In pursuit of stability

Proposal for a sanctioned encampment to help unhoused community members is on the horizon

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Emma Athena

Introducing himself by nickname, Nutcase sits cross-legged in his friends’ tent sipping hot coffee with cream. His own tent, pitched just a few feet away, had partially collapsed the night before as Boulder’s early-season winter storm dumped inches of snow on Sept. 8 and brought temperatures down below freezing.

His shoulders hunched up by his ears, he rewraps his fingers around the steaming cup and says, “If the City were to create a campground for us, I’d say, it’s about time!” 

His two tentmates agree. They’ve been illegally camped in this quiet patch of woods in North Boulder for about two weeks. They settled here after the police removed, or “swept” them from their camp in the Municipal Building’s courtyard downtown — where it was much easier to find food, water, bathrooms and other supplies. Adding snow on top of distance to amenities makes survival in Boulder as an unhoused person dangerous. 

Just a few hours earlier, the police found an unresponsive unhoused man in the parking lot of Unity Church. According to the police blotter and coroner, John Aldridge’s body was found 25 yards away from his encampment, and with a core temperature of 75 degrees, he was pronounced dead at Boulder Community Hospital later that day. 

About two dozen extra shelter beds were made available for those freezing nights of Sept. 8 and 9, and Boulder Shelter for the Homeless reports no one was turned away. Many argue, however, that service providers didn’t effectively communicate with unhoused people, and that available services are generally too restrictive. 

Neither Nutcase nor his friends knew about the extra bed opportunities, though many of them can’t go to the shelter anyway for reasons like having pets or wanting to stay with a partner. Instead, they think a sanctioned campground — a designated outdoor living space with monitors and agreed-upon rules and regulations — would provide a centralized and much-needed safe space for those who cannot and do not want to use Boulder County’s available shelter beds. 

Sanctioned encampments have been loosely debated in years past, but it’s never before been seriously pursued. That’s because there are questions of health and safety not only for those who would use the camps but for the community at large, plus the question of who will pay for the resources required to properly run such a campsite. 

Now, in the wake of COVID-19, that might be changing. 

Boulder Council member Rachel Friend is currently collaborating with a range of community members to present a proposal to City Council for a sanctioned encampment that could provide basic services like communication, sanitation, connections to resources, storage for personal belongings, trash repositories and a respite from the police. “The camping is already happening, not the sanctioned part, but there’s already that [service] gap, and it’s been happening for decades,” Friend says. “I am a fan of recognizing the realities.”

Since February, at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, major cities around the country have been scrambling to serve the wide spectrum of people experiencing homelessness. Cities with existing sanctioned encampments — like Portland, Oregon, and Oakland, California — have erected additional emergency outdoor areas. Others, like Denver and Burlington, Vermont, are in the process of creating encampments within city limits for the first time. Elsewhere, communities have failed to get camps up and running under pressure to keep public spaces available for everyone’s use.

In Boulder, COVID presents “this opportunity to do something that we haven’t done here before,” says Graham Hill, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Shared Paths Boulder, who among others is helping Friend craft the local encampment proposal. “When the sweeps happen, which, you know, I’ve witnessed so many of them over the years, people don’t have any place to go.”

 “The camping is already happening, not the sanctioned part, but there’s already that [service] gap, and it’s been happening for decades. I am a fan of recognizing the realities.”

Rachel Friend

The hope is that a sanctioned encampment would provide such a place. While exact details are still being solidified via input from a variety of experts, Hill says they’re envisioning an encampment structure that’ll help unhoused people “actually move forward in life and have some positivity [to] look forward to.” 

Plus, Friend says the proposal will fall squarely in line with Boulder County’s regional “Housing First” strategy, which aims to solve homelessness with stable housing. “The goal still is housing,” she says. But encampments would provide a way for many unhoused people to establish continuous connections with City and County services, “because you’re not moving around and you have some stability in your life.”

That stability is key, says Hannah Fageeh, manager of Denver’s forthcoming Safe Outdoor Space, which is being organized by the Colorado Village Collaborative (CVC). And stability is the philosophical foundation of the Housing First model: a safe place to shelter and store belongings can often reduce enough stress to allow someone to figure out what next-steps are best for their needs. 

Building upon CVC’s successful tiny home village in Globeville, the organization began negotiations for Safe Outdoor Spaces with the City of Denver back in April. Organizers worked closely with City Council members and neighborhood constituents, plus unhoused community members and advocates, to create a management plan and service center. “The fact that evictions are continuing to happen and homelessness is on the rise and they are still doing sweeps — we’re hoping that working with the City we can prevent this from happening,” Fageeh says. “At the end of the day the sweeps happen and then people just move a few blocks away and it doesn’t solve anything.” 

Though the sanctioned encampments conversations have circled Denver for at least 20 years, Fageeh says “the catalyst for the Safe Outdoor Space opening up was because of COVID,” given the new CDC guidelines, which advise against moving existing unsanctioned encampments to contain disease spread. However, she adds, it’s a service that should exist anyway and could help during extreme weather scenarios, such as the snowstorm last week or during hot summer months when people need water or shade.

