Groups: City wants feeding homeless out of sight

Mitch Clement, left, serves food near Boulder Creek
Photo by Adie Johnson

Clarification: A July 11 story, “Groups: City wants feeding homeless out of sight,’ reported that City of Boulder spokesperson Sarah Huntley said citizens have spoken out against downtown homeless feeding operations during city council comment periods and in letters. Huntley told BW this week that she was referring to complaints about the criminal element on the municipal campus and it becoming an uninviting place, not the feeding operations themselves. (Homeless advocates say city officials have told them complaints had been received about the feeding operations specifically.)

Groups that feed the homeless in downtown Boulder on Saturdays say the city is trying to run them out of the area in yet another attempt to get rid of those the city considers undesirable.

But city officials insist that they support the feeding operations, and that they are just trying to alleviate congestion in the area and reduce criminal activity.

Still, the implication that providing meals to the needy is somehow connected to crime along Boulder Creek leaves advocates for the homeless chapped.

“We’ve never had the police called, we’ve never had a fight,” says volunteer Chris Mitchell of Friends Encouraging Eating Daily (FEED).

“It’s cleaner when we leave than when we get there,” adds Stephen Bolling, who helps serve the weekly lunches as a way to spend quality time with his 18-year-old son.

Bolling volunteers with Food Not Bombs, which teams up with FEED to serve the lunches. Another organization, a ministry group called Sevens, provides dinner on Saturdays, to help fill the gap left by the fact that the Bridge House only serves meals on weekdays. Lunch is provided on the south side of the creek near the Boulder Public Library parking lot, while dinner is served on the opposite side of the creek.

Mitchell says the harassment the groups have received include an instance when a library employee threatened them with trespassing charges while they were serving food under the library bridge because it was raining — even though the property is public and owned by the city.

He also says one of the city’s police officers who is friendly with the homeless warned them that the cops were going to start cracking down and finding any excuse to write tickets for the most minor offenses, like littering.

And the city has received complaints. City spokesperson Sarah Huntley says citizens have spoken out against the feeding operations during city council’s public comment periods and in letters. But she adds that there hasn’t been a “groundswell” of complaints.

Police Chief Mark Beckner says his department has received no complaints about the effort.

“I’m not aware of anyone saying, ‘Hey, we don’t like feeding the homeless,’” he told Boulder Weekly. “Nobody’s complained about that.”

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And yet the advocacy groups say they have been told that complaints are driving the city’s desire to move their operations to a nearby church or another less visible spot. They say that, like the city’s anti-camping ordinance and nighttime park closures, it’s just another effort by officials to sweep Boulder’s homeless problem under the rug, out of sight and out of mind.

“There’s too many homeless in one spot, and no one wants to see them,” says Mitchell, adding that he chose the location four years ago “to get people away from the Farmers’ Market.” Bolling claims that the city seems to have a double standard, given its desire to feed the affluent at the market and with food trucks in the area.

“We’re doing the exact same thing, but it’s free,” he says.

“That, to me, says some people are more valuable than others,” adds Hana Dansky of Food Not Bombs.

She explains that the current location is ideal because it’s where the homeless congregate already. Besides, she says, its prominence serves as a good reminder for the people of Boulder that the city does have a significant homeless population, as unsavory as that may be for some.

“We feel like we’re being targeted because we’re low-income, grungy-looking people,” Dansky says. “I think the city does a great job of hiding its poverty already, and I don’t want to cater to that. It’s catering to the prejudice. … We want to stay close, and we want to stay visible.”

Benny Nowell of Sevens agrees.

“I want it to be semi-public,” he says, adding that his group used to serve food near the county courthouse on the Pearl Street Mall until complaints from restaurants like The Cheesecake Factory prompted their ouster.

“Maybe they thought I was taking business away from them,” Nowell laughs.

