George Rodriguez sat on the benches of the Boulder Bandshell, his leg in a brace and his eyelashes nearly frozen from the subfreezing temperatures of Valentine’s Day weekend.
With a steaming hot cup of coffee, a new backpack and pair of water-resistant gloves, Rodriguez felt more prepared for the cold weather than many other people experiencing homelessness he knows.
“It’s a hard challenge, especially with this cold weather,” Rodriguez said of being without a place to live.
Homelessness is inherently complex, perhaps even more so in Boulder given the varied perspectives on how best to approach it and what some view as a lack of services and a lack of collaboration between the city’s housing-focused system, which began in October 2017, and other nonprofit organizations and people advocating for the unhoused community or for increased enforcement of camping bans.
For Chris Nelson, executive director of Boulder’s Attention Homes, which provides housing and supportive services for youth experiencing homelessness, the problem extends far beyond Boulder, and it won’t be solved until it’s considered on a national level.
“The reality is that it’s a real challenge in Boulder, and it’s not exclusive to Boulder. It’s a real challenge in just about every community in the country,” he said.
But when zeroing in on Boulder, Jen Livovich has an intimate understanding of what the city is facing. She spent years living on the streets of Boulder before climbing out of homelessness and beginning her own nonprofit, Feet Forward, that does street outreach, including the regular events at the bandshell. Most recently, she was hired to work with BTHERE (Boulder Targeted Homelessness Engagement and Referral Effort), the city’s latest partnership with Attention Homes and Mental Health Partners meant to connect with those uninterested or unable to engage in city services.
Livovich is busy. In addition to her nonprofit and her work with BTHERE, she’s in school and serves on multiple city boards and commissions. But she said it took a lot of time and persistence to get that point.
“It was one thing to be unhoused and love your community and to not have it love you back,” Livovich said. “And then it’s a whole ‘nother ball game when you climb out of homelessness. You want to be a part of the broader community. You want to be a part of those conversations, and you’re still not loved back.
“That stigma follows you as you move forward. … That sends a very dangerous message for all the people that I might be out there inspiring to change,” she added.
Attend a Boulder City Council meeting, and it’s nearly inevitable that open comment will include comments about housing and homelessness — whether it’s a homelessness advocate urging the city to do more for Boulder’s unhoused community or a longtime resident saying they no longer feel safe walking the Boulder Creek path due to encampments.
It’s perhaps the most obvious and consistent example of the fissure in the community over its approach to homelessness.
Boulder County’s Coordinated Entry system is meant to serve as a one-stop shop for those experiencing homelessness to access the city’s myriad services, but it also represents an area of community divide.
Coordinated Entry, established in 2017 as a regional partnership through Homeless Solutions for Boulder County, is considered a best practice, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. However, the department outlines dozens of ways to guarantee its effectiveness, including prioritizing those with the greatest need and ensuring there is a low barrier to entry and that Coordinated Entry does not block a person’s access to emergency sheltering services.
Single adults experiencing homelessness in Boulder County first telephone the Coordinated Entry line, which can be a barrier for those without ready access to a phone.
Callers are further assessed with questions that have three main thrusts — how long they’ve been in the county, how high their level of need is and how many crisis services they’re using.
Based on those answers, people are sorted into two basic groups — people with low needs go to navigation services and people with high needs will be sent to housing services. Those who have been in the county for less than six months aren’t eligible for most services, aside from the severe weather shelter and other diversion services such as reunification with friends or family, bus tickets or car repairs.
Without having gone through Coordinated Entry, people are allowed just one grace night at the emergency severe weather shelter operated out of the Boulder Shelter for the Homeless in north Boulder, which limits access to the sheltering services on the most severe weather weather nights.
Homelessness advocates often argue the city and county are aware of some of the inefficiencies with the Coordinated Entry system and should be doing more to accommodate those who can’t easily access it or don’t want to.
“They’ve bastardized it and turned it into a way to exclude people,” Darren O’Connor, an attorney and member of the NAACP of Boulder County’s criminal justice committee, said.
