An incomplete picture

As the City conducts homelessness sweeps and Occupy Boulder sets up camp, a look at the County’s strategy for housing the unhoused

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Boulder Police clear out a homeless encampment underneath the main public library on Aug. 25.
Emma Athena

Early Tuesday morning, on Aug. 18, Camp Free-Spirit’s executive leadership team at Occupy Boulder smiled for a photo in front of their office: President Amos Washington Jr., Vice President Angela Labia, Governor Leslie Tutts, and Secretary Artist Dan Barnard. A singular look of resolve stared back into the camera.

Click. It was going to be a big day.

“It’s the nastiness, the attitude toward the homeless, the attitude toward the poor in general. That particular thing needs to stop,” Dan says. “That’s the point we’re trying to get across.”

Their office — a four-person Ozark Trail tent, which Angela bought for $98 to share with Amos, her husband — functions as the camp headquarters, situated in the Municipal Building’s courtyard on the corner of Broadway and Canyon. Here, anyone can learn about the recently reinvigorated Occupy Boulder movement and its mission to make Boulder a better place. 

“We want to turn this town around,” Amos says. “Our goal is to stop the camping ban, get the police to ease off and leave people alone.” 

The police had been by the night before, with bright flashlights and loud calls for a specific person, but that was routine. It was the police visit a few days back that was of particular concern: Camp Free-Spirit had been given a “notice to vacate” with instructions to remove all “items and individuals.” The eviction slip said the City of Boulder would come on Aug. 18 at 8 a.m. to clear and clean the courtyard — in other words, to conduct a “sweep.”

Such sweeps have become routine in Colorado and other states, as more and more homeless encampments are sprouting up in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. As recently as Aug. 25, Boulder Police were sweeping under the main public library. Local and national officials are pressured by public demands for clean-ups and the health risks that encampments present, and it’s often argued there’s no choice but to clear them. 

Sweeps, however, remain explicitly discouraged in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) COVID-19 guidelines, which state, “Clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers. This increases the potential for infectious disease spread.” 

Despite that guidance, Boulder Police Department spokesperson Shannon Aulabaugh says, “Encampments represent a serious health and safety risk — for those staying within these sites, as well as the broader community. Earlier this year, Boulder City Council asked City staff to develop a humane way to remove these hazards from public locations.”

The week before Camp Free-Spirit was issued their notice, a different sweep cleared people and their possessions from spots near Boulder Creek and the Glen Huntington bandshell. When news of more sweep-threats surfaced, dozens of community members mobilized to protect Camp Free-Spirit, donning black head-to-toe, covering their faces, calling themselves “comrades.” 

As Dan stood near his tent, surveying the 50 or so people who’d arrived to help prevent the Aug. 18 sweep — some with gas masks and wooden shields, many with helmets and bikes and handmade “STOP THE SWEEPS” and “END POLICE BRUTALITY” signs — he said, “This is the first time I’ve felt cared about and taken care of.”

Emma Athena Secretary Dan at Camp Free-Spirit on Aug. 18.

Camp Free-Spirit had coalesced the week before — as Amos puts it, “To give Boulder back to Boulder.” They plan to stay put and fight off sweeps until homelessness is decriminalized. 

There aren’t enough resources for Boulder’s unhoused community, they argue. They need less-restrictive services and better access to things like clean water fountains, bathrooms, trash cans and showers. But no one is listening, they say. Each of them has fallen into what longtime Boulderite and Metro Denver Homeless Initiative (MDHI) multi-committee member Bill Sweeney calls the “mess underneath everything” in the regional homelessness-reduction strategy. 

Homelessness, of course, is not a new experience in Boulder — not for the tens of thousands of unhoused individuals and families who have called this city home in the last half-century, nor for the housed people who walk the Boulder Creek Path and shop at Safeway and frequent the farmers’ market. 

The coronavirus, however, has exacerbated many issues related to homelessness (unemployment spikes, tightened resources, reduced shelter space). In Boulder County, the pandemic has also coincided with a service-reduction phase in the regional plan to address homelessness. Certain areas of support are now noticeably thin, and many groups of people, from the unhoused themselves to Boulder’s Human Relations Commission (HRC) and various nonprofits, are increasingly frustrated. What Amos, Angela, Leslie and Dan will tell you: the City is trying, but its solutions aren’t working.

