Managing scarcity

Changes to severe weather sheltering program test the County’s homelessness solutions strategy

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Emma Athena

Just after 9 a.m. on Sunday, Oct. 25, Mark pokes his head out from his sleeping bag, double-wrapped in a crinkled emergency blanket for extra warmth. He’s lying underneath one of the bridges near Boulder’s main library downtown. 

His eyes are squinty, his nose bright red. It’s about 10 degrees out and his breath fogs as he speaks. “My main thing is trying to stay safe and warm,” he says, his voice gravelly: “This is how we live.” 

Mark chose this spot to sleep, figuring the bridge would keep him dry. “We can’t be getting wet,” he warns — exposure to moisture exacerbates frostbite and hypothermia, and hastens death. It’s not that he wants to sleep out here, but after witnessing violence and thefts at shelters, he’s soured on going there for help. 

“It’s all due to COVID-19,” he says. After struggling to collect unemployment in Albuquerque this summer, he high-tailed it to Denver, walking part of the way, hitchhiking the rest. And now, here he is, sleeping under a bridge next to Boulder Creek. He says he’ll stay in Boulder until he can figure out his unemployment situation, and he’ll stay under this bridge until the snowstorm stops. “I don’t want to lose my dry spot,” he says.

People like Mark are scattered all over the city, people wrapped in tarps and blankets and tents, escaping precipitation beneath underpasses and tree canopies, stuffing sleeping bags with newspaper, curling into the fetal position, trying to stay warm. Don, who sleeps under the 28th Street bridge, uses so many blankets he’s lost count. Carlos has duct-taped cardboard to his old minivan windows and is parked east of 55th Street.

Emma Athena
Mark wakes up from a night spent under a bridge in downtown Boulder. People experiencing homelessness in Boulder County must navigate a newly consolidated severe weather sheltering program this winter.  

This is happening around the rest of the state to varying degrees, too. In Denver, Fort Collins, Aurora, Pueblo — not to mention every other major metro area in the country. The problem of homelessness is not unique to Boulder, but how Boulder is approaching homelessness solutions is somewhat atypical, particularly when it comes to the City’s new plan for severe weather sheltering.

Traditionally, during winter months, additional shelter beds are made available to account for the added dangers that snow and freezing temperatures bring to people experiencing homelessness. This winter, however, there are fewer shelter beds in the system than there have been for years.  

For the past three winters, the nonprofit Bridge House ran Boulder’s severe weather sheltering program plus a year-round short-term sheltering program, known as Navigation Services, at a leased location off 30th Street. During this time, Boulder Shelter for the Homeless primarily focused on serving those with disabilities and/or committed to finding stable, permanent housing, though it’s also always sheltered short-term clients, too. When Bridge House’s severe weather shelter beds filled up during the winter, Boulder Shelter would routinely take in the overflow. 

This summer, when the lease on 30th Street expired, the City moved the Navigation Services program into Boulder Shelter for the Homeless, eliminating 50 shelter beds from the system and closing one of the final locations that provided day services in Boulder. Though day services have been historically inconsistent, at present, there’s no place to seek shelter, study, use the bathroom or charge electronics during the day. Hence, people congregate outside.  

To prepare for this winter, City staff announced in September the severe weather sheltering program would also be moving to Boulder Shelter for the Homeless. From December to mid-March, access to severe weather shelter beds will be open every night. (Between October and December, and again mid-March through May, severe weather beds will be open only if overnight temperatures drop below 32 degrees, or 38 degrees with precipitation.) With COVID-19 social distancing protocols in place, Boulder Shelter has rearranged its layout and is currently offering 140 of its 160 total beds — or about half of the 282 beds that were available before the consolidation. 

Along with the new location, the policies for severe weather sheltering have also changed this year, limiting each person to 30 nights total, implementing a 7 p.m. curfew and, if there’s more demand than available beds, running a lottery. If someone doesn’t win a night in a bed, “We give them a blanket and a meal to go,” Greg Harms, executive director of Boulder Shelter for the Homeless, explains.

