City of Boulder residents are gathering signatures for a ballot measure that would put pressure on city officials to clear out encampments of homeless people more quickly, particularly near schools such as Boulder High, where officials said a propane tank recently exploded near a tent.
The Safe Zones 4 Kids petition, publicly announced on Sunday night, would amend the city’s prohibition of the possession of tents or propane tanks on public property so that any such items located within 500 feet of a school would be “subject to prioritized removal.” The same high-priority designation would also apply to within 50 feet of a sidewalk or multi-use path.
City officials have said they are already prioritizing clearing out tents, propane tanks and other belongings near schools and on multi-use paths as a matter of internal policy. If passed, the measure would make such prioritization part of city code.
The Safe Zones 4 Kids petition is the first to be submitted with the City of Boulder ahead of the Nov. 7, 2023 election, in which voters will directly elect the mayor for the first time and will also elect four other councilmembers. Homelessness and public safety are expected to be among the driving issues in the lead-up to the election. The topics were prominent in Denver’s recent mayoral race.
One of the founding members of the Safe Zones 4 Kids organization, Jennifer Rhodes, a psychiatrist, attended a city council meeting in October 2022 with her daughter, who said she has been yelled at and blocked by people when biking along the Boulder Creek path to Boulder High. Another member, John Neslage, a corporate lawyer, told city councilmembers a man masturbated in front of his daughter at the Boulder Public Library.
“As a community, we have a responsibility to ensure that every child feels safe on their way to and from, and during school,” Rhodes said in a new release announcing the petition.
If the ballot measure language were to pass, it is unclear what effect it would have.
City officials have said they are already prioritizing enforcement near schools, including the wooded area between Boulder High and CU Boulder known as the Andrews Arboretum, a place where people often sleep.
Separately, earlier this year, officials updated their internal policy to no longer provide a 72-hour notice before clearing out encampments on underpasses, multi-use paths and other “commuter corridors,” citing safety concerns. (City officials have said they can immediately remove visible propane tanks from public property.)
Some Boulder residents have advocated for the city to waive its 72-hour notice policy when clearing encampments near schools. But that could open the city up to civil rights lawsuits, according to officials. The city is already being sued by the ACLU of Colorado as part of an effort to block enforcement of its decades-old camping ban, on grounds it violates state constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment.
Courts across the U.S. have ruled that the 14th Amendment ensures homeless people are given due process in the form of “reasonable notice” before they are ordered to vacate public spaces.
“We want to do our work in a way that’s within the Constitution and legally protected,” Joe Taddeucci, the city’s director of Utilities, said. “There’s a really strong precedent for giving notice.”
In Oct. 2022, the Boulder City Council approved spending more than $2 million per year for city officials to pick up trash, confiscate personal property and ticket homeless people for violating laws on sleeping in public spaces or possessing a tent or propane tank. A recent city staff memo indicates reports of encampments has continued rising.
Critics of the ballot measure proposal argue it will push homeless people to other locations and not address the underlying causes of homelessness, such as the lack of resources to treat mental illness or drug addiction and the high cost of housing.
“I understand their concerns,” Jennifer Livovich, the executive director of Feet Forward, which provides peer support and other services for homeless people, wrote in a text message. “I do hope they realize that if we don’t allow camping in one place, it says it’s ok to camp in others, including Pearl St.”
The Safe Zones 4 Kids ballot measure committee has until June 9 to collect 3,437 signatures for it to appear on the November ballot. As of early Wednesday morning, it had 91 signatures.