City of Boulder officials want more money to clear encampments of homeless people. Credit: John Herrick

City officials told the Boulder City Council on Thursday, Aug. 4, that they plan to request additional money to clear homeless encampments, potentially extending a pilot program that has fueled a heated debate over how the city deals with unhoused people. 

The notice of the request for additional resources was made during a city staff presentation on the pilot program – known as Safe and Managed Public Spaces – which Boulder City Council approved in April 2021. The program is focused on clearing encampments from public spaces and not on providing homeless services. 

The pilot program was approved with a $1.8 million annual budget. It initially included $1 million for six police officers; $300,000 for the Utilities Department to help collect belongings and dispose of trash; $372,000 for downtown ambassadors to patrol the Pearl Street Mall; and $124,000 for the Parks and Recreation Department to create an urban park ranger program. 

City officials told council they now want to extend and expand the program as part of the 2023 city budget. 

Specifically, Joe Taddeucci, director of the Utilities Department, said he would like to double the budget for taking down encampments to about $700,000. Taddeucci said the money would help his crews oversee a larger area of the city. City officials said they are removing encampments about two times per week.

“Over the years, as the encampments have become more and more of an issue, we find people living in our utilities infrastructure, inside box culverts and inside stormwater pipes,” Taddeucci said. “That’s just putting their life at risk.” 

Ali Rhodes, director of the Parks and Recreation Department, said she would like to continue the urban park rangers program. The program allows city rangers — not just police — to ticket people for illegal camping. 

“Doing this right has taken more time than we anticipated. But we feel really good about the program that we’re just now standing up,” Rhodes said. 

Since April last year, the city has cleared nearly 500 encampments, according to a June 2022 staff memo. In January 2021, the city cleared away one of its largest homeless encampments near the downtown Boulder Public Library in part due to concerns about its proximity to a playground. The city then built a skatepark at the once-popular sleeping area. 

City officials said they store belongings after removing encampments, as required by law. Taddeucci said the city gives people a number to call when officials place a 72-hour notice of a camping violation on their possessions. 

“We have a formal definition of what constitutes personal property,” Taddeucci said. “There can sometimes be issues where a person’s wallet or identification gets left behind. We have procedures to make sure that we’re taking care of those.”

But he said only a small percentage of people call the city to pick up their belongings.

It’s unclear whether the city council will approve the extension of the program. 

The initial request for more money comes as civil rights advocates with the ACLU of Colorado are suing the city in an effort to prevent enforcement of its camping ban. The law allows unhoused people to be ticketed for sleeping outside and their tents and belongings to be confiscated. 

City of Boulder officials said they are storing belongings of homeless people in a commercial building in east-central Boulder. Photo courtesy the city’s Utilities Department

‘We’re not going to get to a satisfying solution anytime soon.’

When the city council approved the program in 2021, Councilmembers Aaron Brockett, Adam Swetlik (who did not seek reelection in 2021) and Rachel Friend voted against it. 

During Thursday’s city council meeting, some members said they support the pilot program and asked how much money it would take to keep it going. 

“Can you just please give us an order of magnitude about the expansion of your program, which I’d be very much supportive of?” Councilmember Bob Yates asked Taddeucci, of the Utilities Department. “It sounds like the program has been pretty impactful. But it also sounds like it’s hard to keep up.” 

Councilmember Tara Winer said she is concerned about trash and lighting along the creek paths, where unhoused people often sleep. 

“What would it take — how many cleanups a week, how much more staff, how much more money — so that we can prioritize the tunnels so that they are safe for bikers and walkers?” Winer asked. 

Despite the pilot, the city’s data on the program indicates reports of encampments have trended up, according to the June 2022 staff memo. City staff have said data collection has not been consistent in part due to staffing shortages. 

Some councilmembers said they would prefer investing more in harm-reduction measures, such as storage containers for hypodermic needles and bathrooms. (In 2021, the Boulder City Council voted against spending $717,000 on sanctioned encampments similar to those set up in Denver in recent years. The purpose of the sites is to set aside space for people to legally sleep outside.)

“We’re not going to get to a satisfying solution anytime soon,” Councilmember Nicole Speer said. “Our job is really to mitigate harm to everybody in our community — housed, unhoused and unsheltered — and to make sure our parks and bikeways are staying open and accessible to everyone in our community.” 

Officials with the Parks and Recreation Department said the city has partnered with Boulder County Public Health to place a sharps storage container near Arapahoe and Broadway. It is considering placing another one near City Hall. City staff has said it has closed bathrooms during certain hours of the day due to vandalism and limited funding.

Councilmember Lauren Folkerts said she is concerned about people sleeping in culverts. She asked whether the city’s efforts to clear out encampments have pushed people farther away and into dangerous places. 

“Aren’t we going to see just people moving more deeply into areas of infrastructure where they’re not as noticeable?” she asked. 

Taddeucci said his staff have seen people move to other areas of the city after they have cleared out encampments. 

City officials said they will present more details on their potential budget request in early September. 

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.

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1 Comment

  1. “The pilot program was approved with a $1.8 million annual budget.”

    It’s very little compared to what has been spent to build Housing First at 1175 Lee Hill ($8M up-front), Ready to Work at 4747 Table Mesa ($4.5M), and Attention Homes at 1440 Pine ($12M). These three so-called programs have room for just 115 homeless clients, so the cost per unit works out to over $213,000 each.

    Consider Occupy Madison up in Wisconsin, which builds Tiny Houses for about $5K apiece; their program uses client labor to help in construction, charges a small monthly rent, requires residents to maintain common areas, and has a code of conduct emphasizing self-respect and respect for others. Many other Tiny House Communities are springing up all over the country — search online for “Tiny houses multiply amid big issues as communities tackle homelessness” published in the Washington Post some time ago.

    Why doesn’t Boulder, CO’s homeless shelter / services industry embrace this innovative and cost-effective model to house the homeless? Good question . . . For the amount of money already spent on the three facilities mentioned above, there could have been a safe, secure Tiny House for every one of the more than one thousand homeless adults living outdoors in this city.

    It’s obvious to many of us with extensive firsthand experience that the current Boulder homeless shelter / services leadership will continue to fail in the future, just as they have in the past.

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