By Harm’s account, the new programming is designed to make the most of available resources and will help keep the system from being overwhelmed. The City plans to educate people about Boulder’s service limitations in hopes that will encourage people to seek shelter elsewhere. (Those in Longmont can contact the nonprofit Homeless Outreach Providing Encouragement [HOPE] for information on its Emergency Weather Sheltering offerings.)

The consolidation of shelter services in Boulder is part of Homeless Solutions Boulder County (HSBC)’s long-term plan to hyperfocus the region’s resources on affordable and stable housing, and away from more temporary solutions, like shelters. Since 2017, HSBC has managed the County’s response to homelessness, housing 472 people with this approach, according to the City’s Single Adult Homelessness Services Dashboard. The consolidation of service has reduced operational costs by about $100,000; the severe weather sheltering savings have been allocated to housing services and there are plans to turn the 30th Street location into affordable housing units.

Emma Athena Boulder Shelter for the Homeless

“The truth is a shelter system is a compromise itself from just getting people housed,” says Matthew Meyer, executive director of the Metro-Denver Homeless Initiative (MDHI), the regional leader in homelessness reduction work; MDHI works closely with HSBC (and six other metro-area counties) to coordinate services and request federal funding. 

“The best thing we can do for folks who are unhoused is provide them with housing,” Meyer says. “If we just get people housed, then we don’t have to be allocating as many resources to these kinds of temporary solutions.”

This thinking encapsulates the national Housing First strategy — use housing to solve homelessness — that both MDHI and HSBC subscribe to (See News, “An incomplete picture,” Aug. 27). With more people housed “you don’t have as much of an issue with the winter time,” Meyer says. 

Still, he’s aware of the realities faced in Boulder and the greater Denver-metro region: There are more people who need affordable housing than affordable housing units. “People don’t like seeing people out in the winter, of course, it’s terrible,” Meyer says. “If you don’t want people to be out in the middle of winter, you may want to support that affordable housing project in your neighborhood, because those two are related.”

Historically, Boulder hasn’t welcomed affordable housing projects, Meyer says — despite local success, like the Housing First community located at 1175 Lee Hill. “The minute someone talks about doing an affordable housing project within a given neighborhood, the neighbors are in an uproar about how that’s going to affect their property values,” he says. “I think people need to really think about that, because it is doable. We could sit down in Boulder and many communities and purchase the properties and change the zoning … and get people housed. You know, it’s not an undoable solution. It’s just that people put up obstacles to it.”

As it stands, “We don’t have enough housing resources for the number of people who are unhoused,” Meyer says. “So in those circumstances, the best thing to do would be to get people into congregate shelters where they can be warm and dry.”

The pandemic has made congregate sheltering difficult, but other communities are trying to respond to this challenge by expanding shelter spaces, not consolidating them. Steve Berg, vice president of programs and policy at the National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH), says with the additional coronavirus complexities, many communities are still hammering out operational logistics for this winter sheltering season.

Shelter providers in Nashville are building upon their use of a fairground site, chosen earlier this year to help distance unhoused clients and provide COVID-19 medical attention, by adding a severe weather shelter area to the property as well. In Surrey, a city southeast of Vancouver, Canada, churches are being used to spread-out severe weather sheltering to five smaller locations — and, according to local papers, this’ll be the first winter that service providers plan on keeping shelter spaces open every night instead of only sub-freezing nights. Providers in King County, Washington (which includes Seattle), determined churches, which are typically used for severe weather sheltering, weren’t an option this year, due to a lack of modern ventilation and concerns about virus spread. Instead, the County plans to offer $4 million to nonprofits to make existing shelters safer “by doing things like adding interior partitions in congregate sleeping areas,” according to the Seattle Times. Planning ahead, King County leaders have proposed a new countywide 0.1% sales tax that would be used to buy hotels and other facilities to house chronically homeless people.