“Some of the things going on are counterproductive,” explains Lindsay Loberg, chair of HRC, which is responsible for cataloguing human rights concerns in Boulder. “The City says there aren’t the resources to house everybody [but] there are some policies that frankly don’t make sense to me.”

•  •  •  •

Boulder County’s relationship with homelessness changed drastically between 2015 and 2017. For a long time, Greg Harms, executive director of Boulder Shelter for the Homeless in North Boulder, recalls Boulder’s mission was simply getting people off the streets. “We just built more and more shelters, and more and more people filled up shelters, and they never really got out of homelessness,” he says. 

As the conversation shifted in the 2010s to address chronic and growing rates of homelessness, many agreed it was time for a different approach. “We decided to focus limited resources on actually ending people’s homelessness by trying to get them into housing,” Harms says, “rather than building more Band-Aid, temporary solutions.”

He and others formed a working group in 2016, and by 2017 Boulder County had aligned itself with a national policy platform called Housing First, which prioritizes placing unhoused people in stable living situations before resolving other issues such as unemployment, behavioral health and/or substance abuse.  

It’s a concept driven by data and backed by national research: People are more likely to remain stably housed long-term if first given housing and allowed to “call the shots in terms of what they need and what’s going to be most helpful for them,” explains Steve Berg, vice president of programs and policy at the National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH). 

Embracing this Housing First philosophy has had profound effects on many communities around the U.S. — Berg cites a 40% reduction of homelessness in Jacksonville, Florida, after six years of Housing First strategies, and similar success in Richmond, Virginia, and Houston, Texas, as well as other cities, big and small. After Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans “wholeheartedly adopt[ed] a Housing First approach [and] now has very few homeless people for a city their size,” Berg says. 

The implementation of Housing First looks a little different in each city. In Boulder, developing a Housing First strategy gave the array of nonprofits sprinkled around the County — each providing disparate services and programming — an opportunity to restructure and build a cohesive, collaborative network. The cities of Boulder and Longmont, Boulder County, housing authorities, a variety of nonprofits and faith communities all joined in the formation of a centralized governing body, Homeless Solutions for Boulder County (HSBC). Now, with a complicated braid of national, state and local funding, HSBC coordinates and monitors all of the homelessness-reduction work in Boulder County. 

Beginning in fall of 2017, services like shelter beds and other temporary aids took a backseat as HSBC shifted focus and funding to upgrade housing-specific initiatives like rental vouchers and rapid rehousing techniques. Between January 2018 and June 2020, HSBC reports helping more than 1,000 people out of homelessness — this includes the reunification of people with families, securing spots in treatment or long-term care facilities, and placements in affordable or subsidized housing, according to Boulder County spokesperson Alice Kim. 

One example of success is found at 1175 Lee Hill, where 31 units were created to house chronically homeless individuals. In its first four years of operating, it maintained a 99% occupancy rate and retained 11 of the original tenants. No neighbor complaints or calls to the police have been recorded. 

Emma Athena

Since then, other housing partnership opportunities have formed, but Boulder’s affordable housing market remains notoriously restrictive. Occupy Boulder’s Secretary Dan has been on a waitlist for housing via HSBC’s partnership with Mental Health Partners. But, “It’s just a waiting game,” he says — there’s simply not enough housing in Boulder to keep moving people off the streets and into homes.

Now almost three years in, many argue the positive effects of Housing First elsewhere aren’t as obvious in Boulder. “We have lots to be proud of, but it doesn’t feel any different when you walk through our city,” admits Kurt Firnhaber, director of Boulder’s housing and human services department and a member of HSBC’s executive board. “Those people that we’ve housed have been replaced by somebody else,” he says. 

More than 4,000 people were processed through HSBC’s “coordinated entry” system during the same January 2018-June 2020 timeframe, according to City data. Coordinated entry is designed to screen people, assess their needs and place them on an appropriate track for aid. Firnhaber notes people entering the HSBC system are increasingly arriving from places like Denver, or further cities and states. “It certainly reflects that [homelessness] is a national problem.” 

And while HSBC has helped hundreds of individuals, Criminal Justice Committee Chair of the NAACP Boulder County branch, Darren O’Connor, says, “The majority are still homeless.” 

