Boulder is struggling to maintain “safe public spaces” for residents while managing an explosion of homeless encampments since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. KGNU’s Roz Brown says Boulder City Council discussed multiple solutions last night.
When the pandemic hit last March, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cautioned against clearing homeless encampments because it could increase the potential for spreading the disease. At the same time, many homeless shelters have closed or reduced the number of unhoused they’ll accept, while the economic crisis has led to evictions putting more people on the streets. Boulder continues to enforce its ban on camping – a policy that primarily impacts those experiencing homelessness and has continued clearing their encampments. During virtual public comment at last night’s Boulder city council meeting, Emma Goldman shared a personal story when a sweep followed a recent snowstorm.
“Just last week an unhoused friend of mine who is paralyzed and wheel-chair bound, had frostbite for two weeks because she was afraid to leave her tent because her things would be thrown away,” said Goldman. “Less than 24 hours after going to the hospital to have her toes removed for frostbite, all her things were thrown away by the police.”
City Council debated staff recommendations that encourage spending more than $1M to “maintain safe and welcoming public spaces,” a recommendation that includes mandatory minimum sentences for homeless campers and increased police presence. Daniel Katz spoke against it.
“Further criminalizing homelessness cannot hope to solve the problem,” said Katz. “The only purpose of this plan is to push the homeless out of sight so you don’t have to feel uncomfortable.”
Other Boulder residents like Jorge Boone were supportive of recommendations to address the problem.
“I’m thankful to live in a community with strong values around our homelessness, but in the past two years we’ve seen a marked increase in crime along with trash and biohazards in our public spaces,” said Boone. “It’s gotten to the point that all of us avoid these places.”
After public comments city council heard from its police chief Maris Herold. Herold said fear about the encampments is a very real thing because the rate of crime in Boulder has skyrocketed since the pandemic began last year. She said encampments are entrenched in certain parts of the city with some cleaned by police officers more than 20 times in 2020. She described a recent cleanup under the library along Boulder Creek.
“City staff and private contractors found more than 1,000 needles at this location,” said Herold. “They cleaned more than 900 pounds of trash at this one site and it required more than 10 hours of police time.”
Both the police and city council have received hundreds of complaints about the homeless encampments. But as Councilmember Rachel Friend noted, the unhoused are disproportionally affected by crime including homicides, assaults and robberies.
“In our emails we have people blaming homeless people for every crime,” said Friend. “So I want us to be careful not to add our own hatred or intolerance to that burden.”
In addition to adding a new police unit downtown, recommendations include continuing the camping ban and removal of encampments and building residential recovery housing options for methamphetamine users. Councilman Aaron Brockett was quick to acknowledge it would not be enough.
“I think we all recognize that as a city, we don’t have the resources to address these problems as they deserve to be addressed,” said Brockett. “This is about working with the state legislature and other governments around the region to tap into other financial resources.”
No votes were taken and council will continue its discussion at a future date.