The plan is to have CVC’s Safe Outdoor Space up and running by the end of September, and Fageeh says it’ll be Denver’s first sanctioned encampment. But it follows other models around the country. 

In Portland, Oregon — where sanctioned encampments have existed for years — the pandemic has led to three new emergency encampments. 

According to Katrina Holland, executive director of the nonprofit JOIN, which staffs Portland’s new encampments, the opportunity to create more safe spaces for the unhoused community has been one of the pandemic’s silver linings. And it’s especially helped unhoused folks with marginalized identities. One of the new camps is devoted to serving people who identify as gender non-conforming and queer, another is exclusively for black, indigenous and other people of color. Holland says it’s helping ameliorate “cultural practices and racism and all the other things [experienced at] traditional shelters, [ensuring] other folks who don’t identify as white, cis-heterosexual males can have a positive experience,” she says. The third camp is for general use, where anyone is welcome. 

“We advocated really hard with the City to be able to have these affinity camps,” she says. “It was way, way more successful in creating a sense of safety and belonging than we thought.”

Negotiations for Portland’s emergency camps started in February as COVID hit the West Coast, and within a matter of weeks they were up and running. It was a necessarily collaborative process, Holland says. “There was no way we could do this on our own, no way the City could do it on their own, to be honest.”   

And though the new encampments were more expensive than many thought, they’ve been so successful that “there’s conversations to make them permanent,” Holland says. Reporting from the Portland Tribune indicates the three camps together cost $175,000 a month to run, with funding going to JOIN to hire security and maintenance positions, and operating costs for things like garbage service, bathrooms and hand-washing stations.  

Boulder Council member Aaron Brockett participated in a 2016 field trip to Portland where members of Boulder’s City Council learned about homelessness strategies, including visiting sanctioned encampments. One “looked like it provided a dignified alternative for folks who didn’t have another option,” he recalls. “They also had connections to services there so that [camp clients] are always working with people — ‘What’s your plan? You’re not going to stay here forever, what’s your next step?’” 

Brockett supports the Housing First concept, yet acknowledges: “We don’t have housing for everyone who qualifies right away or in a fairly significant period of time. So then the shelter is the only option, but the shelter doesn’t work for everyone.” 

With the COVID crisis, he says, “we have some more immediate needs. A sanctioned encampment could be started out much more quickly” than other temporary housing and shelter options. 

Emma Athena

Coordinating CVC’s Safe Outdoor Space was born from similar thinking, Fageeh explains. “Housing doesn’t exist [right now]. We can open this up in like a couple of weeks as opposed to building an apartment building that could take years, right?” It’s not a permanent solution, she says, but it’s an effective interim place for people to go while they wait for housing. “We’re going to do everything we can to use that to help people out and at least have a safe place to stay without fear of being swept and their stuff being taken.” 

Amos Washington Jr. and Angela Labia — two unhoused people who’ve been evicted from public places by the police several times over the course of their lives, and who were camping at the Municipal Building as part of the recent Occupy Boulder movement — say they often dream of acquiring their own land just so they can open it up as a tent haven for anyone in need: people with pets, couples, those who’ve been in Boulder less than six months, all of which can currently limit shelter use and other homelessness services in Boulder. “That way we could all be taken care of,” Angela says.

More than anything they want a respite from the police, in addition to a sense of community.

“Of course there’d be rules” for a sanctioned encampment, Nutcase says. “I’d want to inspect them all myself.” 

He spent years in the Army and is no stranger to camping. He’s known to walk back and forth between Boulder and Ward to camp in the national forest — 17 hours up, 16 hours down, he says, pointing to the blister he got on his most recent trek. But having a place to camp in town would make it possible for him to better store and access the refrigerated medicine he needs, which requires monthly refills. 

To open a sanctioned encampment in Boulder, many different pieces of a complicated puzzle would have to fall into place. For one, Boulder currently prohibits camping within city limits, and any sanctioned area would have to get an exemption. Some already question the efficacy of the camping ban, according to local attorney David Harrison, as the vast majority of people ticketed for camping in Boulder engage with service providers in lieu of punishment. “If you have an ordinance where the cases are dismissed 78% of the time, whether it’s because they were wrongly filed or a jury decides the person wasn’t guilty, then that seems like kind of a bad ordinance,” he says. Sanctioned encampments could be a way to provide access to the same services while reducing interactions with law enforcement.

The right location for a camp is another tricky element. It couldn’t conflict with other community uses, Friend says, so they’re looking at options for unused lots or private property owned by faith groups.  They’re anticipating a private-public partnership, where the City helps get the camp running, but wouldn’t be obligated to fund operations long-term.

Regulations would also be established to ensure appropriate clients are admitted to the camp, and once participating, they’d need a structured path out of homelessness. 