The city estimates between 400 and 700 people are currently living unhoused in the County, but O’Connor and the mutual aid group Friends of the Forsaken estimate it’s closer to 1,000 people (See sidebar). With only 120 shelter beds currently available (plus another 20 reserved for potential COVID-19 carriers and a handful of hotel rooms for those particularly vulnerable), hundreds of people have no choice but to sleep outside. 

“The majority of people who come through that system still need a stop-gap,” O’Connor says. “And that’s where I have my fundamental frustration with the new status quo.” 

Since 2020 began, 140 individuals in Boulder have been housed through HSBC, and another 54 in Longmont. And while the full potential of Housing First continues to be challenged by Boulder County’s lack of affordable housing, it’s more recently been impacted by the pandemic. 

A new, locally funded rental-assistance voucher program isn’t operating at maximum capacity, explains Karen Kreutzberg, Boulder Housing Partners’ federal policy director. As of July, 33 vouchers are being used to house people, but 48 total are available. “The current situation has greatly impacted our ability to connect with the households and get them through the eligibility and lease up process,” she says. “It also takes time to work with the households and get them through the process and into housing.”

Nonetheless, the planned contraction of shelter and day services has gone unimpeded. If anything, O’Connor says, services need to be ramped up. “You have all these people who have no access to bathrooms in a time where … hand-washing is the most effective preventative action people can take to prevent the spread of [COVID]. And yet we had no place for them to go,” he says. “We had to fight a battle over even providing that minimal amount of service.”

Isabel McDevitt, CEO of Bridge House and co-chair of MDHI’s Coordinating Committee, recalls the beginning of Boulder’s Housing First strategy had “a pretty balanced approach for a while.” 

Some recent developments, however, have left her and other service leaders wary. For one, in January, HSBC implemented a new residency requirement restricting people living in Boulder less than six months to only one shelter opportunity: the Severe Weather Shelter. At the end of May, however, the Severe Weather Shelter, which Bridge House was operating on 30th Street with 50 beds, was permanently closed, leaving many people with literally nowhere to go.

“We’ve always supported [Housing First concepts], but where we have not been aligned with the HSBC choices is in how this gets done,” McDevitt explains. “To do it too drastically without a really solid implementation plan, it basically leaves a lot of people out of getting services, and unfortunately I think we’re seeing some of that now, especially because we have additional contributing factors of the pandemic.” 

Firnhaber says “COVID made it so there was no choice” in closing the 30th Street shelter, due to the unexpected financial constraints. “But we were sort of moving in that direction anyways, so it wasn’t totally COVID.”

The pandemic has been tough for everyone to adjust to. With the realities of funding and staffing shortages, Harms says HSBC is staying committed to its long-term picture of Housing First. “There’s always a question of balance: Do we put more money into housing people, or do we put more money into temporary shelters, for example,” he says. “I think the evidence is really clear, [once homelessness] happens, getting people back into housing as quickly as possible is the best thing for the people involved and also for the community. 

“There’s always people who say we’re not doing enough,” Harms says, “and people who are saying we do too much.”

•  •  •  •

“We are trying to make a safe place,” Dan says. Camp Free-Spirit pitched their tents in front of the Municipal Building the second week of August. By banding together publicly, they’re trying to provide themselves with survival tools they can’t get elsewhere at the moment: a sense of community, the right to rest, a donation station and safety in numbers. 

“It’s hard out here,” Amos says. 

Two mutual aid organizations, Friends of the Forsaken and SAFE (Safe Access for Everybody, an extension of Boulder County’s chapter of Democratic Socialists of America), are currently providing support via donations and security guards. “A lot of us are about one paycheck from being away from being out here in this camp with everybody else,” one “comrade” explains. “There’s really very little difference between us and people without housing. Once you recognize that we’re all just people who are all looking for the same things, we have the same needs, you do everything you can to help people out who are in the most vulnerable positions.”

Dozens of Community members, dressed in black, showed up on Aug. 18 to prevent a police sweep of a homeless encampment in front of the Municipal Building in downtown Boulder.

Housing First is a term familiar to most at camp, and no one feels it’s working right — positioning themselves so publicly downtown is the only way Occupy Boulder believes its message will reach City officials. They have two core demands: recognition and respect. 

