The Boulder Police Department cleared an encampment under the library on Jan. 13, 2021. Credit John Herrick.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado is calling on the City of Boulder to stop enforcing its public camping ban after the city’s largest shelter in North Boulder has had to turn away dozens of people so far this year due to capacity limits.  

The city’s ban on camping in public spaces directs the police to issue citations to people who sleep outside on city property during nighttime hours without a permit.

“Using these measures to criminalize people for surviving outside when they have nowhere else to go is cruel, dangerous, and unconstitutional,” Annie Kurtz, an attorney with the ACLU of Colorado, said in a letter to city officials on Thursday. 

The letter came after the Boulder Reporting Lab reported this week that the city’s largest shelter, the Boulder Shelter for the Homeless (BSH), has been turning people away at the door due to limited capacity. The shelter currently has 140 beds. According to city data, more than 30 people have been denied access due to capacity issues so far this year. Overall, the total shelter capacity in the city is lower than prior winters. 

The letter was sent to Chief of Police Maris Herold, City Attorney Teresa Tate, City Manager Nuria Rivera-Vandermyde and the nine members of the Boulder City Council.

The city had not responded to requests for comment at the time of publishing. 

In an interview earlier this week, Kurt Firnhaber, the city’s director of Housing and Human Services, said the city and the shelter are considering adding five more hotel beds in January, and perhaps more in March. Firnhaber said staffing issues may make it difficult to expand capacity. And some city and shelter officials said they would rather use the limited resources they have for programs that help people get housing vouchers than for expanding the number of shelter beds. 

In 2010, civil rights attorneys sued the city over its camping ban, alleging it punished people for being homeless. The courts rejected the argument. The City of Boulder has since defended the ordinance, first adopted in 1980, in part by arguing shelter beds are available to anyone who wants one. 

The city has fewer available beds this year due to public health measures designed to increase social distancing and last year’s closure of the 30th Street shelter. BSH plans to house up to 40 people in hotels to make up some of the difference. 

Meanwhile, officials expect demand at the shelter to increase. This summer, Homeless Solutions for Boulder County, a board overseeing the county’s homelessness program, retracted a Boulder County residency requirement to access housing services.

The policy change was a response to allegations of discrimination by the ACLU. In a July letter to city and county officials, Kurtz cited court precedent indicating camping ban penalties violate Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment when people have no choice but to sleep outside. 

“The City’s data on BSH turn-aways now reflects what has long been true: shelter capacity in Boulder is woefully inadequate to meet community need,” Kurtz said in Thursday’s letter. 

The letter, below, requests that city officials respond by the end of the day tomorrow. 

John Herrick

John Herrick reports on housing, climate, health and local government for Boulder Reporting Lab. He previously covered the state Capitol for The Colorado Independent and environmental policy for VTDigger.org. He is interested in stories about people, power and fairness.