Homelessness in Boulder: What’s new, what’s working — and what’s left to do

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023 (Updated Friday, Sept. 29)

As the United States grapples with an unprecedented and rising level of homelessness, Boulder is seeing some setbacks (like the failure to secure a permanent location for a day shelter; read more below) and many successes, even with the most difficult cases. 

But as rent continues to rise and the population of people experiencing homelessness grows larger and more vulnerable, much remains to be done. Boulder City Council discussed the system of services on Thursday, Sept. 28. (Read a Twitter thread of that discussion

Here are 6 key takeaways:  

1.) Vulnerability increasing

Back in January, Homeless Solutions Boulder County noted an uptick in “the most vulnerable” populations; that is, unhoused people with one or more documented disabilities. 

The data bears that out. Through June of this year, the rates of physical and behavioral disabilities are the highest they’ve been in four years, according to data collected during preliminary screenings.

More than 1 in 5 people reported three or more disabling conditions. That could be multiple physical disabilities, a physical condition in combination with substance use disorder, or “any other varying combinations of disabilities,” according to a city spokesperson.

Of individuals who had completed Coordinated Entry screenings in 2023 (through June 30)

  • 18.6% had a behavioral disabling condition
  • 6.9% had a physical disabling condition
  • 2.9% had Substance Use Disorder (only)
  • 4% had co-occurring conditions (behavioral health and substance use)
  • 20.4% had multiple disabling conditions

In Boulder and elsewhere, staff wrote in notes to city council, “the degree of vulnerability faced by people living outside is unprecedented.”

Homelessness increased this year among another vulnerable group: families with children. Scarcely a month into the school year, 366 students in Boulder Valley School District have experienced a period of homelessness, staff reported; 158 of them in the city of Boulder:

  • 67 students are sheltered but homeless
  • 73 are doubled up with another family
  • 7 are unsheltered
  • 11 are living in hotels

Increased demand is the continuation of a trend that started last year, when student homelessness reached a 10-year high within BVSD.

A homeless prevention program run by the Emergency Family Assistance Association (EFAA) assisted 526 families through June of this year, versus 416 in all of 2022. Vouchers for hotels have been provided to another 90 families by EFAA and the domestic violence shelter, SPAN.

“Domestic violence continues to be a primary factor” in family homelessness, city staffers wrote. “Some agencies report that a high percentage of families seeking assistance are single female head[s] of household.”

Family homelessness “disproportionately [affects] people of color; specifically, families identifying as Latino, with the percentage of other racial/ethnic groups represented at significantly higher rates than the general Boulder population.”

This news doesn’t write itself. Throw us some cash if you’ve got it, so we can keep this community news source free for all.

2.) Some successes amid the crisis

In the last year (June ‘22 to June ‘23) Boulder County has placed 197 people into permanent housing, accounting for the majority (64%) of “exits” from homelessness. While not all outcomes are tracked, 75% of people housed through programs at Bridge House and Boulder Shelter for the Homeless are still housed.  

Programs for particular populations were finding success as well. Boulder Shelter for the Homeless bought 12 housing units for people with long criminal histories or sex offender status; both make it extraordinarily difficult to rent housing. Nine such people were housed and remain housed in the units; the remaining three are being prepared to be leased.

The municipal court’s diversion program helped house 22 people so far in 2023. Participants are those who interact frequently with the courts; they can have their cases dismissed (for low-level municipal crimes only, like camping or smoking in public) in exchange for taking steps toward being housed, such as getting a Social Security card or applying for benefits.

The court shared data for 124 individuals. Before being housed, they had a collective 3,614 cases in state or municipal court. After being housed? 43 cases, total — a 99% reduction.

“For people who are unhoused,” former Municipal Judge Linda Cooke told city council in April, “being housed basically stops them committing crimes.”

Hospital stays and emergency room visits are also being reduced through a new program that pairs frequent users of Boulder Community Health with a case manager. Between July 1, 2022 and June 20, 2023, 12 people were housed; three others have vouchers and are actively looking for homes.

Among that group:

  • Emergency room visits are down 84%
  • The length of hospital stays has been reduced 70%
  • There has been a 63% reduction in “acute care admissions” (cases in which a person’s condition required in-patient care)

Helping with this work is HSBC’s new landlord relationship manager. In April, city staff reported that 19 new property owners had collectively housed 53 formerly homeless folks. 

3.) New and more targeted services

Six new programs have been started in the past 14 months: 

  • Building Home, a program to help people stay housed. It includes a housing retention team (within Boulder Shelter) peer support and daytime programming (run by Focus Re-Entry)
  • BCH + Boulder Shelter case manager pilot (mentioned above)
  • Housing acquisition for hard-to-house populations (mentioned above)
  • Respite services
  • Tribe Recovery

Respite care and Tribe Recovery have yet to be fully implemented.

Contracts are being finalized for respite services, which will start next year. The first two years will be paid for with a $2 million grant from the state. 

The target population is unhoused people who have recently been discharged from the hospital, but who still need care. The program aims to reduce mortality, hospital readmissions, calls for emergency service and to begin working with residents on housing or long-term care.

Project Recovery, which provides services for individuals with substance abuse issues, began outpatient services in October 2022. The City of Boulder and Boulder County jointly bought a home for residential treatment in August; services began this month.