But city officials, including Greg Harms, executive director of the Boulder Shelter, which operates a housing-focused shelter in addition to its emergency sheltering services, and Kurt Firnhaber, Boulder’s director of housing and human services, view Coordinated Entry as a necessary piece of the services provided. Harms and Firnhaber said those staying at the shelter can go through the Coordinated Entry process there.
A physical location for Coordinated Entry that’s centrally located in downtown Boulder is set to open, and it’s expected to create more accessibility for clients. However, Firnhaber said progress has slowed while staff members await the coronavirus vaccination.
“It’s not ideal,” Firnhaber said of not yet having a physical location. “But I don’t think there’s anything preventing anyone from going through Coordinated Entry that really wants to do it.”
Officer Ross Maynard, a member of the Boulder Police Department’s Homeless Outreach Team, agreed that it would be better if Coordinated Entry could be accessed in person but said he doesn’t see an alternative since the system provides continuity.
“I don’t see Coordinated Entry ever going away,” Maynard said. “Maybe we just need to work on making it more accessible.”
It’s a tough balancing act, but Boulder officials remain focused on the city’s housing first strategy that aims to first help people find stable housing and then provide additional support as needed. That strategy is how Robert Fetterhoff, who lives in Boulder’s first permanent supportive housing community on Lee Hill Drive, secured the apartment where he’s been for a little more than six years.
Before moving into his apartment on Lee Hill, Fetterhoff was in and out of the Boulder Shelter for about two years after a divorce left him without a place to live. It was rough to stay at the shelter since Fetterhoff worked nights in event security for the University of Colorado Boulder, but he’s found a balance and is grateful for the stability and independence of his new situation.
“It’s been wonderful here for me,” Fetterhoff said, referencing the Lee Hill site. “I think this would help a lot of people that have been through more my similar situation where they have been homeless but they still had a job.”
However, when considering the disconnect, Maynard acknowledged that some people would rather there be no police involvement, while others resent the city’s housing and human services department for its policies or the activists who provide sleeping bags and food to those in need. Often, there are strong opinions, despite seemingly similar objectives.
“A lot of people have the same goals as far as seeing homeless people get off the streets,” he said. “But for some reason there’s this unwillingness to reach across the table to see how we can all work together.”
That disconnect is further represented in the relationship between the city and some of its boards and commissions that focus on housing and equity issues. The Housing Advisory Board and Human Relations Commission, for example, were tasked with creating a report on solutions, namely safe parking lots and tiny home villages for those experiencing homelessness. The joint report also prioritized data, particularly on “negative scenarios,” wherein people are not engaging in city services.
“From our interviews, these ‘negative scenarios’, often called by staff ‘service-resistant,’ are real people with specific life circumstances that render existing sheltering options untenable,” the report states.
Thus far, nothing has come of the report. It was not included in the staff memo when Boulder City Council last discussed the topic in January. HAB Chair Charlotte Pitts said it is frustrating and both she and the Human Relations Commission Chair Lindsey Loberg noted in a previous Council meeting that they want to work with Council, to collaborate on solutions and bring a perspective other than that of the nine elected officials and city staff.
“If the only thing that I do as chair of this board is better .. the perception of HAB for City Council, improve that and actually get HAB a seat at the table, then I’ve done a good job,” Pitts said.
Encampments and crime
Boulder City Council in a discussion called “maintaining safe and welcoming public spaces” agreed that it wants to continue enforcement of the city’s urban camping ban, which prohibits people from sleeping in public spaces. Maynard, with the police department’s Homeless Outreach Team, believes the increased number of encampments was exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic but not caused by it.
In 2020, the Boulder Police Department cleared nearly 250 encampments of varying sizes. According to police department data, there was evidence of hazardous materials, including drugs, human waste and propane tanks, at nearly 80% of those encampments. The city spent more than $170,000 in 2020 on contracted hazardous cleaning expenses. People in City Council open comment often reference hypodermic needles, fires and other safety hazards that make them fearful to visit Boulder’s parks.
Boulder police in the January meeting with the Council shared some of its 2020 crime data, which indicates some relationship between crime and homelessness. Of the 490 “unique offenders” who committed 614 serious offenses, which include homicide, assault, robbery and burglary, 181 were identified as unhoused.
