In the lead up to the Nov. 7, 2023 election, Boulder Reporting Lab asked readers what questions they wanted us to pose to candidates running for Boulder City Council and mayor. We selected six that address significant community issues. Read all the responses as they publish here.
How the City of Boulder responds to homelessness, which is rising across Boulder County, is shaping into a central issue in the campaigns for city council this year.
Just about every one of the 14 candidates acknowledges the city’s need for more affordable housing and improved drug addiction and mental health treatment services. But the candidates differ on what solutions should be prioritized and where to allocate the city’s limited funds.
Some suggest the city should reevaluate its long-standing “housing first” strategy, which prioritizes providing housing before addressing other needs, especially in light of issues related to drug addiction and mental illness. Others emphasize the importance of financial assistance and preventative measures to help renters maintain their housing.
City officials anticipate that money will be tight in the coming years. Some candidates propose utilizing funds from Proposition 123, a voter-approved 2022 ballot measure that allocates a portion of income tax revenue to affordable housing programs. Others advocate for collaboration with regional entities such as the state and Boulder County.
Each candidate was given 200 words to respond to the following question. Some answers have been edited to meet the word count. The candidates’ responses were randomly ordered for fairness. You can also jump to each candidate’s answers: Taishya Adams, Silas Atkins, Terri Brncic, Aaron Brockett, Jacques Decalo, Waylon Lewis, Tina Marquis, Aaron Gabriel Neyer, Paul Tweedlie, Jennifer Robins, Ryan Schuchard, Nicole Speer, Tara Winer, Bob Yates.
What do you think are the most promising initiatives for reducing homelessness?
Homelessness is complex, and people are homeless for different reasons. I believe we’ll need several tools to address this humanitarian crisis. I would advocate for more supportive housing, increased behavioral health treatment, and ready-to-work programs. I also believe Boulder cannot solve this issue alone, and nor can Denver.
I will advocate for partnerships across the metro region and hope we work together to create solutions for homelessness. I am optimistic about new grant funding received by multiple groups county-wide serving the homeless to expand support for the homeless, including housing.
[Editor’s note: Earlier this year, the city was awarded $2.5 million from the state to create a respite center for homeless people and help launch a non-police behavioral health crisis response program. And last month, the city was awarded additional money to pay for 40 housing vouchers, which subsidize rent, and other homelessness services.]
There are many factors that contribute to homelessness. These include lack of housing, income inequity, substance abuse and mental health issues. I am committed to working to increase affordable housing and streamlining city processes to allow for more affordable housing opportunities. I am open to exploring the possibility for tiny homes or micro-communities, where we could move groups of people into tier 1 housing.
The unhoused have communities just like you and I. If we can work with the encampments in that light, I think that the level of success would be much greater than trying to move people into individual housing and removing them from their existing personal support structure. These options should be funded by the county using the extension of the Alternative Sentencing Facility tax that will be on the ballot next year.
In addition to our existing services, I think the most promising initiatives for ending homelessness include our existing night shelter and the coming day shelter. The existing council has also approved the day shelter, which will be an important addition to our current services. It will provide another path for people to get connected to services.
Nicole Speer (mayoral candidate)
Homelessness encompasses the encampments in our public spaces to families doubling up in single-family homes. Regardless of the type of homelessness we talk about, no one finds our current situation acceptable. Thankfully, there are evidence-based, data-driven strategies that prevent, reduce and even eliminate homelessness.
- Small amounts of one-time emergency assistance prevent homelessness for at least 2 years. Allocating $100,000 more to emergency assistance funds in our 2024 budget could keep 40 people out of homelessness.
- Our region’s Built for Zero effort reduced veteran homelessness in the Denver Metro area by 31% even as homelessness increased 32% in the Denver Metro region. Houston had the 6th highest homelessness rates in the U.S. but has reduced homelessness by 63% in the past decade by following a similar model. Let’s champion this work.
- Supportive housing in Denver eliminated homelessness for 77% of program participants. The county has a sales tax extension on the November ballot to fund affordable housing, including permanent supportive housing. Let’s support this extension.
Focusing on prevention will avoid continued increases in homelessness. Meanwhile, let’s support evidence-based, data-driven approaches to reducing and even ending homelessness. Read more about how we can reduce homelessness in Boulder.
We must address the issues at the heart of the problem, establishing facilities that can rehabilitate, house and address the mental health issue that those experiencing homelessness are facing. Pushing people around from one town to another does nothing but perpetuate relapses. Over my lifetime of living in Boulder I have seen the camping and crime associated with the homeless population rise to levels never experienced. Those experiencing homelessness can feel cast out of society. We must increase touch points to build trust and have them be accepting and ready to receive help.
We need to invest in regional facilities that give people an opportunity to sober up with mental health resources that allow them to understand the reason for their substance abuse. Once sober, programs that house and provide continued mental health assessments can be allocated. It is important to give people a space that they can feel is their own in order to get their feet back underneath them. We must find ways to house those ready to work and give them opportunities for income. This is not just a Boulder issue. It is regional and national. We must increase funding from the state and federal level.
Bob Yates (mayoral candidate)
In the September issue of my monthly newsletter, the Boulder Bulletin, I set forth eight solutions to eight homelessness problems. Briefly, those solutions are (1) providing permanent supportive housing; (2) treating mental illness and substance abuse; (3) using the night shelter more effectively; (4) opening a day shelter; (5) enforcing our camping ban; (6) cleaning up encampments rapidly; (7) establishing consequences for repeat criminal offenses; and (8) addressing transience. I invite community members to read my proposals and to provide their input.
