City of Boulder business groups are gearing up to publicly support a wide range of homelessness services, including a first-of-its-kind, city-approved encampment pilot program. The move comes at least partially in response to concerns from Boulder Chamber members about how people sleeping outside with untreated mental illnesses and addiction are affecting businesses.
During a meeting on Monday at the Boulder Chamber, the Downtown Boulder Partnership, Visit Boulder and chamber leadership presented a list of draft policy recommendations, the first step in the creation of a policy platform that the organizations could use to lobby elected officials.
“To the extent that this is a jumping off platform for further conversations and driving to solutions, then our initial goal has been achieved,” John Tayer, the president and CEO of the Boulder Chamber, told Boulder Reporting Lab. “But we need action.”
The business community representatives appear likely to advocate for an adult homeless shelter that operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Such hours of operation are common in other cities but not in Boulder, where the main nonprofit-run shelter in North Boulder is closed during the day, except under certain weather conditions.
They are also likely to support a day center where homeless people would be able to access a range of services, such as lockers, mail, legal experts, behavioral health specialists and navigators to help them obtain identification and benefits. The groups may also back a pilot program for a “safe outdoor space,” presumably where people could sleep legally and have access to certain amenities, such as bathrooms and heated shelters. This could include shelter pods, tiny homes or spots for people to live out of their cars.
Less controversial draft recommendations include establishing more mental health and drug addiction services. As a result of Colorado’s inadequate supply of such services, often people are arrested, brought to jail and released back to the street. Law enforcement officials have said they have nowhere else to bring people with behavioral health needs.
The draft policy proposals mark the first time in recent history in which the business groups appear poised to embrace a major expansion of shelter options and homelessness services in Boulder. But the recommendation to expand services would come with strings attached.
The organizations are also likely to seek quicker enforcement of the city’s camping ban, which prohibits sleeping in public spaces. This includes shortening notice periods before clearing out encampments and creating laws that would allow for the “immediate removal” of tents in some cases, according to an April 10 presentation. They may also seek to increase city spending on its encampment removal program, above the more than $2 million per year the city council has already allocated for the encampment removal work.
As officials ramp up enforcement of the city’s camping ban, additional homelessness services could help shield the city from legal liability. Cities that do not provide overnight options for homeless people, while also prohibiting sleeping in public spaces, have faced civil rights challenges under the U.S. Constitution. The ACLU of Colorado has already sued the City of Boulder, alleging it violates state protections against cruel and unusual punishment when people are ticketed for sleeping in public spaces when they have nowhere else to go.
The presentation at the Boulder Chamber cited the example of Chico, California. In January 2022, Chico signed a settlement agreement over a camping ban lawsuit requiring it to create a 24-hour emergency shelter and an outdoor space with “pallet shelters” equipped with a door, lock, electricity, heating and other fixtures. The agreement generally allows the city to enforce its camping ban when there are “sufficient shelter beds” available.
The business groups did not provide financial estimates on how much it would cost to implement these programs. And it is unclear what effect such spending would have on the city’s efforts to provide people housing — rather than emergency shelter beds. The city estimates more than 450 unhoused people live in the city, and that hundreds of people are on waiting lists to get into housing. Mike Block, the interim CEO of the Boulder Shelter for the Homeless, said survey data across the region has shown that about 90% of homeless people want housing.
The plan did not describe in detail how the shelter spaces would operate and who would have access to them. Those particulars are important, according to Jennifer Livovich, the executive director of Feet Forward, which provides peer support and other services for homeless people at Boulder’s Civic Center Park on Tuesday afternoons.
“The bulk of the people who are coming to the park are not going to be down to go somewhere where they lose their autonomy and the community of their own choice,” Livovich said.
This week’s presentation at the Boulder Chamber comes ahead of a Boulder City Council meeting on Thursday dedicated to topics of encampments and family homelessness, both of which are primarily driven by the city’s relatively high cost of housing. The housing crisis is expected to become more dire as pandemic-era federal stimulus programs incrementally expire. Service providers believe this is already driving a recent rise in Boulder County eviction case filings to the highest levels in years.