On the contrary, Bolling says he has heard hundreds of compliments from passersby over the years, and unlike other feeding operations that serve canned and processed food, it’s mostly organic, vegetarian fare provided by Boulder Food Rescue and prepared at St. Aidan’s Episcopal Church.

According to Mitchell, a host of other religious organizations have been involved in the weekly meals, including Crestview Church, Creekside Christian Reformed Church, Hope Boulder and the Boulder Seventh Day Baptist Church.

One of the alternate sites the city has proposed is Pine Street Church, but Nowell says that the church is not as centrally located and would be too long of a haul for those who are disabled or “blitzed out of their minds.” Another location the city suggested for the dinner operation is the Boulder County Justice Center parking lot, he says.

Nowell says he just found out a couple of weeks ago that the city had received complaints, but they are probably being driven by fear and ignorance. “You get a large group of homeless people together and people perceive the danger level going up,” he says. “But you could say the same thing with college kids on the Hill. … There are probably less problems at our deal than at frat parties.”

He notes that city council member George Karakehian gave him $100 last summer and donated spiral hams to the effort. Once, a homeless man used his own food stamps to provide some food when the designated donor failed to deliver. And most police are supportive of the operation, he adds, because it is conducted responsibly.

“We bring in our own stuff and take out our own stuff,” Nowell explains. “We’re never on the sidewalk. I can’t wrap my brain around the idea that the majority of Boulder has a problem with what we’re doing.”

“The beauty I see is the appreciation they’re feeling,” Bolling says, describing how the impoverished help set up and clean afterwards. “Everyone is working together; it’s not them and us.”

But the advocates say one technicality that the city may use to get the groups to relocate is a relatively new law that requires people to register for a city permit if they expect to have a gathering of more than 50 people on public land. Nowell says that when he offered to get a permit, he was told by one city official that “they’ll rewrite the laws so we can’t be there,” like they did with the park closures.

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But officials deny that there is any agenda to protect Boulder residents’ sensibilities by relocating an unsightly element.

When asked about the alleged crackdown by the police, Huntley acknowledges that the groups should have permits, but the city has intentionally avoided enforcing that regulation in this case.

“If it were the city’s desire to use a code violation to move these groups, frankly, these groups regularly violate our permit requirements by their numbers, and we support their ability to do their missions,” she told BW. “The police community has been very open to the actual need to feed people and help that happen in a safe and orderly way. I think there’s concern among some people in that population that that might be what this comes to, but that is certainly not the city’s intention or motivation.”

Police Chief Beckner echoed those sentiments.

“We’re not targeting the homeless,” he says. “People lining up to get food, we’re not going to write them a ticket for that. If there are 51 people in line, we’re not going to worry about it.”

Karen Rahn, the city’s director of housing and human services, has been holding meetings with the groups to discuss alternate locations.

“I told her point blank, ‘We’re going to fight you,’” Mitchell recalls.

But Rahn takes a conciliatory tone, saying that the impetus for the move is that the area, called the “municipal campus” and bordered by Arapahoe Avenue, Canyon Boulevard, 9th Street and Broadway is heavily used, has become a hotbed of criminal activity and is “an unwelcoming and intimidating place to be.”

City officials stop short of accusing the advocacy groups of attracting a criminal element, although Huntley says “there is some overlap” between those at the meals and the troublemakers.

“I’m not sure the food programs become necessarily a magnet, it’s just there is a large gathering of people, and combined with other things going on on campus, people are assuming it’s the homeless people who are actually contributing to that problem,” Rahn says.

In fact, Huntley says, it’s in the groups’ best interest to move so that they and the homeless they serve aren’t lumped in with the criminal element in the public’s mind.

“The public perception is not to differentiate between the two,” she explains. “The community sees them all as one group, so one of the things the city is trying to do is really support the homeless organizations who are helping the truly homeless people in need reclaim their identity and find a location that really works well for them, and for letting the community know the value they provide.”

Rahn adds, “It would really help destigmatize those groups from being associated with what’s going on on campus.”