Aaron Gabriel Neyer
We need to work with greater urgency to spin up better services, most specifically a night shelter and a day shelter. Then we need to put more resources into mental health outreach teams who can go and build relationships with the unhoused, to help understand their needs and to more effectively direct them to resources. We need to use enforcement carefully, to help nudge the unhoused people into conversations with outreach teams who will get them help and to address those who are unhoused who seem less interested in getting help and more interested in creating trouble — especially those stealing or selling drugs.
Our homelessness crisis is driven by poverty and a lack of housing. These circumstances are worsening, nationally and in Boulder, with homelessness at much higher levels in communities with limited housing affordability like ours. Furthermore, we need to be realistic about the fact that the way out of homelessness is frequently complicated by mental illness and substance abuse.
The most promising initiatives for reducing homelessness are the following:
Immediate stability and support. Safe places for people to go, both during the day and at night, with a more robust system of caseworkers and resources to help people effectively manage individual challenges. We also need to invest in comprehensive engagement to meet the needs of “superusers,” the top 50 or so people who cycle from crisis to crisis. Finally, we must create more local treatment services for mental health and addiction for everyone, regardless of housing status.
Transitional housing. More comprehensive options for tiny homes and other transitional housing, with varying levels of supervision and support, aiming to put people on paths to permanent homes. Prop 123 funding should be useful. [Editor’s note: Proposition 123 is a voter-approved 2022 ballot measure that dedicates a portion of income tax revenue to affordable housing programs.]
Homelessness prevention. Renter protections and assistance, with more abundant affordable housing options overall to prevent people from slipping into homelessness.
With an estimated 75% of the unsheltered population suffering from substance abuse disorders, untreated mental illness, or both, we can’t continue to insist that housing alone will solve the problem. We need a continuum of treatment options that will provide these individuals with the immediate care that they need while putting them on a path to stable housing.
This means expanding and enhancing our detox facility so that we have an “emergency room” to intake individuals in crisis. It means building out sober-supported transitional housing where they can go after detox or post jail release to continue to focus on their recovery. And it means creating a streamlined network of treatment facilities so that we have options for individuals that are struggling and need extra support.
We also need to get more data-driven about the effectiveness of permanent supportive housing. We need much more transparency around the very real issues that are occurring in this housing — overdoses, meth contamination, evictions, etc. If the city is going to insist that “housing first” is the answer, it needs to be supported with facts so that we can optimize what’s working and course correct on what’s not.
I believe housing with supportive services is the most effective way to help reduce homelessness. Because many people experiencing homelessness suffer from mental health issues and or drug addiction, having 24/7 wrap-around services would give people the highest probability of success in housing. We need options for people to access this kind of help, especially options that accept Medicaid. Our state is sorely lacking in these areas. I have been working with county and state representatives to provide options.
Ready-to- work programs like Bridge House offers, are unique in that they provide employment, housing and support.
A few months ago, I visited The Other Side Academy. It’s a live-in program where students learn vocational and life skills. It’s dedicated to those in the criminal justice system that struggle with substance abuse. Boulder’s Community Court program made its first successful referral to The Other Side Academy for an unhoused, criminal justice-involved individual!
Ultimately, we need more housing for the unhoused. The City of Aurora’s pallet homes are 10 x 10, equipped with power, air conditioning and heat. A non-profit staffs the community 24 hours a day. This, in my opinion, is the most promising initiative.
Homelessness is a response to failed policy, not failed people. I believe the most promising initiatives in reducing homelessness are those that are sufficiently funded, staffed and supported over multiple years. Our affected community members and community support organizations have been clear on the need for sustained support of existing evidence-based approaches (e.g. day community center) while expanding mental health, detox, recovery, transitional living, etc. This is not charity. These extreme inequities are a result of a system that encourages myopic economic growth on the backs of discriminatory policies.
First of all, stop the infighting. We can’t make meaningful progress and actually help people, increase safety and return our town to a baseline of functionality, access and safety for all.
Specifically, I’m supportive of the camping ban. Our parks are for all of us. Right now they’re getting trashed, and we’re paying millions of dollars to move folks repeatedly a block or two and see the next area trashed. It’s also not safe for our homeless friends — drug use, untreated, is heartbreaking. Same with mental well-being. Same with assault, which is sadly prevalent — homeless women and youth are assaulted at alarming rates — up to 79% according to some studies. The status quo is good for no one.
So not only am I supportive of the camping ban, I’m supportive of enforcing it. Then, moving folks to a safe, warm, cool, dog-friendly longer-term space where nonprofits (which cost taxpayers nothing) and our police can go to one space. That’s a two-step process that has actually worked in many cities. Saved money. And increased safety — for all.
Housing is at the core of my campaign, which is centered around meeting people’s basic needs. We do that by using safe outdoor spaces (tents and parking areas with bathrooms, trash service, counseling, etc.), day shelters, overnight shelters, hotels, vacant office/commercial space, sober supportive housing, transitional housing, building more housing of all types in areas with services, and expanding long term affordability through permanently affordable housing and more market rate and luxury housing stock.
Paul Tweedlie (mayoral candidate)
City Council’s passing of the Police Master Plan was a great step forward.
[Editor’s note: The Boulder City Council has endorsed the city’s “Reimagine Policing Plan,” which seeks to focus more on crime prevention and less on reacting to crime.]
Aaron Brockett (mayoral candidate)
The need for additional solutions for unhoused community members is great. I firmly support the creation of more permanent supportive housing using the “housing first” model as well as interim solutions like tiny home villages and safe outdoor spaces like those implemented in Denver.
We also need to ensure better access to mental health and substance use treatment options, including with transitional housing. Another important piece of the puzzle is opening the day services centers to connect people experiencing homelessness with services and housing. We can make many of these initiatives possible by leveraging state Proposition 123 funding.