Last October, Jennifer Rhodes, a psychiatrist, spoke to city councilmembers about the safety of students walking and biking to Boulder High School. She mentioned incidents of harassment her children and others have experienced, including being chased or assaulted.
Rhodes advocated for stricter enforcement of the city’s camping ban — which allows police officers to ticket people for sleeping in public spaces and confiscate their belongings — particularly near Boulder High. Other parents urged the city to eliminate its 72-hour notice policy for encampment removal within a certain radius of a school. The city opted not to change the policy near schools, citing concerns about the civil rights of homeless people.
“Giving people the right to camp illegally and continue to use drugs on our streets is not supporting their human rights,” Rhodes told councilmembers during a public hearing. “They are taking the city and our children down with them.”
Many of the stories shared by parents are based on personal experiences, and there is still much we don’t know about the connection between crime and homelessness. But their concerns grew in March this year, when several tents adjacent to Boulder High were set on fire, presumably from exploding propane tanks, which are used for cooking and heating.
The parents formed the group Safe Zones 4 Kids and successfully petitioned to place a measure on the 2023 ballot. The measure, Ballot Question 302, would amend city code, making tents and propane tanks within 500 feet (a distance longer than a football field) of a school, or 50 feet (equal to about two driveways) of a sidewalk or multi-use path, “subject to prioritized removal.”
“The motivation for the ballot measure is safety concerns among parents and students getting to and from school,” the Safe Zones 4 Kids organizers wrote in an email to Boulder Reporting Lab.
In a high-stakes election with five contested Boulder City Council seats and the first-ever direct mayoral election, the measure has become a divisive issue. However, it’s still not clear how the ballot measure would impact the city’s approach to clearing encampments, according to interviews with campaign organizers, city officials and observers. Some argue it would send a signal to the city to prioritize schools more, while others believe its wide scope would hinder that goal, making school prioritization more challenging. Meanwhile, many think the measure won’t bring about any real change.
One way the city could respond if the measure were to pass would be to change its internal policy for deciding which encampments to remove first. Currently, under the city manager’s abatement protocol for encampment removals, city officials score encampments using a “prioritization formula.”
They consider factors such as risks to life safety, fire danger, proximity to schools, impact on neighborhood livability, overall size, blockage of sidewalks and reports of crime or threats of violence, among other factors. Encampments near schools are given a priority level similar to those near a waterway or culvert, which pose a life safety risk. The only factor given more points than an encampment’s proximity to school is reports of crime or threats of violence.
To require “immediate/expedited cleanup,” an encampment has to score at least 70 points, according to the abatement protocol. Proximity to a school is capped at 20 points, so those encampments are always subject to 72-hour notice before removal, assuming no other factors increase the prioritization level of the encampment.
“The ballot measure is a one-sentence addendum to an existing ordinance that says give the schools and paths more points when clearing tents, needles and propane tanks,” the Safe Zones 4 Kids organizers wrote in a campaign email earlier this year. “The code language gives the city leeway to interpret, implement, and use best practices using real-time risk assessments.”
Understanding the measure’s possible impact is complicated by the fact that proponents asked the city to prioritize more than just schools. It seeks the same prioritization for all city sidewalks or multi-use paths — in other words, just about everywhere. Opponents of the measure argue this would make it difficult to prioritize anything.
“It has the potential to dilute our focus around keeping kids safe because it includes areas all over the city that currently are not priority areas,” Mayor Aaron Brockett, who is running for city mayor and opposes the measure, said at a recent candidate forum.
The city has declined to comment on how, exactly, the measure would be implemented. That’s partially because city code restricts using city resources for political advocacy.
“I cannot speak to pending ballot measures and what passage might mean in terms of city policies, procedures, operations, etc.,” Sarah Huntley, a city spokesperson, wrote in an email to Boulder Reporting Lab.
Joe Taddeucci, director of the Utilities Department, which helps oversee encampment removals, told Boulder Reporting Lab that any ballot measure can “affect the way we proceed on a project or a program.”
Taddeucci explained that the city’s homeless encampment removals program, introduced in 2021, is relatively new and the city is still “learning and adapting as we go.” The internal policy, last updated in March 2023, provides the city with the flexibility to be nimble and respond to community needs, he said. He noted that if the measure were to pass, the prioritization of schools “would become embedded in city code.”
Taddeucci would not elaborate on what this would mean in practice. “I don’t want to unduly influence an election,” he said.
The city spends about $3 million per year implementing its encampment removal program, and the measure wouldn’t increase funding for this work. Since March, when the latest protocol was put in place, the city has cleared out nearly 250 encampments, or more than one encampment a day, according to data provided to Boulder Reporting Lab.
This ongoing work, and the lack of money to expand it, is one reason why some believe not much would change if the measure were approved.
“I don’t think it will have much impact at all, unless some people see it as a way of suing the city to try to hold them accountable,” said Philip Ogren, a member of the city’s Housing Advisory Board who has interviewed organizers on both sides of the ballot measure for his podcast, Sharing Boulder. Ogren said he opposes the measure in part because of its extensive scope beyond school grounds.
Perhaps because of the measure’s ambiguous potential impact, relatively little money has been spent fighting it. The ballot measure committee that has formed to oppose it, Solutions Not Safe Zones, has raised about $5,000 to spend on campaigning, compared to about $18,000 raised by the Safe Zones 4 Kids campaign, according to the latest campaign finance reports. Both amounts are relatively small when compared to prior city elections.
The ballot measure has sparked conversations about homelessness this fall, and organizers on both sides of the debate said they welcome these discussions. But at the same time, the measure has had a polarizing effect, pigeonholing people into being either against unhoused people or against children.
“People are trolling me nonstop, telling me that I don’t care about kids and I just want kids to be assaulted,” Katie Farnan, the co-lead for Solutions Not Safe Zones campaign, told Boulder Reporting Lab.
“I can totally understand what they want this measure to do. But no one can tell me how the measure does what they want,” Farnan added. “Sweeping [homeless people] and telling them to move along doesn’t make that space safer. They have nowhere to go.”
In interviews, several local unhoused people said they agree people should not be sleeping or setting fires near Boulder High. And they, too, have concerns about people using drugs such as fentanyl, a powerful opioid, in public spaces. But they want to know where they should go instead, since safe options are scarce.
“Not everybody is going to make the shelter,” Gage Hodgin, 42, said, pointing to a woman who was missing toes due to frostbite. “In Georgia, they got warm huts. Just boxes where you can go to stay warm.”
The Boulder City Council is considering creating a safe outdoor space, or sanctioned campsite. But it remains unclear how the city would pay for it.
“They don’t have to if they don’t want to,” Hodgin said of the city creating a sanctioned campsite. “But that would be the humane thing to do for people who don’t have anywhere to go.”
Correction: In a reference to the proposed ordinance, the story indicated that it would make tents and propane tanks near schools, sidewalks and multi-use paths subject to prioritized removal. The measure states that tents and propane tanks near schools, sidewalks or multi-use paths would be subject to prioritized removal. Clarification: This story was updated to elaborate on how the city prioritizes encampment removals and how that relates to the 72-hour notice policy.