Many of these solutions require a hearty combination of funding, staffing, public support, political will and geographic space that can be difficult to wrangle. Meanwhile, rates of homelessness continue to rise, reflected in the continued demand for shelter space in many areas. Last year, Meyer says the Denver-metro region recorded a 300% increase in people seeking shelter during severe weather events. 

“We’re concerned that there will be a lot more homelessness because of the economy and because of the coronavirus,” says Berg of NAEH. An analysis by Columbia University based on data correlating unemployment rate and homelessness shows that by the end of 2020 homelessness could increase by as much as 45%. The end of 2020 is also when federal and state eviction moratoriums will expire. And no one wants a repeat of last year’s record-breaking number of unhoused community deaths: Bridge House reported 48 people died in 2019. One death has already been recorded for this season, after a cold snap in September drove temperatures below freezing overnight. 

While homeless advocates in Boulder are concerned about this year’s overall reduction of shelter beds, Vicki Ebner, homeless policy manager for the City, highlights how the new severe weather sheltering plan can expand upon the number of shelter beds available last year.

The very coldest nights, when temperatures drop below 10 degrees or more than six inches of snow accumulates, will trigger the City’s ability to rent around 20 additional hotel rooms for people deemed at-risk of the coronavirus — a practice the Shelter began this spring, giving elderly and vulnerable people their own isolated space, thereby freeing up shelter space for others to use. In addition to hotel rooms already reserved for those at-risk of COVID-19, these additional rooms would combine with the Shelter beds that aren’t pre-reserved by those enrolled in HSBC’s Navigation or Housing-Focused Services — and could total as many as 90 beds.

Ebner says it’s “very uncommon” for all of the program beds to be used, but in the event that they are, there would be no severe weather shelter beds available or set aside. 

“Using the hotel as a safety valve, we’re hopeful and fairly confident that we’ll be able to serve most everybody who needs help,” Harms says.

Emma Athena
Greg Harms, executive director of Boulder Shelter for the Homeless, says the new programming is designed to make the most of available resources.

At the Shelter, people will get one no-questions-asked night if they’ve never stayed there before; if they have, then they’ll be required to register in HSBC’s Coordinated Entry program. Most HSBC programs, like the Navigation and Housing-Focused programs, mandate residents meet a six-month residency requirement, but access to severe weather shelter beds will not require it. Anyone can enter the lottery for a bed on a severe weather night.

Ebner says the Housing First approach has made an impact at the Shelter, relieving some of the population pressures and drawing the Housing-Focused Shelter program’s average nightly census down from 104 people in September 2019 to 89 people in September 2020.

Many are hesitatant to celebrate Boulder’s housing-focused work, however, as they argue it helps the few over the many — introducing the need for selectivity into the system, and with it the potential for discrimination and additional psychological traumas.

“The data we do have … tells us that something like 4,000 people, since 2017, have gone through Coordinated Entry, and a few hundred people have been housed,” says Darren O’Connor, the criminal justice committee chair for the NAACP Boulder County branch and regional vice president of the National Lawyers Guild. “And while it’s great they have … placed people at a higher rate than they used to, the majority are still homeless. The majority of people who have come through that system still need a stopgap.”

On Monday, Oct. 26, Boulder Shelter asked everyone to leave by 11:30 a.m., when temperatures hovered between 10 and 15 degrees. Typically residents are required to leave by 8 a.m., when staff head in to disinfect and prepare the dorms for the next night of clients. At 1 p.m. the City opened an “emergency warming center” at the West Age Well Center on Arapahoe Avenue, 3.6 miles from the Shelter, where up to 30 people at a time could be inside. All had to be screened for COVID-19. 

