City of Boulder Ballot Question 302: Safe Zones 4 Kids

Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2023 (Updated Oct. 13)

Ballot language

Shall Section 8-3-21, B.R.C. 1981, be amended to add a provision to prioritize removal of prohibited items, such as tents, temporary structures, or propane tanks, within five hundred feet of a school or fifty feet of any multi-use path or sidewalk pursuant to Ordinance 8586?

What it means

Tents, temporary structures and propane tanks are already banned in Boulder — everywhere, regardless of location. They are already being removed, using a points system to determine which locations to clear first. Each factor — location, size, life-safety risk, etc. — is assigned a certain number of points. Locations with the highest number of points are targeted first.

This ballot measure would prioritize encampments near schools, sidewalks and multi-use paths. (Find the exact charter language below)

How would this change what the city is already doing?

Boulder’s camping ban was adopted in 1980, making it illegal to live in public spaces. The city added a ban on tents and propane tanks in 2021. It has increased enforcement on numerous occasions, usually in response to community complaints.

Recent notable examples include 2017, prior to the closure of a daytime shelter, and twice in 2020: First in February, after council agreed to expand winter sheltering, and again in August after enforcement was temporarily halted during the early months of the COVID pandemic.

The current removal strategy started in 2021. The city employs two in-house removal teams (the second was added this year) and a dedicated police unit. A total of 2,170 encampments have been removed since October 2021, according to the city’s dashboard.

Removal teams use a set of guidelines to decide which locations to clear first. Schools are given one of the highest priorities under this system, but not the very highest. That is typically given to tents or encampments that pose a life-safety risk, like those in culverts or storm pipes. Because of the high number of encampments, immediate removal is usually not feasible for all reported encampments. 

Learn more about the city’s approach and see the current prioritization matrix (Page 17)

Sometimes, the city gives 72 hours of notice before removing encampments, but that’s complicated and nuanced. For instance, single tents aren’t given notice but are removed immediately. Removal of propane tanks is similarly immediate.

Encampments blocking multi-use paths, sidewalks or buildings are also removed without notice, according to staff, as are any deemed to be a safety risk. Police and fire officials also have discretion to determine if an encampment can present a health and safety risk due to the presence of drugs or the potential for communicable diseases.

This ballot measure may result in the city also removing encampments without notice in the zones cited in the ballot language: within 500 feet of a school or 50 feet of a multi-use path or sidewalk. However, some questions remain on the legality of removing encampments without giving notice. (More on that later)

What do unhoused people think?

As with all groups, opinions are mixed. 

Some believe people should choose other places to camp than behind Boulder High School. The expansion to include all multi-use paths didn’t bother them: They would simply choose more hidden places to camp, they said, farther off paths and sidewalks. 

Others felt it was further disregard of their lives, health, safety and rights. The proposed expansion to all city multi-use paths and sidewalks concerned some people, as they worried that it would increase interactions with police, result in them acquiring more tickets for camping and lead to the potential for jail and the loss of their belongings.

What do students think? 

Students are concerned for their safety — and also concerned for the unhoused people who live around Boulder High. 

Feedback from Boulder’s Youth Opportunities Advisory Board, a group of 10 high school students:

  • “I’ve felt unsafe waiting outside the library for my mom to pick me up. My parents (and I) also worry about me waiting at the bus stop on Broadway at the Civic Area. It feels unsafe.”
  • “If the unhoused aren’t allowed near places like Boulder High, where would they go? Is there a place for them? It only makes sense to make change if we have a plan for where people go and what they will do.”
  • “It makes sense that unhoused people hang out at the areas near Boulder High — the library has good resources and why shouldn’t they take advantage of those resources?”

Growing Up Boulder has a list of common themes that have emerged throughout its work with children since 2009. Safety is on that list, including “public spaces free from drugs and alcohol.”

What impact have encampment removals had on crime near Boulder High School?

So far, not much. According to police data, 61 incidents of crime were reported between October 2020 and September 2023.

The rate of crime over the entire period is 1.69 per month on average. It was 1.16 crimes per month in the 12 months prior to the current removal strategy (October 2020-September 2021) and 1.9 per month in the 24 months of enhanced enforcement (October 2021-September 2023).

This data should be read with caution: The numbers are so low that any change affects monthly averages. It’s also worth noting that this data reflects police reports; not all incidents are reported.

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.

Why you might want to vote for this

Encampments are common along the creek behind Boulder High School, and in the Arboretum next to BHS’s football field. In recent months, students and parents have reported numerous run-ins with encampment residents, including aggressive and violent behavior, sexual crimes and frequent drug use. A propane tank exploded near Boulder High in March while students were present. 

Crime is 6.1 times higher in and around encampments, according to police department data. Violent crime rates are 7.6 times higher within 350 feet of an encampment and 3.2 times higher within one block of encampments. (Other unhoused folks are most often the victims of such crimes.)

A key point of proponents is that Safe Zones are not meant to address homelessness but to preserve safety around schools. That includes the paths and sidewalks students take to and from schools (although it would apply to paths and sidewalks citywide, not just those around schools).

Safe Zones might allow the city to remove encampments more quickly than they are currently doing, according to city staff, especially if they do so without giving 72 hours’ notice to residents.

Why you might not want to vote for this

Camping is already illegal everywhere in the city, including around schools. It’s not clear if the Safe Zones approach will result in more or quicker removal. From the city’s own website:

“Designating a safety zone around schools would not add to Boulder’s enforcement toolkit because camping is already banned near schools and in all other public places.

