Boulder homeless turned away at Red Cross shelter

Collin Vanderharr near his sleeping spot, which is underwater
Photo by Cecelia Gilboy

This story is part of Our Road to Recovery, our coverage of the 2013 Boulder County floods.

Many homeless people slept outdoors in Boulder during the flood — even though the American Red Cross had set up an emergency shelter nearby at the YMCA. And according to members of the homeless community, several persons are still unaccounted for.

“They turned us away at the YMCA,” says John Morrow, who normally camps in the foothills. “There were about 40 of us.”

Tim Kosick and Black Wolf say they were turned away, too.

Although the Red Cross shelter’s decision to not admit the homeless was eventually reversed, tensions linger in a city whose homeless population already feels embattled.

“The cops were harassing us at 8 a.m. on Thursday morning,” Collin Vanderharr says.

He had been sleeping under the library with a few dozen others.

“They said they’d ticket us if we kept staying out of the rain there,” he says.

Another group of homeless people, including Ron Chase and “Dwarf,” had slept on the covered patio at Alfalfa’s.

“But the cops came and ran everybody off,” says Chris Mitchell, a former homeless man who checked on the community daily during the flood. “Told ’em to go to the shelter at the YMCA.”

They tried.

“They wouldn’t let us in because we didn’t have houses that got flooded,” Morrow says.

“We were told we were the evacuation center for people with addresses,” says Andra Coberly, spokesperson for the YMCA.

Tim Kosick’s shoes and backpack were soaked through. But he was told that other people had more pressing needs, he says.

“They looked at us and said, ‘You’re not welcome here,’” Black Wolf says.

Many went to the Bridge House, a local organization that serves the homeless. Its official capacity is only 25 people, says Executive Director Isabel McDevitt. Boulder County had told her that, in a disaster, homeless people would be treated like everyone else.

“We called the Y, and they said no, homeless people are not allowed,” she says. “The Red Cross wasn’t following the policy.”

So McDevitt called city and county officials.

City officials responded that they encourage relief organizations to provide services for all, says Karen Hahn, director of the City of Boulder’s Human Services Department.

With city and county support, McDevitt called the Red Cross back.

“It was a miscommunication,” says Chip Frye, public information officer with the Red Cross. “The city realized that they needed to make some corrections in terms of accommodating all their clients at shelters, and they may have dropped the ball on that.”

(The city is not involved with decisions about shelters, says Hahn.)

“We’re the Red Cross, we’ll help anyone,” Frye says. “I think that’s the message to get out, rather than that a couple homeless people were turned away.”

Some were turned away twice.

“When the Red Cross said we could come back, we went back,” Morrow says. “We got turned away again. We told her we’d been walking all day. She said, ‘Well, you can have a police escort if you like.’”

Korey Bourg, a veteran, believes he was denied entry a second time because of his appearance.

“I got turned away again,” he says, “because the Red Cross was still picking and choosing. If you look even a little scary, they won’t let you in. I’m a big guy.”

By Friday morning, several homeless people had been admitted.

“We live on the street,” says Lori Hopkins, as she looked through Red Cross clothing donations with her husband Larry Davis and friend Tony Taylor.

Sue, Gigi and Laurie (who chose not to provide last names) live at the homeless shelter on North Broadway, which closes during the day. They found daytime shelter with the Red Cross.

Red Cross Shelter Manager Suzanne Ackley said that rumors of people being turned away were “totally untrue.”

“We want the word out that we’re taking everyone,” YMCA spokesperson Coberly said on Friday.

But many homeless didn’t get the message.

“Word had travelled,” McDevitt says. “People said, ‘OK, I’m on my own,’ and they hunkered down.”

Others were still angry.

“After I was turned away twice, after showing a military ID, I was so enraged,” Kosick says.

A warming shelter opened in Louisville, but buses weren’t running, Ron Chase explains.

People were desperate until they heard they could camp in the parking garage above the bus station, Morrow says.

The top two floors were full, Chase says.

“It was cold,” says teenager Bailey Beers.

Early Monday morning, people were told to leave — or face trespassing tickets.

“The cops said the state isn’t in an emergency anymore,” Beers said.

Chase, Mitchell and “Dwarf” gathered in the covered lot next to Mustard’s Last Stand to discuss the situation. Minutes later, a police officer appeared.

“Time to move on,” he said. “I’m getting complaints.”

On Tuesday morning, Mitchell reported that homeless people were digging through the trash for makeshift blankets.

“These people were in danger,” he says, “because nobody gives a shit.”

McDevitt hopes this disaster will help homelessness be seen in a larger context.

“This wouldn’t have been such an issue,” she says, “if there weren’t so many people whose only option is camping.”


This story is part of Our Road to Recovery, our coverage of the 2013 Boulder County floods.