Pop-up services like this are critical when the need arises, but it’s not best practice, Berg from NAEH says: “Our thought is that it’s better practice to have shelters open all the time, and to be low barrier and anybody can come in who wants in.” He says when shelter spaces and warming amenities are weather-triggered rather than consistent, they can be confusing for unhoused people who might not have reliable access to phones or internet service. 

More consistency with severe weather sheltering and day services are two things Isabel McDevitt, executive director of Bridge House, has been pushing for years. “Obviously it’s important that people have a place where they can get out of the cold, but also importantly, we see a need for a place where people can have daytime case management, as well as opportunities to look for a job or make phone calls or leave their stuff so that they can go to an appointment and have a place to come and go from. We also see the need for day services beyond just weather needs.” 

The City’s new curfew and stay-limit “will change the dynamic of severe weather shelter,” she says, and neither are practices Bridge House would have recommended. During her tenure running Boulder’s severe weather sheltering program, McDevitt says she learned “a curfew is problematic and counter-intuitive.”

Often someone doesn’t realize they need shelter until well past 7 p.m., she says. “Plus, police are picking people up on the street and they often need a place to take somebody who might be at risk. So a curfew, from our experience, especially at that time of night, was not something that we would have done, for those reasons.

“Bridge House has been very consistent in the sense of we do support permanent housing as the goal, but we also think that there needs to be a practical approach to making sure that we have a balanced system and access to life-saving programs, like severe weather shelter.”

More than anything, she adds, “We need to appreciate that [people’s] lives are at risk if we don’t provide at least a temporary option.”

Emma Athena

At present, information about severe weather sheltering is disseminated via a hotline people can call, the City and Boulder Shelter websites, email notices to service partners and social media. “Word on the street is probably our best tool, however,” Harms, from Boulder Shelter, explains. He says the 7 p.m. curfew, which has been in place for non-severe-weather shelter beds for a long time, helps the operation. “Our experience has shown that earlier check-in times lead to fewer behavioral and safety concerns,” he writes via email. 

As for the 30-day stay limit, “We believe that someone who is using this service for 30 nights shows a willingness to engage with programs and sheltering. If we can transition people to year-round programs or provide them with diversion services, we have a better possibility of ending a person’s homelessness,” Ebner explains via email. 

On behalf of MDHI, Meyer applauds HSBC’s response to the coronavirus this past spring — with its COVID-19 recovery center that was up and running in a matter of days, and success keeping an outbreak of the virus out of the Shelter  — but there are elements of HSBC’s current system that “we just don’t honor,” Meyer says. That includes HSBC’s six-month residency requirement (implemented in February 2020) for Navigation or Housing-Focused shelter, in addition to the severe weather shelter curfew and stay limit. These types of policies also go against recommendations from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and HSBC isn’t allowed to use HUD funding in programs with such restrictions.

Meyer questions why Boulder has implemented these requirements, and doesn’t know of any other shelters “that have those kinds of requirements on them.” It’s common for shelters to have entry criteria, “but those tend to be about safety issues and making sure that anyone staying at the shelters isn’t going to endanger anyone else staying at the shelter, and that I can understand.”

Almost all involved agree that more federal funding could go a long way in helping provide more temporary and permanent types of shelter, not only for this winter, but in the future of homelessness mitigation. With budgets stressed, volunteer fleets depleted and unforeseen expenses continuing to accrue in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, “everyone in the homeless service system is managing scarcity,” Meyer says.

O’Connor says it’s important to be intentional with what resources are available. “When we hear we have to save every dollar to put towards housing to maximize the number of people we can house — great. But for a fraction of that, you could alleviate the misery and the danger and the suffering to the majority of people.” 

McDevitt with Bridge House agrees. “I think we just need to keep evaluating how we’re doing and really evaluate which policies are working, and have a more fluid approach,” she says. “At the end of the day, there’s always been an acknowledgement that severe weather shelter needs to have a life-saving component, and we should do our best to engage people in more robust programming, but when it’s snowing, when it’s freezing, [preserving life] comes first.”  

This concludes a six-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.