Boulder, CO

Boulder invests $2.2 million in homeless sweeps

David Heitz

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(Photo/Denver Homeless Out Loud)A Bobcat is used to clear a homeless encampment in Denver last week.

The Boulder City council has snubbed a voter mandate to create a sanctioned homeless campground and instead is moving forward on establishing a team to sweep illegal encampments away.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that sweeps of homeless encampments help spread COVID-19. Others have argued sweeps simply chase people experiencing homeless around, from one spot to another and sometimes back to the same spot. It gets to be very expensive.

The city expects to spend $2.2 million on specially trained personnel for sweeping the encampments. In addition to a cleanup team and park rangers, the city plans to launch a parks ambassador program and hire six new police officers.

The police officers, training, and three new squad cars amount to more than $1.5 million. Council members wanted to be sure that if new officers are hired, they are trained in de-escalation. Police Chief Maris Herold said it’s imperative the officers don’t use force during encampment sweeps for legal reasons.

“This is probably the riskiest of work that officers engage in,” Herold said of the sweeps. “The courts will frown on force.”

She said “elite officers” are what’s really needed for the sweeps, officers who respond “compassionately” and “proactively.”

The city estimates that are 335 encampments in public spaces.

Denver sees success with sanctioned campground

Advocates for people experiencing homelessness say the sanctioned campgrounds provide a better life because campers won’t be run off by police. There also are rules at the sanctioned campgrounds. Identical, heavy-duty tents are used for the tent communities. Restroom facilities are nearby.

Denver recently has seen success with a sanctioned homeless camp pilot program in the Capitol Hill neighborhood. A second sanctioned camp is set to open soon.

But most members of the Boulder City Council made it clear at the April 27 meeting they aren’t interested in bringing sanctioned camps to Boulder. Boulder City Councilman Aaron Brockett was among a few open to the idea of the camps.

“Denver has been successful,” Brockett said in response to a colleague who claimed the camps are disasters. Brockett said if you tell someone “You can’t sleep here” then “we do need to have answers of where do you go.”

The council agreed to create new jobs in the city aimed at clearing the encampments. The city will spend $130,000 on a cleanup crew lead and three support staff to rid the city of the encampments. The city also will buy two trucks and one utility vehicle.

The city currently contracts with a private contractor on the cleanups. Sometimes their services can be difficult to obtain due to high demand, such as a natural disaster in another part of the country, staff said.

Homelessness on agenda again for Tuesday

The council is expected to take up the issue of homelessness again this week at the May 4 meeting. They’ll be voting on whether to support the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative. They also will hear an annual report on homelessness in the city and safety in public spaces.

The city appears to be cracking down hard on homeless encampments. “There remain challenges that correlate to people living unsheltered in vulnerable situations, mainly within unsanctioned encampments,” according to the report. “Over the past year, there have been numerous public safety issues, including explosions associated with the use of propane tanks, within these encampments.

“Staff outlines potential code amendment options that would prohibit the possession of more than one propane tank in public spaces to address safety concerns; and ban tents in urban parks that would prevent encampments from establishing in public spaces.”

Urban park rangers will hand out tickets

Banning tents in Boulder parks would mean one less place the homeless could go. At their meeting last week, the council agreed to spend millions of dollars on several ways of policing the homeless. Hiring park rangers was one idea the council threw its support behind.

Park rangers could enforce violations such as tents and open containers. The council agreed to spend $186,000 over six months on hiring new park rangers.

The annual report shows Boulder is having some success with getting people off the streets. Between March 2020 and February 2021, Boulder Shelter for the Homeless rescued 210 people from homelessness.

The city also is having success with its new BTHERE program. The team had encounters with 129 people and developed relationships with 89 of them. The city is working with Homeless Solutions for Boulder County to develop housing options for those most difficult to house. That includes people with histories or active use of methamphetamines, the medically frail, and people with lengthy criminal histories.

Boulder supports housing for methamphetamine addicts

Several council members expressed support for housing those addicted to methamphetamine. They pointed to studies which show it’s hard to quit using meth without housing.

In the annual report, staff explains the challenges it faces in enforcing the camping ban. “The camping ordinance does not apply during the day and requires proof of ‘activities of daily living.’ This generally requires that encampments become entrenched before staff can act. Staff engaged in encampment clean-up efforts have removed hundreds of propane tanks, of which some staff believes are used in the manufacture of methamphetamine as well as cooking and heating tents.

“This coincides with a dramatic increase in thefts of propane tanks from lockers outside of various businesses. The large number of propane tanks found in encampments present a significant public safety issue, because of the risk of explosion and fire.”

Tent ban in parks could be difficult to enforce

The city requires people using their homeless services to have been a resident of Boulder at least six months prior. During inclement weather, this requirement is waived. The council debated last week whether the law should remain but did not come to any conclusions.

Boulder currently does not prohibit tents in urban parks. City staff said changing the law to outlaw them makes good sense, although it will be hard to enforce.

“Adding a prohibition against tents could create an expectation in the community that the police will have the capacity to remove tents immediately,” according to the staff report. “While this is not realistic, on balance prohibiting tents will provide better enforcement options. It should be clear that seizure of tents that are erected illegally would present legal and logistical challenges.

“The constitution prohibits the taking of private property without due process of law. This means that a tent seized would have to be stored until the owner was afforded due process, which presents a logistical challenge that would most likely fall on our already over-burdened police department.”

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I have been in the news business more than 30 years, spending much of my career at some of the best newspapers in the country. Today, I specialize in Denver local news, health reporting, social justice issues, addiction/recovery/mental health news, and topics surrounding homelessness and human trafficking.

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