% of cities complain that the anti-camping laws do not end homelessness generally or encampments specifically.

2.) A University of Denver study from a few years ago asserts that Boulder issues more tickets for illegal camping than all other cities in Colorado combined.

—> That was true, then. Actually, I was invited to proofread the study. There is no published update on the study that I have found. I’m not at all sure this pre-pandemic fact is true any longer. It is very clear that ticketing is expensive and it is very clear ticketing does not end homelessness generally of encampments specifically.

3.) Illegally camping on public space is a misdemeanor violation, unlikely to result in arrest unless other, more serious crimes are suspected. Even if someone was [sic] arrested for illegally camping, they likely would be immediately released on a personal recognizance bond, pursuant to a Colorado state law change enacted a few years ago.

—> Former Sheriff Pelle is well-known for advising us all that policies of ticketing, arrest and incarceration do not end homelessness. (Editor’s note: Current BoCo Sheriff Curtis Johnson, as well as District Attorney Michael Dougherty, have made similar statements, including at a recent community meeting on unhoused “high utilizers” of the court system.)

4.) The city has a team of five civilian workers, who clean up illegal encampment sites. Last year, this team cleaned 809 camping sites in Boulder and hauled away 134 tons of debris. In October, on a 6-2 vote, city council approved the funding to increase this five-member clean-up team to nine, with new crew members starting this month. Residents can see a map of encampment clean-ups at the city’s Unsanctioned Camping webpage. At that webpage, community members can also flag for city staff those encampments that they believe need to be cleaned up.

—> At this point, Boulder has reduced the budget for caring for adult homeless residents from about $2.5M to about $500K, and increased the budget for oppression by about $3M. (Editor’s note: The city did cut the budget for emergency sheltering in half during the pandemic, money it says was reinvested into housing vouchers. Sweeney disputes that claim. “There was no evidence of increased vouchering,” he wrote in response to emailed questions.)

The five different sets of employment that have been created are not measured on success in reduction of homelessness. The city has failed to lead in a solution – no provider would bid on the latest scheme to provide a poorly-designed day shelter without a clear goal. A coalition of providers did offer a written framework design and ask for a constructive conversation, but were ignored.

5.) The city’s seven goals for camping ban enforcement and encampment clean-ups are (not necessarily in priority order): (i) enforcing city law; (ii) connecting homeless people to services; (iii) ensuring community access to public spaces; (iv) improving experiences of visitors; (v) providing city maintenance workers safe access to city infrastructure; (vi) keeping our waterways free of contamination; and (vii) reducing other crimes, which are six times more likely to occur within 350 feet of an illegal campsite.

—> It’s hard to say how the achievement of these stated goals would be measured. If the program is somehow intended to deal with homelessness, one would think it would have a goal like “reduce unsanctioned camp sites by 50% in 12 months.”

– Where does the 350-foot radius come from – it is not a very common measure
in the various codes we have?
– What other things occur within each nine-acre spaces that could cause crime?
– Which “other crimes” are we talking about?
– Why are we “enforcing city law” at great expense to deal with “misdemeanors” when there are worrisome “other crimes?”
– How much has the enforcement and clean-up programming reduced the “other crimes” in each nine-acre tract?
– Since this practice is often justified on the grounds of public health – sanitation and trash – wouldn’t it be cheaper to put out dumpsters and porta-potties?

Photo by Adam Thomas on Unsplash

6.) Boulder’s city manager has decided that, before an illegal encampment can be cleaned up, the campers must be given at least three days’ notice. This is not a city law, nor is it direction from city council. It is based on advice from the City Attorney’s Office, as discussed below.

7.) In 2022, more than 1,000 homeless people in Boulder County registered through the Coordinated Entry program for assistance, including sheltering, food and longer-term services. An unknown number of other homeless people did not register to seek services. Of those who registered through Coordinated Entry, 49% reported having lived in Boulder County for less than one month, and another 14% reported having lived here between one and six months. The remaining 37% said that they had lived in the area for more than six months.

