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  • Steve Rosenblum & Michael Christy

Forward Thinking on Encampments

Steve Rosenblum & Michael Christy

10.13.2021

Daily Camera Guest Opinion, read the original here


We welcomed the Oct. 8 guest commentary by Dan Williams and Nicole Speer clarifying their positions on encampments. While we agree with many of their points, we disagree that their suggestions are fresh or new. The policies they offer have already been tried in Boulder, currently exist, or have already been rejected by staff and Council after significant research and discussion. According to HUD, between 2009 and 2019 homelessness decreased 10% nationwide, but increased substantially in California, Oregon, and Washington. We cannot follow the example of these West Coast states, which have sanctioned public camping and decriminalized property crime with terrible results. States with successful outcomes decreasing homelessness have rejected this permissive approach by pairing services and housing with enforcement.

Do we believe we can “solve homelessness with tickets and arrests?” — no. We tackle chronic homelessness through programs that keep people housed (Housing First) and that get at the root causes of chronic homelessness, such as mental health and substance abuse treatment. However, enforcement of the camping ban is an important tool to address public safety and connect people with services.

In the early 2010s, Boulder’s programs were focused on temporary sheltering. Boulder had extensive night and day sheltering services, similar to what candidates Williams and Speer are suggesting today. Despite dedicating extensive resources to this sheltering-first approach, the city failed to shelter everyone, and offered no paths to stable housing. Boulder’s failure was not unique, no city in the world claims to have solved homelessness through sheltering.

By 2017, in the face of ever diluted funding and a large homeless population from outside the county, Boulder adopted the strategy endorsed by the National Alliance to End Homelessness, which includes: a coordinated approach to delivering services, a recognition that housing is the solution to homelessness, and prioritization of the most vulnerable. Through Coordinated Entry, Boulder began to collect data on who we were serving and their needs so that we could measure progress and allocate resources. The strategy shift to Housing First has been enormously successful: Boulder assisted more than 1,100 people to end their homelessness with supportive housing, reunification with support networks, and/or work training. By utilizing federally funded vouchers to house people, the city saves money on policing, emergency room care, and court appearances. Additional programs such as rental assistance and landlord/tenant mediation successfully prevent homelessness.

Today, the City and County of Boulder collectively spend more than $100 million per year on these and other robust services, which is four times the amount per capita as neighboring communities. We must ensure our substantial, yet limited funds are invested as effectively as possible.

Despite these successes, encampments continue to proliferate in our public spaces, often inhabited by individuals who refuse to engage with services. Police describe deplorable conditions in these encampments: violence, sexual assault, weapons, human feces, stolen goods, propane tanks, thousands of needles, methamphetamine, and heroin. Candidates Williams and Speer suggest the solution to ending encampments is adding several sheltering options including a “no questions asked” shelter and safe campgrounds. However, one must ask, how many people will these new shelters serve when the Boulder Shelter for the Homeless operates at only 75% capacity on an average night and only 30 individuals are suspended from the shelter at any point due to “serious, violent or multiple infractions?”

Safe campgrounds were rejected by city staff and Council because they would divert resources from a proven solution (housing) and duplicate existing services. The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness notes: These environments [sanctioned campgrounds] have little impact on reducing homelessness. (See the April 2021 Study Session for a full discussion of Safe Campgrounds.)

There are no data supporting that providing several more sheltering options will end encampments. There is, however, the reality that adding more sheltering options will draw funds from Housing First and other proven programs

Enforcement of the camping ban and related laws is one tool we have to discourage encampments. The camping ban does not “criminalize homelessness.” Our Municipal Judge Cooke has said during multiple presentations to Council that court appearances are a touch point to connect people to services, not an opportunity for incarceration. Even if individuals are jailed for a more serious crime than camping, a criminal record — even a violent one — does not preclude an individual from accessing Section 8 housing assistance or supportive housing. The only exceptions are: sexual offenses and methamphetamine.

We agree that jail is not a solution to homelessness. We also agree we need more addiction and mental health treatment options. For those who have committed serious crimes, we support alternative sentencing facilities when appropriate. Methamphetamine use is a challenge to housing and treatment. Any program with greater than a 10% success rate is worth exploring. According to the Department of Housing and Human Services, the city is also pursuing the creation of a residential meth recovery house. For sex offenders, the city is purchasing units specifically for housing this population.

We have heard concerns about the police enforcing the ban as opposed to people trained to intervene in mental health situations. Police were previously not responsible for enforcing the camping ban until their help was requested by city staff. Parks & Recreation Director Ali Rhodes told Council: “Our staff has been assaulted, threatened. It is traumatic.” Though the police do play a primary role in camping ban enforcement, they do not intervene alone. Trained outreach teams, such as BETHERE and the CIRT, are part of enforcement.


Finally, as proof that enforceable rules can increase access to services, after the City Council passed an emergency ordinance banning tents and propane tanks in city parks and allocated more funds for enforcement, coordinated entry screenings increased by 30%, with 25 more people regularly utilizing the shelter according to Housing and Human Services data.


It would be insane to follow in the footsteps of the failing programs of our past and of the West Coast of today; let’s commit to learning from past mistakes and build a better future for Boulder.

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