Tribe Recovery, the organization contracted to fund Project Recovery, bought a permanent facility in August (they were previously working from Boulder County’s campus on Iris and Broadway). A second home may open by the end of this year. Services at the new locations will include trauma treatment, medically assisted recovery, sobriety monitoring, peer navigation and case management.

HSBC held a listening session in June for community providers to identify gaps in the system. A formal evaluation of Boulder County’s services is also in the works, requested (separately) by HSBC leadership and Boulder City Council. A contractor to conduct the evaluation will be selected by the end of the year.

4.) Plan for “high utilizers” will cost $7M

Project Recovery was started after the recommendations of a sober living task force. Another task force in early September released a proposal for so-called “high utilizers” — unhoused people who have the most interactions with the criminal justice, human service and healthcare systems.

Each system defines high utilizers differently. For healthcare, it may be the number of emergency room visits in a given time. Law enforcement and courts count tickets or arrests; Boulder Police Department, for instance, identified 51 high utilizers, defined as having 34 tickets or arrests in a five-year period. Individuals must be identified as a frequent user of two or more systems to be classified as a high utilizer for the purposes of planned individuals

The baseline list, created in August 2022, included 45 individuals. Two people have since been housed; another is incarcerated and one more is believed to be out of state.

These high utilizers “have been unhoused in the Boulder area for a long enough period of time that staff know these individuals by name,” but had “sporadic, low or no engagement with case managers.” Only one was currently staying in Boulder Shelter for the Homeless.

“The majority of individuals had some felony charges and charges related to theft, burglary, shoplifting, drugs, and/or assault,” making it difficult to find housing. Many had been housed at some point, staff noted, but were unable to stay housed. One-quarter were incarcerated at the time the list was created; 41% had been contacted during encampment removals. 

To develop a system of services and programs that will successfully house them, the task force estimates it will cost nearly $7 million in the first two years and $2 million every year thereafter. 

Year 1: $4.975M (includes $3M to buy housing)
Year 2: $2M
Years 3+ (ongoing costs): $1.925M

The proposal includes a dedicated two-person medical team, five-person behavioral health team, two full-time peer support persons, provision of 45 housing vouchers per year plus hotel rooms that can be used as “bridge housing” for 30 days, and 10 housing units. A landlord remediation fund is also recommended to compensate property owners in case of damage or methamphetamine contamination. 

These intensive interventions come with a $42,800 per person annual price tag, the task force estimated. That “could lead” to an estimated $5,000 cost savings per person, if their interactions with various systems are lessened after being housed as is expected. 

A typical high utilizer of the hospital, for instance, costs $17,000 annually, on average.  Programs in other cities have seen cost savings, detailed at length in a Sept. 7 information packet to Boulder City Council.

Defending the program’s expenses, staff wrote: “The cost of doing nothing and working within the limited housing and case management resources the City and County have at their disposal is still a high cost to taxpayers.”

5.) City still hunting for permanent day shelter

Boulder’s day shelter closed in 2017. A little more than two years later, elected officials were already asking for a new one to be opened, but it would take two more years for City Council to make it a priority. Two years on from that decision, and the city still doesn’t have a location locked down.

In April, Housing and Human Services Director Kurt Firnhaber announced that 1844 Folsom Street would not only serve as a temporary day shelter and services center, but that the property would eventually be home to 50 homes for the previously unhoused. 

That’s not happening any more.

“The owner of the property … no longer intends to redevelop the property for that intended use,” staff wrote in notes to council. “HHS staff are continuing to explore that property for Day Services Center use as leased space and are exploring other properties using the identified priority criteria.”

6.) Still not enough shelter

It’s been three years since Boulder halved the number of beds available for emergency winter sheltering, arguing that it would discourage out-of-towners from seeking refuge in Boulder. Since then, hundreds of people have been turned away from Boulder Shelter for the Homeless. 

Last winter, 278 people were denied shelter when the facility was full — a 57% increase over last year. 

– 40 days over capacity
– 176 individuals turned away for capacity (winter)
– 24 individuals turned away for capacity (summer)

39 days over capacity
– 278 individuals turned away (winter)

Hotel rooms were used to partially shore up the cuts (20 hotel rooms were provided nightly, with 20 more on the coldest and snowiest nights; in contrast, 162 beds were lost). But as federal COVID funds run out and tourism picks back up, that’s an increasingly untenable fix.

“Interim sheltering in the form of hoteling is not a long-term, cost-effective solution,” staff wrote. “Other sheltering opportunities should be explored for the winter weather season.”

Twenty-five hotel rooms, with supportive services, will also be provided this winter. Last year, “over one-third of the hotel program participants exited directly to housing.”

Boulder Shelter currently operates 160 beds, up from COVID-era levels. The organization has agreed to add 20 beds in the harshest weather (10 degrees or below, 6 inches of snow or more, winds of 70 mph or greater) and waive the requirements for residents to go through Coordinated Entry screening. 

City Council did not discuss or come up with a plan for additional shelter during its meeting. A possible sanctioned encampment might be established, but it will not be operating before the winter sheltering season.

Author’s note: This article has been updated to clarify data on unhoused individuals with disabling conditions, and to include additional information from Thursday’s discussion.

— Shay Castle, @shayshinecastle

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