Housing is really the foundation of so many of our social structures and without it, people just can’t succeed.” — Cathy Alderman of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless.
“The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.” — Mahatma Gandhi
More and more people are struggling just to have a roof over their heads. In 99.6 percent of counties in this nation, a full-time minimum wage worker can’t afford to rent a one-bedroom home. People are experiencing rising rents, foreclosures and evictions but many are invisible — they are couch-surfing, doubling up, sleeping in their cars.
The homeless folks in public spaces stand out. Some observers have compared them to the canaries in a coal mine. They reflect a broken society with neglected social problems like mental health issues, alcohol and drug abuse, and a lack of housing.
On Christmas night of 2017, a homeless man named Benjamin Harvey froze to death on a park bench after being denied a bed at the Boulder Shelter for the Homeless. This December 13, nearly a dozen community members delivered a demand letter to Greg Harms, the executive director of the shelter. They were led by Boulder County Democratic Socialists of America and homeless advocacy group Boulder Rights Watch. The letter said:
“An infraction of shelter rules should never be a death sentence. Under your leadership, people experiencing homelessness are subject to the arbitrary and capricious enforcement of Shelter rules, often resulting in expulsion from the shelter on unreasonably short notice, with insufficient warnings, and no offer of transportation — even though City Council created a requirement for transport to other services in the event of a suspension.”
The letter added that “your facility is run without public oversight, despite receiving one-third of its funding from public sources.”
Boulder’s handling of homelessness has been examined in two reports by the University of Denver Sturm College of Law’s Homeless Advocacy Policy Project. Over two years ago, the project released a report entitled ‘Too High A Price’ which detailed “the tremendous expenditures” Denver, Boulder and Colorado Springs make “that criminalize some of our most basic, life-sustaining activities.” It focused on laws dealing with “camping, sitting or lying in public, begging, and loitering.”
In May of this year, the project issued a follow-up report entitled “Too High A Price 2: Move On To Where?” The chapter on Boulder is called “Making Homelessness Inevitable by Trying to Make It Invisible.” The authors say that “The City of Boulder’s continued enforcement against its homeless residents reflects a willingness to spend whatever is necessary to criminalize people experiencing homelessness…. Boulder does this despite warnings from local law enforcement leaders that this criminalization is expensive and solves nothing.”
They note that their earlier report “conservatively estimated that Boulder’s enforcement of the anti-homeless ordinances alone cost Boulder just shy of $1 million over five years. Boulder has since reported its own spending; Boulder spent $1.8 million per year.”
They discuss the barriers that homeless people encounter in trying to access the available services for them. They say the City is dealing with a paradoxical situation: “With one hand, Boulder gives generously to its homeless services; with the other, Boulder uses law enforcement to tighten its grip on those who are not able to access those services.”
The report emphasizes that changing demographics and population are making things worse and not just for the homeless:
“Whether it is people experiencing homelessness or housed residents, the changing demographics and increased population in Boulder has challenged the city. Boulder’s population boom is exacerbating an already expensive and competitive housing market for even those above moderate means. The monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment increased over $200 between 2014 and 2017. Increased housing costs increases homelessness. Research shows ‘a $100 increase in rent is associated with an increase in homelessness of between 6 and 32 percent.’ Not surprisingly, Boulder residents have listed affordable housing as one of their top concerns.”
This goes beyond Boulder. A housing justice movement is blossoming around the country pushing rent control, just cause eviction laws, tenant unions, renters’ assemblies, publicly-funded social housing, community land trusts which can replace market-rate housing. The advocacy group Homes for All has been around for only five years but they have already created a network of 68 grassroots organizations in 24 states.
Housing is a human right, not a commodity.
This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.