In the coming weeks, City of Boulder officials will begin meeting with residents and businesses near a proposed site for a drop-in services center for homeless people. The city plans to open the center as soon as this year in a one-story office building at 1844 Folsom Street.
The plan comes after the Boulder City Council made it one of its priorities to create a place where homeless people could go during the day. The city’s largest shelter in North Boulder is closed from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., except under certain weather conditions. The hope is that people would be able to access a range of to-be-decided basic amenities — showers, lockers, mailboxes, laundry and other necessities of daily life. People may also receive help signing up for public benefits, obtaining identification, finding peer support, and, ultimately, getting housing.
As anticipated by the city, some neighbors are sounding alarms.
Some residents of the Horizon West condominiums, located next door, have emailed city councilmembers urging them to find someplace else. Barbara Wilson, owner of Christina’s Luxuries, a women’s clothing store, said homeless people are already “deterring customers from coming around and challenging my employee safety” and that the location is “not appropriate.” Melissa Fathman, the executive director of the Dairy Arts Center, said the venue already deals with theft, vandalism, trespassing and litter.
“I do believe in helping people,” Fathman told Boulder Reporting Lab in an email. “At the same time, I wonder why we don’t help one group get back on their feet while also being able to protect others from harm.”
Wherever the center ends up, she said, there needs to be a “plan to support and maintain a peaceful environment in the surrounding areas. Without this effort, over time people will move away, close up shop, and the fabric of our community will continue to unravel.”
The Boulder Chamber, Downtown Boulder Partnership and Visit Boulder released a policy statement last week that includes supporting a day center for homeless people. But the groups haven’t taken a formal position on the Folsom Street location. The Boulder Chamber is planning to host a meeting with city officials and businesses to discuss the center.
The talks with neighbors and nearby businesses will likely shape what kinds of services the center provides, and what kinds of restrictions are imposed for people to get in. The discussion could also help alleviate concerns of neighbors, possibly averting formal complaints, lawsuits and other forms of opposition that could jeopardize the center’s opening this year.
“We definitely want to listen to what those concerns are and see if there are things that we can do through the operations of this center that will minimize those impacts,” Kurt Firnhaber, the city’s director of Housing and Human Services, told Boulder Reporting Lab. “What I hope it doesn’t turn into is more of a conversation of, ‘this shouldn’t be here.’”
City officials have reviewed more than a dozen locations: an industrial building on Mapleton Ave., an office building near Tantra Lakes, a three-story remodel on Spruce Street, the former Full Cycle bike shop on Pearl Street. Many were either too expensive, too far from downtown or bus stops, or too close to schools, according to city officials.
The Folsom Street location is about a block away from the HOP bus route. The property owner, Element Properties, a Boulder-based real estate development company, is interested in leasing the building to the city, according to city officials. The city is budgeting $1.2 million to operate the center. The likely operator, the Boulder Shelter for the Homeless, a nonprofit organization, is still negotiating a potential agreement with the city.
The city eventually wants to build 50 units of deed-restricted, permanently affordable apartments above the center. This would allow the city to take advantage of federal tax credits and effectively subsidize renovations at the day center, according to Firnhaber. The development is estimated to cost about $10 million, according to a recent city staff memo. During the construction, the day center would be temporarily relocated to a to-be-decided location.
Under city code, officials are required to host a “good neighbor meeting” with surrounding business owners and residents. City code does not give neighbors power to approve the project, however. But they could be influential in how it operates.
In 2017, for instance, the Boulder Shelter for the Homeless sought to update its management plan to allow some residents to stay during the daytime hours and to offer morning services that included walk-up breakfast, laundry, and access to showers. After meeting with neighbors, it nixed the idea for morning services and proposed more limited daytime use. City staff later said opening the shelter during the day would “significantly increase operating and staffing costs.” In the end, the shelter decided to remain closed during the day.
It remains unclear how and whether the Boulder City Council will weigh in on the project. Councilmembers are not required under city code to approve the center’s operations plan, but they will likely want to provide feedback. During a meeting this month, several councilmembers who have supported the day center suggested that city officials take the concerns of neighbors seriously.
“I think we need to be pretty empathetic to people’s fears,” Councilmember Rachel Friend said. “I think we have some trust building to do. And I can understand why people are worried.”
Cathy Alderman, chief communications and public policy officer for Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, said it can be hard to push back against opposition to homelessness services based on “fear and stigma.” But, Alderman said, providing people a stable place to access resources means they are more likely to get off the streets.
“That is a good thing and everyone deserves a chance,” she said.
Firnhaber said city officials are planning to update the city council on its broader plans for homelessness in September 2023.