The issue of homelessness has come up at least once in every Boulder City Council meeting since Nov. 16, when a new nine-member council was sworn into office.
Councilmembers have discussed housing vouchers, shelter bed capacity and ordinances prohibiting camping or pitching tents on city property. They have also discussed how these policies interact to achieve an overarching goal to get people living outside into a home.
One topic of debate has been the city’s camping ban, which directs police officers to ticket people sleeping on public property. (Just about everyone ticketed under the ordinance is unhoused, city officials have said.)
City officials say the ordinance orders people to show up to court, where case managers help them get documents needed to obtain housing vouchers or other services. They say it also prevents encampments from crowding city parks and public spaces.
Others argue the ordinance criminalizes the city’s most vulnerable, stacking charges on their criminal records visible to prospective landlords and employers. Further, critics say the ban pushes those trying to avoid law enforcement further to the fringes of the city and away from its resources.
The Boulder City Council is unlikely to repeal the decades-old ordinance anytime soon. But the conversation around how to reconcile the ban with the city’s homelessness strategy is up for debate once again.
That’s in part because last December, the city’s largest shelter turned away dozens of people due to capacity, according to data published by the city. On these nights, some people experiencing homelessness may have no choice but to sleep outside.
“Why would we be giving out tickets?” Councilmember Rachel Friend said during the Jan. 4 meeting. “If you don’t have shelter capacity and you’re turning people away, and it’s really cold out, what are their options?”
Data on camping citations
In December, the Boulder Police Department issued at least a dozen tickets for illegal camping or possession of a tent on days the city’s largest shelter turned people away due to capacity, according to an analysis of city records by the Boulder Reporting Lab.
And in all of last year, officers issued more than 50 camping and tent citations on days when temperatures were at or below freezing, according to the analysis using police records and federal weather data.
For some, this kind of enforcement raises moral concerns about asking people to pack up their tent and belongings on particularly cold days or when the city’s main shelter might not have a bed for them.
Such instances are relatively rare. Most of the 250 camping and tent tickets issued by police last year were handed out on warmer days when the shelter had beds available, according to police records.
But this small detail could have big legal ramifications.
In 2018, a federal court ruled ticketing people when they don’t have access to shelter violates Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. The high-profile case resulted in a settlement last year requiring that police officers in the City of Boise check with the shelter staff at certain times of day to confirm its bed capacity before ticketing people.
Annie Kurtz, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, has sent city officials letters alleging Boulder’s camping ban is unconstitutional. She wants it overturned. But in the meantime, Kurtz said the same process of communication between the police and the shelter could be implemented here.
“Not having this as part of your guidance risks punishing people on nights when they have nowhere else they could possibly go,” she said. “And when you do that, you’re punishing them for being homeless.”
‘We can get stuck in the minutiae’
The Boulder Police Department does not always consider temperature forecasts or check with the shelter regarding capacity before ticketing people for camping, according to Sarah Huntley, a spokesperson for the city.
Huntley said shelter staff notify the city of capacity turnaways the following morning. But setting up such a real-time or advanced notification system between police and the shelter would be difficult, in part because most nights, shelter staff are busy trying to feed and house 145 people, she said.
Further, many of the camping and tent tickets police issued on days the shelter filled up were issued hours before 7 p.m., when the lottery to access the shelter closes, according to police records. And staff at the shelter have said it is almost impossible to predict when the shelter will fill up in advance of the lottery.
“At this point, that’s not the focus of our conversations and the policymaking efforts,” Huntley said of a real-time notification system between the shelter and police. “The goal that we have as a city is to end homelessness.”
She said when people get a ticket, they are not required to take their tent down “right away.” Nor do most go to jail.
According to data from the county jail, no one is incarcerated for the single charge of violating the city’s camping ban. (The Boulder County Sheriff is not accepting people charged with certain municipal code violations in order to maintain social distancing as Covid-19 precaution.)
The City of Boulder is different from other cities in that employees work within the legal system to get people connected to homelessness services. Case managers, known as “navigators,” at the Municipal Court help people charged with illegal camping and tent possession obtain documents and services needed to get into housing. Recently, city prosecutors have been dropping camping charges, too.
Kurtz, of the ACLU, agrees Boulder’s program is helpful. But, she said, deploying the camping ban law for this purpose raises concerns.
“Boulder is making it a crime for people on snowy nights and on nights when the temperature is below freezing to use a blanket or protect themselves,” she said. “We can get stuck in the minutiae and the data, but that is what the law says. Whatever Boulder says about connecting people with services, there’s no way to make that law right.”