—> People travel. Tens of thousands of commuters per day come into and then out of Boulder. People relocate. Only a quarter of the Boulder population was born here. Asking where people have lived gives little insight into their homelessness. They were living before and after.

Asking for the zip code in which people were living when they became homeless is helpful. This data was collected before Coordinated Entry. It is collected by HMIS. In the MDHI report on the state of homelessness for the seven-county metro area, for example, 88% of the tens of thousands of unhoused people who were interviewed by providers last year became homeless while living in Colorado, a majority while living in the metro area.

Boulder Reporting Lab recently reported that current eviction filings in Boulder courts are at an all-time high of 153 cases, inevitably creating inflows to the unhoused community.

Boulder County dropped its practice of classifying people for housing services by their Boulder residence history because it was shown to be blatantly racist in impact. The unserved population living in our encampments is substantially less white than Boulder’s overall population. One source puts the disparity at 73% white and unhoused compared to 90% white overall in the decennial census.

8.) While the average tenure of those who seek homelessness assistance is short, the city of Boulder and its service providers, nonetheless, assisted 286 people in exiting homelessness last year, with the vast majority of those housed, and many of the rest reunited with family and friends outside of Boulder.

—> The housing data cited in the city Dashboard are not Boulder specific but include Longmont and elsewhere in Boulder County as well as placements from Mental Health Partners, TGTHR and Rapid Rehousing. The 2016/2017 process that resulted in the current system projected a need then for about 350 housing placements to absorb the backlog of cases in the shelter system and about 100 to 125 more per year to keep up. The rate of persons entering homelessness is increasing everywhere, and the known targets have never been an expressly attempted or achieved goal.

9.) Boulder’s city staff estimates that, on any given night, between 100 and 150 people illegally camp in Boulder’s public spaces. They calculate that, on average, four new unhoused people arrive in Boulder per day (with about four leaving each day), and that the average time these new arrivals spend in town is 1.3 months, or about six weeks. Indeed, websites for some nearby cities direct people to Boulder for homelessness services.

—> The estimate of 100 to 150 camped may be reasonable, or it may be low. For many years, with a larger shelter system in Boulder, the estimated camping population was more in the range of 25 to 50. The shelter system was partially dismantled in 2018 through 2020, and about 160 beds (half) were lost. The camping population predictably rose to its current level.

Yes, encampments are the predictable result of Boulder’s homeless policy. The in-flow and out-flow rates are normal on an averaged basis. The six-week stay estimate is not very consistent with most other records which tend to be measured in a few days to a week of contact.

A process called “relocation” practiced by providers in Boulder and most other jurisdictions formalizes referring (and transporting) unhoused persons to other cities, near or far. It is considered a long-term exit from homelessness and is recorded along with housing exits.

10.) Notwithstanding this influx of unhoused people from other communities, last year the Boulder Shelter for the Homeless had an average of 30 unused beds per night. The Shelter is rarely full and, when it is — typically on very cold nights — arrangements are made for homeless people to sleep in hotels or the city’s recreation centers.

—> Yes, beds at the Boulder shelter go unused. The City and County pay for a substantial portion of the budget of the Shelter. By the estimate cited above, there might 100 to 150 people encamped on a night when the Shelter is underused. Access to a bed is only by a lottery system run in person at the Shelter in the far north end of the city after 5 p.m. Final results of who might get in take a while.  Those who don’t get in get dumped back downtown around 7:30. Cold and tired. The scale of potential competition makes it a poor bet to look for a bed, and risk a potentially life-threatening delay to wait until well after dark to set up camp. It would not be hard to set up a system making bed use more likely (and the process less disrespectful). It would help some people.

However, the shelter system is under-sized. It is simply untrue that the city’s recreation centers are opened. This has happened once in the last ten years. There was a second incidence several years ago, but it was so disorganized that the center was not opened until well after dark, and no one knew. Did you know that the city and county emergency response protocol does not have any plan for dealing with our unhoused residents in the event of fire, snow, flood, heat, tornado, or any other emergency?

