That’s what the residents of Boulder seem to believe. While readily conceding their own weakness as they crawl into their comfy beds each night, they spare nary a thought for the dozens of men and women who will face arrest if they attempt to get a good night’s rest.
Homelessness, poverty, unemployment, mental illness, alcohol addiction — these are serious problems and can’t be solved overnight or even in 10 years, as the city and county have proposed to do. But the complexity of the issue can’t be used as an excuse to avoid facing it head on.
And right now the situation in Boulder looks like this: During the summer, our homeless shelter isn’t open to those who can’t fit their round lives into square pegs. As a result, there are folks who have nowhere to sleep at night and whose access to showers and toilets is limited.
The City of Boulder, both staff and our elected City Council, have created a fiction for us. They want us to believe that if homeless folks are ticketed and prosecuted for camping in public — camping being defined as sleeping with some kind of “shelter,” such as a blanket or sleeping bag or cardboard tent — they’ll just go away. Where they’ll go, our city’s leaders don’t say. So I’ll tell you.
They’ll go nowhere. They’ll be right here in Boulder County, camping in the undergrowth along Boulder Creek or on the summit of Green Mountain or in ravines along Boulder Canyon or off the trails on Flagstaff or beside the little creek at the mouth of Gregory Canyon. They’ll go to sleep late, keeping a wary eye out to watch for cops or for people who might be afraid of them and report them to the cops. They’ll drift off to sleep, doing their best to rest while keeping a wary eye out for cops, wild animals and people who might hurt them. Then they’ll get up early, hoping to be up and moving before early morning joggers and hikers can happen upon them.
And wherever they go, they’ll go.
That is to say, their biological functions, like urination and defecation, will travel with them. In past years, this has meant piles of human excrement and wadded toilet paper along Boulder Creek, which in turn has led to high levels of fecal bacteria in the water. People wrinkle their noses at this, failing to see that they’re not squatting in the bushes only because they have 24/7 access to their own toilets.
Ticketing the homeless for the illicit act of sleeping isn’t going to solve the problem.
Clearly, ticketing the homeless for the illicit but completely unavoidable act of sleeping isn’t going to solve the problem. Instead, it creates a culture of fear among the homeless, who become de facto law breakers when they close their eyes, and which results in unintended consequences, like contaminated water.
Worst of all it leads to obscenities, like sentencing a homeless man to hours of community service. Community service? In a community that doesn’t even want him around?
I’m not sure whether the word is “ironic” or “disgraceful.”
The problem isn’t that there’s nowhere for the homeless to sleep. Between our existing homeless shelter, our churches and synagogues, our school gymnasiums, our recreation centers and auditoriums, there is plenty of shelter and lots of bathroom facilities available in our city. If a tornado or fire ripped through town, spilling wellheeled, photogenic families onto the streets, the doors to these facilities would fly open. But when we’re talking about the chronically homeless — those who can’t or won’t enroll in programs designed to get them back to work and in housing — these doors remain largely shut, at least in the summertime.
The real problem is that Boulder’s leaders and residents want these folks to disappear. Too many of us view the chronically homeless as unsightly human weeds in need of plucking. We worry that by providing the most basic necessities of life — shelter, food, water, toilets — we’ll be encouraging an influx of homeless and “Rainbows” into Boulder. Rather than facing our own bigotry, we try to solve the problem through criminalizing the homeless by outlawing sleep.
Do I think public camping is necessarily the answer? No. I worry about potential violence among or against the homeless, particularly homeless women, who are vulnerable to sexual assault. Clearly, having people out all night, even in good weather, comes with risks — to them.
But given the fact that we have no long-term solution at present, it seems fair and humane for City Council to halt the enforcement of the public camping ordinance and perhaps provide a few portable toilets and a large tent or temporary public camping area where the homeless can sleep out of the rain and in relative safety. Or, if we don’t like that idea, how about opening some of our public buildings and religious centers? Is there not a single church in Boulder that can at least invite homeless women to sleep within the safety of its walls during the months when the homeless shelter is closed?
This is Boulder, Colo. We can and should do better.