“We’re tired of the police telling us where we can and cannot be, what we can and cannot do, where we can and cannot live. And we’re sick of it. We’re sick of the sweeps. We’re sick of the disrespect. They demand respect but yet they don’t give it,” Dan says. 

“I don’t think any one thing is going to be a permanent solution. I think it’s a combination of things that need to happen,” he adds. “As well as Housing First, open up more of a transitioning shelter, but don’t make people feel like they have to deserve housing.” And in the meantime, he says, there’s a desperate need for resources, specifically for marginalized and LGBTQ+ folks.

“We want to turn this town around,” Amos says.  

Emma Athena

But the lack of shelter space, the six-month residency requirement, and the camping ban, which criminalizes the use of blankets and tents, prevent people from taking care of themselves. 

Amos and Angela wintered in the midwest and came back to Boulder this spring, now unable to access shelter beds because they’ve been here less than six months. Angela, who’s epileptic, can’t use the shelter anyway, because she needs her medical service dog, who isn’t allowed in the shelter. Amos, a Navy vet, has spent more than a dozen years unhoused in Boulder. He shakes his head when he thinks about it, not surprised more help still isn’t available. 

MDHI Committee Chair Sweeney says the six-month residency requirement eliminates an important segment of the unhoused population. “We are selecting, overtly, for whiteness,” he explains. The population allowed access to the best services “is a whiter population than the other population which doesn’t meet that test.”

O’Connor has witnessed the same racial discrimination over the years. “Black people are represented in our homeless community at 12 times the rate that they are in the general population,” he says. About 1% of housed people in Boulder are black, but make up roughly 12% of unhoused people. “And then they’re being criminalized at a much more disproportionate rate [via tickets from camping ban].”

Most homeless advocates want to see the camping ban dismantled. O’Connor points to the 2018 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that judged the punishment of unhoused people is unconstitutional if there aren’t enough shelter beds available. 

“This camping ban is not constitutional,” Dan adds. “We’re here to help and to make a stand.”

There’s no data that indicates enforcing a camping ban reduces homelessness, Berg from NAEH says. In fact, the camping ban is potentially a sign of Housing First failures. 

Communities that have implemented successful Housing First strategies have everyone — the unhoused community, the police, city officials, nonprofits — on the same page. “If one of those groups is regularly arresting one of the other groups, like the police are regularly arresting homeless people for being homeless, then it’s just not going to work,” he says. Firnhaber, however, asserts the camping ban, instituted in the wake of the first Occupy movement in 2011 and ’12, is an integral component of HSBC’s plan. “Our whole homeless strategy can’t work if we don’t enforce the camping ban,” Firnhaber says. Without the pressure it adds to get people off the streets, he argues they’ll refuse to engage with available services.  

But Berg disagrees. “Part of the Housing First approach is really designing a system that’s based on what people who are homeless want,” he says. “And if the programs are there and people don’t want to use them, that’s probably a sign that you haven’t taken them really seriously.” 

This echoes a primary frustration of HRC Chair Loberg and other advocates. “One thing that’s missing [in Boulder’s Housing First approach] is a variety of input into this conversation,” Loberg says. As it stands, the HSBC Executive Board is “an incomplete picture of the service providers [and community members] that actually exist in the area and ought to be represented.”

Sweeney recalls two people with lived homeless experience were included in 2016’s Housing First working group, but “they were so disgusted [with the outcomes] they asked that their names be removed from the final report,” he says. “Since then, there’s not been any concerted effort to have input from the community of the homeless who are supposedly served. And that’s because pretty routinely the served community says, ‘We don’t like the system,’ and nobody wants to hear that.” 

Loberg points to the Occupy Boulder movement: “Clearly [they’re] able to say what they want and organize themselves and contribute to this conversation.”

Firnhaber declined to comment on Occupy Boulder. He adds that while it may seem logical to build according to the community’s needs, it doesn’t work. Building more services, he argues, will attract more homeless individuals to Boulder. “If we just open up our city, it’s going to be overrun.”

Private security personnel were hired to guard city cleaning crew on Aug. 18.

