PUBLIC SAFETY & HOMELESSNESS
A clear, practical, and truly compassionate approach
Public safety and welcoming shared spaces are the prerequisite for everything else we care about: our local businesses, the environment, our parks and open space, social cohesion, alternative transportation, healthy neighborhoods, etc. That’s why I am a firm supporter of the camping ban, tent ban, propane tank ban, and restaffing our depleted Police Department, which has lost 43 officers since May 2020. What has been allowed to happen cannot continue. End of story.
We only need to look to some west coast cities to see exactly where it will lead: a growing number of unhoused people with no path forward, growing crime, insecurity for residents, and decreased revenues from tourism. It’s a lose-lose scenario.
Encampments threaten those outside as well as those inside of them - not because of the sleeping that occurs there but because of the vandalism, defecation, assault, discarding of contaminated items and uneaten food, open drug use, harassment of passerby.
Anti-camping enforcement is also necessary to control risk of wildfires and urban fires during the summer, when seasonal camping peaks. The Skirball fire that burned more than 400 acres in Los Angeles started as a cooking fire at a homeless encampment.
Encampments imperil the environment. Before moving cleanup services in house, our city paid Servpro to clean thousands of needles and buckets of human waste from encampments, risking e-coli and fecal born coliform flowing into our waterways.
The impacts to our parks, bike paths, and libraries are disproportionately felt by community members who don’t have private backyards, who can’t afford to buy their books on Amazon, or replace their stolen bicycles. Downtown workers and business owners should not be subject to threats and abuse on their walk home at night.
In contrast to other cities, where homelessness is driven by high housing costs, Boulder, as a City and County, has made a significant investment to prevent and rapidly resolve housing insecurity for people experiencing financial hardship. We have more than 20 successful programs. However, those living in encampments often slip through our robust safety net.
"I suspect that Steve knows more about the intricacies of creating shelter for the homeless than anyone outside of City Staff and Boulder Housing Partners."
- MARK WALLACH | BOULDER CITY COUNCIL
True Compassion: What it is and is not
Any serious plan to mitigate homelessness must confront the problem of substance abuse and mental health. What has changed in recent years is the sheer destructive power of today’s drugs: fentanyl and methamphetamine.
Our "Housing First '' policy adopted in 2017 often isn't an option for these folks. People with methamphetamine or sex offense convictions are permanently barred from receiving federal housing vouchers. In addition, most landlords refuse to accept meth users due to concerns about contamination and expensive remediation.
Boulder’s policies recognize that housing is the only solution to homelessness. Housing First breaks the cycle between jail, emergency room, and sleeping unsheltered, thereby saving the city money and improving public safety. However, we simply can't afford to provide permanently supportive housing for everyone in the Denver Metro area and beyond. Nonetheless, we need to act with compassion toward our most vulnerable community members. Ignoring people while they struggle with addiction and victimize the community ...is NOT compassionate to them OR the city. And it’s not compassionate to let people with severe mental illness wander the streets without effective treatment.
We must stick to the strategy shift we adopted in 2017, which is to stop providing an uncoordinated mish-mash of emergency services to anyone who comes to Boulder. By doing so, and by not enforcing our laws, we only attract more people to Boulder seeking services, only to be left with no meaningful help and no path into housing.
This is what the data confirms: 66% of people who go through the coordinated entry screening when seeking services have been in Boulder for less than one year. We cannot solve this problem on our own. Other communities need to step up and provide more than a bus ticket to Boulder. We need to prioritize our limited resources toward evidence-based and nationally accepted best practices: directing people with connections to Boulder into housing and giving them the help they need to get their lives back on track. This includes addiction recovery, job training, mental health counseling, etc.
Helping the “Service Resistant”
For those deemed "service resistant" who commit crimes, the current approach of issuing a ticket or court summons which they tear up and ignore, is not working, but neither will jail time. Society cannot arrest its way out of homelessness. Our current judge and municipal prosecutor have demonstrated their unwillingness to jail people, unless and until they commit violent crimes. This approach ignores property crimes against our residents and crimes against society, expects no accountability for criminal behavior, and does nothing to help “service resistant” people. A court summons is currently used as a point of contact to help people into coordinated entry and services, it is not intended to criminalize homelessness. Services try to help a person address the underlying causes of homelessness, whether drugs, financial need, mental health issues, or some combination of them all. An effective justice system will focus, in most cases, on rehabilitation.
We need another option. I advocate for a "continuum of care". We need the state and county to step up and provide residential mental health and drug treatment facilities, as an alternative sentencing mechanism, which will give people a path back to a stable life. Perpetrators of crime currently spend a few nights in a jail, then are often right back to living unsheltered and repeating criminal behavior. We need to do what we can to break the cycle of desperation and recidivism and get people the help they need, while balancing the valid concerns of the community.