This story was updated at 11:30 a.m. on Jan. 6 to include comments from city staff and HOPE, which operates a shelter in Longmont.
A majority of the members on the Boulder City Council said on Tuesday they want to create another shelter for people experiencing homelessness as soon as this winter.
To help come up with a plan, council members want the city to release a request for information (RFI) seeking ideas from nonprofits providing homelessness services.
It’s unclear when the request will go out to the public. The city council did not vote on a specific timeline.
But in an interview, Mayor Aaron Brockett said a majority of the council members gave clear direction to city staff to work on an RFI for additional sheltering options. Brockett said council members are waiting to hear back from the city manager’s office.
“City staff are working to develop a timeline and plan following Tuesday night’s council meeting,” said Julie Causa, a spokeswoman for the city.
The request came after a start to winter that has seen the city’s largest shelter, the Boulder Shelter for the Homeless, turn away people due to capacity. City data indicate nearly 50 people have been turned away at the door so far this fall and winter.
City officials are also under pressure from the American Civil Liberties Union. The organization has all but threatened to sue the city for continuing to enforce its ban on public camping when the largest shelter is turning people away due to capacity issues. The ban leaves them with nowhere else to go, a recent letter to the city states.
Shelter finds hotel beds ahead of winter storm
Last week, when temperatures dipped into the single digits, the shelter was unable to find enough hotel beds to implement the city’s policy to make 20 additional beds available, according to Spencer Downing, the interim executive director for the shelter. (This was before the Marshall Fire destroyed nearly 1,000 homes and businesses, displacing thousands of residents, some of whom are sleeping in hotels.)
But Downing said, in the end, no one was turned away last week. And on Wednesday this week, ahead of another winter storm triggering critical weather conditions, the city was working with another hotel. It is planning to sleep people there to free up 20 beds at the shelter.
The number of beds at the shelter is down to 145 from 160 due to county-ordered Covid-19 social distancing precautions. In addition to the critical weather beds, the shelter is sleeping 25 people in hotels throughout much of the winter season.
Even so, the city’s shelter capacity for people experiencing homelessness is down from prior years. In May 2020, the city closed a severe weather shelter on 30th Street and plans to convert it to affordable housing.
Nonprofits eager to help
As the Boulder City Council considers opening another shelter, nonprofit organizations providing homelessness services are already eager to help. Some service providers told the Boulder Reporting Lab they just need a building and money to make it happen.
Bill Sweeney, who used to run the Boulder Outreach for Homeless Overflow, which relied on congregations in the city of house people overnight, before it closed in 2017. Sweeney said he would like to see the city reopen the 30th Street property or repurpose a vacant building to set up an overnight shelter.
He said he could help. But, he said, various nonprofits should collaborate to operate the shelter and provide services.
“None of this stuff is impossible,” Sweeney said. “There’s a whole lot of people at the table who can do something. The city has to take the leadership of declaring goals and measurable outcomes and essentially kick it off.”
Feet Forward, a nonprofit organization providing homelessness services, is also interested in helping create a shelter. The nonprofit, founded by Jennifer Livovich, who has experienced homelessness in Boulder, hosts events at the Bandshell on Tuesday afternoons to connect people with resources and provide food, clothing and, at times, haircuts.
Separately, some members of the city council want to create a day shelter providing a place to stay throughout the day and services to help people find housing. The only shelter in Boulder that is regularly open 24 hours per day is the Lodge, which only sleeps women and transgender people, many of whom are victims of domestic violence.
Lisa Sweeney-Miran, the executive director of Mother House, which operates the Lodge, said she, too, would be willing to help set up a shelter.
Sweeney-Miran said nonprofits have been asking for additional homelessness resources for years.
“We have this conversation every single year. We wait until the snow starts and we don’t have a plan,” she said. “We need to start planning today.”
Several city council members said they were also interested in revisiting proposals to set up a sanctioned campground or a legal overnight parking site in Boulder.
Homeless Outreach Providing Encouragement, or HOPE, a nonprofit that operates an overnight shelter in Longmont, is managing a “SafeLot” where people can sleep in their cars and access case management, food and showers, according to Alice Sueltenfuss, HOPE’s executive director.
Sueltenfuss said the nonprofit wants to partner with a congregation to set up a similar program in Boulder but doesn’t have the capacity.
“The pandemic has hit a lot of us non-profits hard, so starting a new program in another city is difficult,” she said in an email. “Someday, we plan to open a SafeLot in Boulder, but until then we will grow our program here in Longmont.”