Not everyone agrees with this assessment. Chris Nelson, CEO of Attention Homes, the Boulder County nonprofit assisting unhoused youth, says of the thousands he’s interacted with over the years, “I have never, ever, ever heard of or met a young person who said they came to Boulder because there were services here.”

While Nelson applauds the philosophy of Housing First and the opportunities it affords Attention Homes, he says Boulder’s implementation strategy must incorporate direct feedback from those seeking services. “How do we solve this problem? We start by better listening to the people who have been historically marginalized. And we really, really listen and we believe it. And we take action based on what we’ve heard.”

For now, a primary focus of HSBC is educating the unhoused community about the region’s limited services. “[We need to be] honest with them about what their options are [and] say, ‘We’ll have 180 beds in our community this winter [so] you’re likely not going to have a place to stay,’” Firnhaber says. “For those who are service defiant, we know that every year in our City, there is a migration to warmer areas.” 

Still, he advises everyone to engage with HSBC to try and find options for exiting homelessness.

Harms and Firnhaber also cite plans to create another Severe Weather Shelter before winter hits, and as social distancing potentially abates, the number of shelter beds will surpass 180. Also, a new mental-health-focused outreach program, designed to help improve community relationships, is set to begin work in September. This will supplement the Boulder Police Department’s Homeless Outreach Team. “We’re actually in a pretty good place,” Firnhaber says.

•  •  •  •

By 8 a.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 18, there was no sign of police. The dozens of Boulderites that’d arrived to protect Camp Free-Spirit huddled and collectively decided to capitalize on the public demonstration of support. They formed a plan: March down Walnut and disrupt Rep. Joe Neguse’s #SaveThePostOffice press conference, where news cameras were guaranteed. 

Some stayed back to guard camp while the rest marched into the intersection of Broadway and Canyon. For almost 10 minutes, traffic stopped. Horns blared. Then a black truck revved its engine, pointed south on Broadway, and drove straight through the chain of people. No one was injured. 

“Nobody cares about us,” someone shouted. Leslie, now dressed in a reflective vest, guided the group from her bike. 

Emma Athena Leslie Tutts wears a reflective vest to guide the Occupy Boulder march on Aug. 18.

At the post office, a podium had been set up. Leslie walked straight to it and began to speak: “The reason why we come here today is for the simple fact that we, as homeless individuals that reside at the Municipal Building in tents, we are tired of the police department telling us where we can live. We should have the right to find out where to live.” 

After an applause, she continued: “The cops say there’s no rest for the weary. … It’s like being in jail, they tell you when to eat, they tell you when to crap, they tell you when to sleep. You go to sleep, they turn the lights on. The lights never go off. We go out here. We are fighting for our right to survive.” 

Unhoused community members and the “comrades” cheered. More spoke. “There are people out here suffering,” Amos said. “People out here need some type of love. We’re all people. All us breathe the same air, we bleed the same blood.” 

After the speeches, the march stopped by Gov. Polis’ residence on Walnut and 17th, then looped down Pearl Street before returning to the Municipal Building. There, everyone huddled again, this time to determine long-term protection and aid strategies. 

Camp Free-Spirit still stands, now more than a week later, but a different homeless encampment has been swept by the police. On Tuesday, Aug. 25, law enforcement officers spent hours forcibly clearing people and their possessions from the concrete patio underneath the main library, despite efforts by “comrades” to stop them. Inadvertently, this pushed many unhoused people to the Municipal Building’s patio. Since then, Camp Free-Spirit has almost doubled in size. 

Emma Athena Boulder police cleared an encampment underneath the main public library on Aug. 25.

Boulder Police Department’s Aulabaugh says 100 sweeps have been conducted since February, with a concerted effort to do more in the last two weeks. More are coming, she says.

“We started this with three tents and a dream, literally,” Dan says. “And now look at this, we have all these beautiful people helping us out, protests, all the donations, showing people we’re not going nowhere, that this is happening and they need to start listening.”

Though the police continue to visit Camp Free-Spirit, as of press time, no sweep has been conducted there. Everyone is on edge, not sure when or if anything will happen. 

“We’re not just doing this for Occupy Boulder,” Dan says, “we’re doing it for all the homeless.”  

This article continues a multi-part series analyzing how COVID-19 has changed the conversation around homelessness solutions. Reporting for this series was made possible, in part, thanks to the Solutions Journalism Network