“While there are other cities, such as Portland, [Ore.], that have designated safety zones around schools, these cities tend to allow camping in other locations. Boulder’s policy, in contrast, is to prohibit camping and strive for enforcement in all locations. … Similarly, while schools are part of Portland’s high priority designation, they too provide 72-hour notice prior to addressing these encampments.”

Boulder gives 72-hour notice because court rulings have forced cities to do so. Moving people and seizing their possessions can be considered a violation of constitutional rights and may result in a costly lawsuit for the city. 

Adherence to this practice may depend on who gets elected to City Council. Bob Yates, for one, has expressed the opinion that city attorneys are too cautious when it comes to giving notice; he would like to see reduced time and more exceptions for when notice is required.

Encampment removals are harmful for people experiencing homelessness, as a plethora of studies and reports document. They extend time in homelessness (counteracting the goals of Safe Zones, as critics note) increase interaction (and, therefore, potential for escalation) with police; disrupt relationships with service providers; increase stress; (often) result in the loss of property, and even increase the risk of death

They also move (some) people into more far-flung areas, farther away from services. This makes them more vulnerable to crime and victimization — or simply the death or injury that results from overdose or health conditions. Consider Jessica Aldama, an unhoused woman who was ticketed under the city’s camping and tent bans. She moved to a less populated area, where she died during childbirth less than a month after being ticketed.

Expanding prioritized removal to any areas within 50 feet of a multi-use path, throughout the city, may exacerbate these effects. Unhoused people commonly camp along paths, which often provide access to fresh water and a convenient transportation route. 

Other considerations

There is no evidence — nationally or locally — to suggest that continued or increased removal will end or reduce unsanctioned camping. This measure should not be read as a way to end or even meaningfully reduce unsheltered homelessness (as even its proponents note).

It’s also worth thinking about the historical use of children in reactionary causes — so much so that the phrase “Think of the children!” is a decades-old meme.  Children are often used as justification to restrict the rights of or implement harsher punishments for a group of people, whether or not the changes actually make children safer.

This measure should be evaluated carefully for its effectiveness and potential to improve safety for children.

Who is supporting?

A citizen petition placed this measure on the ballot, organized by (mainly) parents of students at Boulder High School. Organizers for the official issue committee, also named Safe Zones 4 Kids, include petition organizer Jennifer Rhodes; Jud Valenski, co-founder of a Boulder tech company, and John Neslage, who became known to the community for his complaint against a member of the city’s Police Oversight Panel that ultimately led to that member’s removal.

As of Oct. 9, Safe Zones 4 Kids had raised $18,444 and spent $13,169.70, according to campaign filings.

Local tech millionaire Dan Caruso also provided financial support, as disclosed on campaign signs. 

Other endorsers of Safe Zones include the Downtown Boulder Partnership, Boulder Chamber, PLAN-Boulder, Safer Boulder, Save Boulder Creek, Boulder Elevated and Boulder County Republicans.

Who is opposing? 

An official issue committee, Solutions Not Safe Zones, was formed to oppose the ballot measure. It is led by Katie Farnan, Andy Sayler, Doug Hamilton, Aidan Reed. 

Disclosure: Sayler has contributed financially to Boulder Beat. Hamilton and Reed are members of Boulder Beat’s Opinion Panel. Their involvement was revealed in the course of reporting for this story. They were not contacted for this article, and did not contribute or influence its content in any way. 

As of Oct. 9, Solutions Not Safe Zones had raised $4,598.50 and spent $2,948.08, according to campaign filings.

Other endorsers of Solutions Not Safe Zones or a No vote on 302 include Boulder Weekly, Daily Camera, NAACP Boulder County, Boulder Progressives, Boulder County Young Democrats, Colorado Working Families Party, United Campus Workers Colorado, Boulder Food Rescue, Boulder DSA, New Era Colorado, Bring Our Families Home, Boulder Area Labor Council, Boulder SURJ (Show Up For Racial Justice).

What, exactly, would be changed in the city’s charter?

This ballot measure would add Subsection C to existing language banning tents and propane tanks, so that it would read as follows:

8-3-21. – Prohibited Items. 

(a) No person shall erect or use any tent, net, or other temporary structure for the purpose of shelter or storage of property in a park or recreation area, on any open space land, or on any other public property, unless done pursuant to a written permit or contract from the city manager. The prohibitions of this section do not apply to temporary shade structures in any park or recreation area within the corporate limits of the city. A temporary shade structure is a structure such as an umbrella or awning that provides overhead covering or weather protection, but [is] not designed for overnight use or privacy and cannot be fully enclosed. No temporary shade structure shall remain in a park between sundown and sunrise. 

(b) No person shall possess a propane tank on any public property except that persons with a city-approved permit may possess one UL-listed residential, propane-fueled gas grill or heater in a city park provided that the propane is a maximum twenty pound bottle connected to the grill or heater. No permitted tank shall be located closer than ten feet from the nearest combustible structure. No person shall leave any park without first having completely extinguished any fire. The prohibitions of this subsection do not apply to the possession of multiple propane tanks for the purpose of transportation to or from private property or in connection with an approved city special event permit. 

(c) Prohibited items located on city property within a radius of five-hundred feet from any point on a school property line or within fifty feet on both sides of any multi-use path or sidewalk are subject to prioritized removal. Signage or other notification methods may be used to identify these boundaries.

Election stories take hours of work: researching, fact-checking, interviewing staff and subject matter experts. If you value this in-depth information, please consider paying for it.

Author’s note: This article has been updated to include crime data requested by Boulder Beat and shared by Boulder Police Department after initial publication.

— Shay Castle, @shayshinecastle

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