Police Chief Maris Herold also noted in last month’s meeting that people experiencing homelessness are much more likely to be victims of crime. For example, people experiencing homelessness last year represented half of the homicide victims in Boulder. Though she didn’t have hard estimates, Herold said unhoused people represent about 0.03% of Boulder’s population.
Steve Berg, vice president for programs and policy with the National Alliance to End Homelessness, emphasized that providing housing is the best means of addressing homelessness. The places who have good results are the ones that do housing first well, he said.
“People in the encampments are there because they don’t have any other options available to them that they consider to be as good,” Berg said.
More services needed
Those working in Boulder’s various homeless services, those experiencing homelessness, advocates and city officials largely agree that more services are needed.
Determining what those services should be and finding funding is the challenge.
Firnhaber, for example, said he’d like to put the focus on a select group of about 50 people, whom he refers to as “high utilizers.” Typically, these are folks who have been in Boulder for a while but have “barriers,” such as a sex offender designation or an addiction to methamphetamines. While Boulder City Council indicated support for a methamphetamine treatment and recovery center, Firnhaber said it will take extensive time, funding and planning to get anything of the sort off the ground.
Maynard echoed those sentiments, also stressing the need for more robust mental health services.
Boulder resident Joelle Rossback-Dahl views the encampments as unsanitary and dangerous. She wants to see action on the part of City Council and city staff. In the short term, Rossback-Dahl said there should be consequences for those camping. In the long term, she’d like to see solutions specifically tailored to the problem such as more addiction treatment and recovery centers.
Scott Medina, director of community relations at Boulder’s Bridge House, emphasized the importance of emergency services for those currently on the street who may not qualify for the city’s housing first approach or his organization’s work first model.
It’s something Lisa Sweeney-Miran, executive director of The Lodge, an emergency shelter that caters to cisgender women and those who identify as transgender and nonbinary, also mentioned. She said the fact that The Lodge had nearly 100 unique clients since opening in September is indicative of the great need in Boulder.
“There are definitely people who need help,” Sweeney-Miran said. “There’s no question about it. It’s just a question of whether we have services that meet their needs and meet them where they’re at.”
O’Connor, who first began advocating for the unhoused community after volunteering at the former Boulder Outreach for Homeless Overflow, said he would like to see the city have honest conversations about the limited resources instead of placing the blame “on the backs of the people who suffer because of it.” Those limitations can be lethal, O’Connor said, and that’s an outcome no one wants.
Rodriguez, who attended the Feet Forward event at the bandshell, had a few ideas. He reiterated the need for a day shelter, particularly since the libraries and recreation centers are open with limited hours to a smaller number of people during the pandemic. He also said additional amenities such as portable restrooms would be beneficial and that people need easier access to finding work.
“It’s hard to find work, especially with a disability,” he said. “It’s hard to get to a computer where we can put in applications.”
Bridge House offers some assistance in this arena through its yearlong Ready to Work program that provides paid work, housing and case management support to those experiencing homelessness.
But there is limited space, and Medina noted it’s an intensive program that’s most appropriate for those ready for a lifestyle change. That’s why he’s a proponent of offering a diverse array of options.
“I’m just really a supporter of people taking all different sides of the equation into account,” Medina said. “It is easy for people to get polarized and take one side or another, which is why I always say that the issue is complex. It needs a lot of different kinds of solutions.”
Even with more services, city officials believe the challenge remains.
“The idea that we’re going to solve homelessness for every individual that comes to our community, as long as we continue to hang on to that, we’re going to be disappointed,” Firnhaber said.
What’s on the table
Moving forward, Boulder intends to schedule time to continue the discussion on its homelessness resources, funding and policy. Council also plans to provide feedback and direction on a number of staff recommendations left undecided during the January meeting.
Additional enforcement such as a new police unit as well as establishing an internal hazardous materials clean-up team are among the suggestions to be discussed at that time. Councilmember Aaron Brockett also requested more information on a sanctioned campground, such as the one recently started in Denver.
The conversation can be convoluted and challenging, and it can take longer than expected to parse through it all. For example, the Council on Feb. 16 spent at least an hour debating what to discuss and when to discuss it before landing on a date some time in April. The Council Agenda Committee will determine the date for that discussion, which may be split into two separate sessions: one on funding and services and another on policy.
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