(Editor’s note: Boulder Beat inquired about this with city and county emergency response staff. Officials did not respond.)

Image by Jon Tyson via Unsplash

11.) Boulder is being sued in a lawsuit supported by the ACLU, seeking to invalidate Boulder’s ban on camping in public spaces. While part of that lawsuit was thrown out by a judge last month, the rest is slated to go to trial at some point in the future.

—> The ACLU and the other complainants are merely pointing out (among other things) that Martin V. Boise — the law of the land, endorsed by the Supreme Court — is in effect and condemns Boulder’s so-called “blanket” law and its cruel and inhumane deprivation of sleeping rights from our unhoused residents. Cities from Denver to Los Angeles have been sued on the same grounds, and they consistently lose. Does spending money to resist the law of the land violate Boulder’s Code of Conduct?

12.) On February 9, city council considered a proposal from the Intergovernmental Affairs Committee that would endorse a state legislative effort prohibiting cities in Colorado from imposing camping bans unless certain, undefined homelessness services were provided.

(Editor’s note: Council did not support this proposal; the city’s legislative position on camping bans remains unchanged. City lobbyist Carl Castillo said at that meeting there were no plans at the state level to pursue changes to the law pertaining to local camping bans.)

Yes, you read the last two right. As much as some folks feel that Boulder’s camping ban is not adequately enforced, the city’s camping ban could be eliminated or restricted if the ACLU prevails in its lawsuit against the city, or if the state legislature takes away the right of Colorado cities to ban camping in public places.

—> Marbury V. Madison (1803), Chief Justice John Marshall: “A law repugnant to the Constitution is void.”

In our form of government, we don’t tend to run on a standard of “some folks feel.” Here’s what Mark Wallach said in a recent Hotline post: “We know the community was split on this issue, as the initiative results demonstrated. But any reference to a defective poll as a counterweight to the actual vote should be stricken.”

Check back for Part 2: Sanctioned campgrounds

— Shay Castle, @shayshinecastle or on Mastodon at

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Homelessness Opinion


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. This article is asinine. Sweeny clearly has an agenda and doesn’t want to face the political and financial reality of the situation. He’s clearly combative and frankly offputting throughout all of his responses. Maybe he’s not the best face to be putting in front of that side of the argument?

  2. Sweeney challenges options without delineating any solutions. Sometimes he seems combative in his responses, even nit-picking and twisting the obvious meaning of some of Yates’ statements. E.G. To Sweeney’s repeated air quotes that question of the meaning of “other crimes” – these are crimes in addition to the obvious crime of illegal cramping. Perhaps Yates should have spelled it out. They are often crimes victimizing residents and other homeless individuals that include assault, theft, and property crimes.

    As far as the pending lawsuit that it is unconstitutional to ban sleeping outdoors, the key here is *when no other housing options exist*. It’s up Boulder to find a way to work within the Constitution by making sure easily accessible options are available, which Boulder has failed to do.

    Sweeney was correct that the current lottery system is ridiculously inept; it almost seems punitive in a dehumanizing way, and it disenfranchises those who are not able to manage or cope with shelter living.

    Some of us do what we can personally to help the homeless, offering scarves, hats and gloves, or bandaids and antiseptics, a sandwich or some cash…. But the problems outstrip the efforts.

    Athens, Georgia seems to have found a solution with their tent city. 55 tents are erected on wooden platforms. Trash is nowhere to be found. They also fund emergency beds within a mental health facility. It obviously takes funding to provide a structured, clean, healthy and safe option of a tent city. Here’s an idea that will ruffle a few feathers (especially in Boulder) maybe we shouldn’t be sending 80 billion to Ukrainian while our own people are literally dying on our streets, like the homeless man found dead from cold exposure in Boulder last fall.

  3. This editorial leads with an attempt to associate Bob Yates with promoting the KKK agenda and the genocide of native peoples. This is Boulder Beat’s version of Godwin’s law.

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