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As for what’s going on, statistics provided by Huntley show that as of July 7, there had already been 111 arrests on the municipal campus, compared to 88 at this point last year and 70 the year before. During the entire calendar year of 2012, there were 216 arrests, compared to 161 in 2011 and 149 in 2010.

While the number of citations police have issued is actually down from 342 to 292 compared to this point last year, there were a total of 739 tickets written in 2012, up from 429 in 2011. Officials did not provide a breakdown of the statistics by crime; Beckner said listing the data by type of offense would require research and would cost BW (the city charges $35 an hour for staff time spent researching and producing open records).

Beckner says it’s not just that crimes are being committed along that stretch of the creek, it’s that the area has become a gathering place for “people who have criminal backgrounds.” He says that when officers run background checks on individuals they contact on the municipal campus, it’s become increasingly common to find people with a history of burglary, assault, theft, drugs or weapons violations. Beckner adds that officers have had altercations with crowds in the area, including one incident in which a group of hecklers surrounded officers making an arrest, and one individual picked up a bicycle and was about to hit one of the cops with it until another officer drew his gun.

But he says police don’t profile or target people who look homeless.

“We don’t care what someone’s socioeconomic status is,” Beckner explains. “All we’re focused on is behavior. If they’re down there handing out flowers, we don’t care. They’re not targeted for their socioeconomic status, I can assure you that. But we have numerous complaints, oftentimes from city employees who work down there and see the behavior, defecating and urinating outside their windows, drug sales, aggressive behavior toward others.”

He says moving the feeding operations would alleviate congestion in the area and free it up to a wider variety of visitors.

“It’s become a gathering place, and the more attractions that create it as a gathering place, it just exacerbates other people’s use of that area,” Beckner told BW. “It’s kind of like, spread the wealth a little bit. Everyone doesn’t have to hang out in the same place all the time.”

He was quick to point out, though, that the food programs are not the source of the problems.

“I don’t think anybody is saying the food truck is the cause of it,” Beckner says. “I think it’s just, how many services do you provide in one area? … Nobody can associate it with the fact that a food truck shows up and feeds the homeless. Nobody’s saying that. All we’re saying is, hey, should this space be more accessible to other people, and should this be the hangout where people who want to hang out, for whatever reason, come together every day?

“It’s a quality of life question for everybody, to try to keep the parks as livable and useable for as many people as possible, not for any one particular group or groups,” he continues. “I think it would be the same concern if it were 100 high school students hanging out every day, if they were creating problems.”

“It’s definitely not about moving the homeless because they’re an eyesore,” Rahn says. “That has never been part of the conversation.”

“The city has always supported the homeless population, and the decisions we make in terms of enforcing codes have to do with criminal behavior, not people’s classification as a homeless person or non-homeless person,” Huntley says. “We’re really trying to strike a balance. This is a community that values serving people in need, and it’s also a community that values access to open space and public space.”

They also deny that the anti-camping ordinance and nighttime park closures were an effort to drive out homeless people.

“It’s really not about moving the homeless because they are the problem,” Rahn says.

But Huntley suggests that there are people hanging out by the creek whose motives aren’t pure, as evidenced by the calls of “Heads up!” that echo down the paths when cops approach.

“It leads me to question, if people are there during these periods of time, and again, I’m not saying these are the same people who are in the food program, but if people are engaging in that kind of alert warning system, it makes you wonder what other activities they’re engaging in that they’re concerned about,” she says. “If people are enjoying public space just to enjoy public space, you would think they would welcome the law enforcement presence.”

But the advocates say the issue comes down to giving a hand to those in need, and doing it in a highly visible location that raises awareness.

“There’s just a basic common decency,” Nowell says. “They’re people too.”

“We’ve got to take care of our community,” Mitchell adds. “We can’t let the state do it or the feds do it. We, as a community, have to do it.”

“They’re good people, but some have made poor choices,” Nowell concludes. “How can you educate a society on who these people really are if you just move their services out to the sides?”