Proponents of safe outdoor spaces argue they provide homeless people a safe place to rest. Credit: John Herrick

The Boulder City Council is considering creating a safe outdoor space, also known as a sanctioned campground, where homeless people could legally rest and have access to basic amenities such as showers and bathrooms. 

These types of spaces have been tested for years in other cities, including in Denver, in response to the recent rise in unsheltered homelessness. They include tents, shelter pods, tiny homes, or designated parking lots and other spots for people to sleep in their vehicles. They are intended to be a temporary shelter option for people who would otherwise sleep on the city’s streets or in public parks. 

A majority of members on the Boulder City Council told city officials last week that they are interested in creating a safe outdoor space in Boulder as soon as this winter. 

The urgency stems partially from capacity issues at the city’s main nighttime shelter in North Boulder. During winter months, the shelter does not have enough space to sleep everyone who shows up for a bed. As a result, people are turned away at the door and often given a bus ticket and blanket. Separately, some homeless people have pets, which they are not allowed to bring into that shelter.

“I think it would meet a real need,” Mayor Aaron Brockett told city officials on Sept. 28. “If there are ways to get something up and running more quickly, rather than less so, I think that would be best.” 

Also supporting a safe outdoor space were councilmembers Matt Benjamin, Laurent Folkers, Rachel Friend and Junie Joseph. 

Mark Wallach and Nicole Speer were less decided. Speer said she wanted the city to explore ways to increase its indoor shelter capacity, rather than stand up a sanctioned campground. She also suggested paying people $10 to encourage them to go to one of Boulder’s existing shelters. 

Councilmembers Tara Winer and Bob Yates were generally opposed to creating a safe outdoor space. Winer said she would prefer to spend the money on other housing options, such as a sober living home or transitional housing for people who are coming out of jail. She also said the city should focus on the day services center, which city officials hope to open in the coming months despite its still-uncertain location. Yates said he was a “hard no” on creating a sanctioned campground. 

“I’m in favor of safe indoor spaces,” he said. 

How to pay for a safe outdoor space is likely to be a major hurdle, perhaps requiring cuts to existing programs. Councilmembers are planning to discuss the issue again as soon as this week, when they are also expected to consider the city manager’s proposed budget for 2024

“We’re using all the resources we can right now,” Kurt Firnhaber, the city’s director of Housing and Human Services, told councilmembers. “Anything we do we will have to find additional resources for.” 

In April 2021, the current Boulder City Council decided against creating a sanctioned encampment and instead supported an 18-month encampment removal pilot program. The encampment removal program has since been extended. This year, the city plans to spend more than $3 million on the program. 

In 2021, city staff also opposed creating a sanctioned campground. Similar campgrounds across the country had reached a point where they had too many people for the space available, they said, and the cost of accommodating someone in one of these campgrounds was comparable to housing them in an apartment. 

City officials appear to have become more open to the idea after studying recent examples of safe outdoor spaces in Denver, Portland and Madison. Some of these spaces include 24-hour staffing, wrap-around services, fencing, restrooms, showers, laundry and storage spaces, according to city officials. 

“All of these ingredients need to be in place for it to be successful,” Firnhaber said. 

Considering these services, the cost to build a site that could sleep about 30 people would range from $1.5 million to $3.2 million in the first year. Ongoing operating costs would be about $1.5 million per year, according to city estimates. The city said it has identified two potential sites. 

Building a site with all these features may conflict with the desire of some councilmembers who want something up and running quickly.

In addition to the cold weather, several are worried that people who sleep outside are becoming less safe. 

Just last month, a man drove his truck through Central Park in an attempt to run over homeless people, according to city police. The man ran over multiple sleeping bags, but no one was injured. Police Chief Maris Herold said last week that so many people are overdosing on fentanyl, a powerful opioid, that the city recently stationed an ambulance near Central Park. 

Faythe, a 49-year-old who was born in Boulder, said she has been staying with family or sleeping in her car in Boulder. She said she cannot stay at the shelter because of her dog. She wants a place to sleep that feels safe where she can get “a good night’s rest.” 

“I’ve been told to leave at 5 o’clock in the morning,” she said of sleeping in downtown Boulder. “I’m not trying to do anything wrong, I’m just trying to rest.” 

Separately, business groups have put their support behind the idea of a sanctioned campground, in part due to the recent rise in the number of people who sleep outside near the city’s downtown establishments.  

Councilmember Friend said the city should pursue a “bronze-level” version of a site instead of a “platinum-level” one. Friend’s term is ending this year and she is not seeking reelection. The new Boulder City Council will be sworn in on Dec. 7.

“I think it would be a great day to have a ribbon cutting,” she said. 

John Herrick is a reporter for Boulder Reporting Lab, covering housing, transportation, policing and local government. He previously covered the state Capitol for The Colorado Independent and environmental policy for Email:

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  1. $2.5M per 30 people is $83,333 per person first year alone?

    “Considering these services, the cost to build a site that could sleep about 30 people would range from $1.5 million to $3.2 million in the first year. Ongoing operating costs would be about $1.5 million per year, according to city estimates. “

    1. Put another way, the mayor and a majority of city council want to spend $4,167 per person per month in ongoing costs — not including the build out — to actively *not* house people.

      > As a result, people are turned away at the door and often given a bus ticket and blanket.
      > [Speer] suggested paying people $10 to encourage them to go to one of Boulder’s existing shelters.

      Something doesn’t add up. Either there is sufficient shelter most of the time (therefore an incentive to go into shelter would make sense), or there isn’t sufficient shelter most of the time.

    2. Ongoing costs would be around 1.5M/year. And remember, this is transitional housing, so with all the services and stability that people will have at the camp, there will likely be more like 60 people/year in and out of there (6 month stays). The quality of services will be critical to moving people on to next steps, and community organizations can also volunteer a lot of resources and services. 1.5M/60 = 25K/year – that’s a steal!

  2. There’s a lot for sale directly behind the Shelter in north Boulder. Probably hold 30 tents; close to Shelter; on the bus line. Buildings to the west are commercial; closed at night.
    Seems like a potentially good site since it’s a commercial area and the building immediately to the east are part of the Shelter or apartments whose residents lived in the shelter prior to getting an apartment. Some folks are just not comfortable being in small spaces with unexpected noises.

    1. Yes, J Bonnett. This is exactly what we need. I mentioned this to City Council and the Real Estate agent for that Lot for Sale next to the Shelter over 6 months ago. What is City Council doing – but all talk and no walk. We need action.

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