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Tuesday March 28th 2023

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That's what she said

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Can Boulder Do More for the Homeless?


Allowing camping on public property would not solve the problem of homelessness, Tom Carr, Boulder City Attorney, declared at a PLAN-Boulder forum on June 10 entitled “Should Something Different Be Done for the Homeless in Boulder?” But Carr and the other two panelists at the forum also cautioned that homelessness will never be completely ended either in Boulder or rest of the United States.

Carr reported that the city issues about 500 tickets for illegal camping a year, and that some individuals each receive many — the record being 23 for one man. He said that most people convicted of illegal camping are sentenced to community service and only a handful have received jail terms. He noted that the city’s illegal camping ordinance has been in effect for almost three decades, and claimed that it is more narrowly written than any other similar ordinance he has seen anywhere in the United States. He said that, if it is declared unconstitutional by the Colorado Supreme Court, the city retained the option of simply closing public parks and spaces at night, which, he said, is what Longmont does. He observed that camping has long been allowed in Boulder on private property with the permission of the landowner or tenant.

Carr also mentioned that the city is considering a new ordinance allowing churches to set up tent facilities for the homeless on their grounds. Another panelist, George Epp, a member of the board of directors of the Carriage House Community Table and former Boulder County sheriff, commented that while such a program would be helpful, it would not affect the considerable number of homeless people who value their privacy highly and do not want to sleep near to others.

Carr stated that the City of Boulder spends $2 million a year on programs that benefit the homeless, which represents more money per capita than any city in Colorado other than Denver.

The third panelist, Greg Harms, executive director of the Boulder Shelter for the Homeless, claimed that experts believe that one percent of the United States population — or three million people — are homeless every year, and that on any given night 750,000 to 1 million people lack a permanent place to stay. Harms warned, though, that estimates of the number of homeless people are notoriously inaccurate.

Harms reported that an annual survey of homeless people in the seven-county Denver metropolitan area is done at one point in time every year. In January, 2011, it counted 10-12,000 homeless people in the metropolitan area, 1,200-1,800 in Boulder County, and 900 in the City of Boulder. He observed that the number in the City of Boulder tallied in the annual survey usually ranges between 500 and 900.

Harms commented that the homeless people in Boulder originated all over the nation and that after staying in one city for a while homeless people usually develop close ties with their peers and consider that location to be their place of residence. Harms also noted that Boulder citizens often believe that the homeless people here originated in Denver, while Denver citizens tend to think that the homeless people there originated in Boulder.

Harms recounted that the Boulder Shelter for the Homeless provides overnight shelter from October 15 until April 30 for 160 adults over age 18 who are sober and without weapons. He said that it always fills up. A member of the audience pointed out that Boulder Outreach for Homeless Overflow offers emergency warming shelter on cold or wet nights at five churches and a synagogue on a rotating basis for hundreds of people  who are turned away from the Shelter or do not want to stay there.

Harms noted that the Boulder Shelter for the Homeless operates four other programs: Boulder County Cares, which from October through April distributes winter clothing, blankets, food, and bus tokens to people who are living outside; a transition work program for 30 to 60 clean and sober people for up to nine months; transitional housing for 12 people for up to two years; and permanent housing for some chronically homeless people that is paid for by the federal government. Harms asserted that the Boulder Shelter offers services to about 1,000 different individuals each year.

Harms also said that two safehouses in Boulder County serve victims of domestic abuse, that Emergency Family Assistance in Boulder and OUR Center in Longmont serve homeless families, that Attention Homes serves homeless teenagers between ages 12 and 18, and that the Carriage House Community Table serves homeless people during the day.

Epp stated that the Carriage House provides services to about 120 people a day five days a week, and that of those people about five to ten a month move into permanent housing and five to ten a month secure employment. He said that the Carriage House and the Boulder Shelter serve much of the same population. Harms commented that the Carriage House and the Shelter had decided not to locate next to each other because “there would be no reason [for a homeless person] to leave.” He remarked, “That would be counterproductive to getting people to lead a normal life.”

Epp said that the Carriage House offers lunch five days a week and dinner Monday through Thursday and every other Friday and tries to enable the homeless to embark upon stable, productive lives. He commented that the meals were a way of luring their clients into accessing other services. He said that homeless people often lost identification documents, and the Carriage House helps them to recreate those documents. It also helps them search and apply for jobs and provides clothing for job interviews. A licensed social worker is available at the Carriage House five days a week.

Epp confirmed that the Carriage House is seeking bigger quarters. He acknowledged that it had seriously considered buying the former Yocum’s Studio building on Broadway by Boulder Creek, but had relinquished that idea out of a concern that such a location might increase the number of homeless people congregating in Central Park. Harms remarked that a day shelter is needed in downtown Boulder “to take the pressure off the library and the downtown businesses.”

Carr recalled that Seattle, where he had previously worked as city attorney, started a program to house 75 homeless, chronic alcoholics and that within a relatively short period of time half of them stopped drinking. He said that those people had apparently been drinking to self-medicate against the misery of a transient existence.

Both Carr and Harms referred optimistically to a ten year program led by Boulder County that concentrates on providing housing first for homeless people and then trying to ameliorate their other problems after they are settled. However, neither provided details about this program.

Epp related that he has lived in Boulder since 1951 and that during the 1950s and early 1960s cheap hotels proliferated in the downtown area. He noted that the Boulderado Hotel used to be mostly inhabited by poor, World War I pensioners. He claimed that as sheriff he did not notice homeless campsites in Boulder until the 1980s.  He surmised that the increasing affluence of Boulder had led to the disappearance of those hotels where people who are now homeless would have been able to stay. He also recollected that the city used to contain inexpensive campgrounds open to the paying public.

None of the panelists foresaw any panaceas for homelessness, because each homeless person is burdened by his or her own particular history. Harms commented, “Not everything works for everybody.” Epp cautioned, “There is no silver bullet.” Carr remarked, “There is no typical homeless person.”

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