Perhaps most importantly in Boulder, the public would need to feel safe in the camp’s presence; concerns about crime and public health have stalled previous encampment negotiations all over the Front Range. Fageeh says that’s rooted in a perception problem: “There are people that have really good hearts and want to help the unhoused, but then there’s also people that fall into believing the stereotypes of homeless people, just bringing crime to their neighborhood or bringing drugs to their neighborhood, being unsafe for their kids.” 

Despite these potential obstacles, Friend and Hill are optimistic. 

“What we’re providing is an option, and options have not existed,” Hill says. Even though colder and harsher weather is on the horizon, a sanctioned encampment could at least provide winter gear, as people will be camping in the community with or without permission, he adds. “We’re not reaching our potential as far as community thinkers in this community. And so that’s why I think the timing is appropriate that we pounce on this.”

In Austin, Texas, a similar tug-of-war between unhoused and housed people occupying public spaces has played out over the years. Just last year, the parameters of the City’s camping ban were reduced, expanding opportunities for people to sleep outside without getting ticketed or removed from areas by police. According to grassroots group Save Austin Now, which organized in response to the camping ban rollback and has spent the last year campaigning for its reinstatement, homelessness in Austin increased 45% last year. A point-in-time survey conducted by Ending Community Homeless Coalition confirms this increase. 

Still, Save Austin Now posits sanctioned encampments are a great option for getting people help, despite its work fighting for a reinstatement of Austin’s full camping ban. “Ultimately, this is about safety, and sanctioned campgrounds would be safer,” Matt Mackowiak, a political consultant and organizer for Save Austin Now, says. “We actually do think sanctioned camping in specific areas would be a much better approach.”

In response to similar demands to clean up the unsanctioned encampments in Boulder, more than 100 sweeps have occurred since February, with more planned. A Change.org petition spearheaded by the group Safer Boulder has gathered more than 6,000 signatures demanding stricter enforcement of the camping ban, increased police patrols, more use of the police’s Homeless Outreach Team, and better protection from health hazards like human waste and illegal drugs. While the group declined to comment on the prospect of a sanctioned encampment in Boulder, in an email organizers stated, “Our goal is for City leaders to solve the complex problems in our community.”  

“There are people that have really good hearts and want to help the unhoused, but then there’s also people that fall into believing the stereotypes of homeless people, just bringing crime to their neighborhood or bringing drugs to their neighborhood, being unsafe for their kids.” 

Hannah Fageeh, manager of Denver’s forthcoming Safe Outdoor Space

The current regional homelessness strategy, orchestrated by Housing Solutions Boulder County (HSBC), is working as intended, Systems Manager Heidi Grove says. “We’ve been successful in housing folks straight from the streets to house, which is the true Housing First model,” she says. “Encampments don’t necessarily lead to housing, and since you want people from street-to-house, that should be the primary focus.”

HSBC is not currently considering its own outdoor living spaces, as it hasn’t perceived the demand. Grove says it “goes back to the ultimate question of: Do you have enough shelter beds for the folks that are seeking? And right now we do.” 

But both Boulder’s Human Relations Commission and Housing Advisory Board recently recommended HSBC create at least temporary encampments to serve those who do not meet the requirements for shelter stays. Much like safe lots for vehicle-dwellers (see News, “Gaining traction,” Sept. 10), HSBC has made it clear that any sanctioned encampment in Boulder would need to come from an independent venture. 

As Friend and Hill put their proposal together, they say they’re incorporating input from across the Boulder community, including bike path users, City Council members, “BMW drivers,” unhoused people and neighborhood constituents. The idea is to start with a small site that would host up to 25 people. “We’re not trying to do backflips we can’t execute yet,” Hill says, though he hopes the program could grow in the future to help more folks. He thinks more people are warming up to the idea of sanctioned encampments, but they’ll still need to win over one or two more Council members with their proposal. He hopes to find “enough empathetic bones within City Council and the Boulder housing department.”

Jennifer Livovitch, an advocate for the unhoused with former homelessness experience in Boulder, agrees. Sanctioned encampments would be a huge boon to people currently sleeping outside, she says. “I think monitoring encampments are absolutely necessary … because reality is, a monitored encampment would protect people from being criminalized by the police. It would give them a sense of community in their own kind of way, and it would give them a safe, stable place to stay — all things that are currently lacking.” 

Friend says the ideal solution would be a network of robust and equal homelessness services spread throughout the state, but that’s just not the case. In the meantime, interim solutions like sanctioned encampments are the next-best option. Perhaps they could help prevent more death by exposure to the elements, like the tragedy that befell Aldridge during the snowstorm last week. “Right now I think my focus is on trying to help people be safe,” Friend says.

There isn’t yet an official date when City Council will hear Friend’s proposal, but she anticipates it will be ready at some point in the next few weeks. Cautiously optimistic, she says, “Most of what I hear in Boulder is that we do want to help humans who need help. And so I’m hoping that will carry over into saying: People who need shelter have a place to have it.”  

This article is part of 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