Members of our Community Editorial Board, a group of community residents who are engaged with and passionate about local issues, respond to the following question: Boulder is one year in on its two-year plan to ban urban camping and clean up campsites. Your take?
Boulder is and will remain a town that attracts more than its fair share of visitors. Many can’t afford a home or room in which to spend the night. We’re stuck, but many cities and towns would like to have our “problem.”
A comprehensive, sustainable strategy for addressing the unintended consequences of being a cool place to visit is needed. We should resist the temptation to make our hometown either more exclusive or less attractive.
We need to empower people with good hearts to allocate limited resources in a manner that, at the very least, will do more good than harm. If there were an obvious solution, we would already have chosen it.
Providing the unhoused (through no fault of their own) with necessary and appropriate services is a complicated challenge made more so by the existence of transient visitors who have little interest in altering their lifestyle.
Meaningful distinctions can be drawn between the two populations, and we must be effective in addressing both.
Enforcement of the camping ban must meet constitutional standards, which primarily require the existence of emergency shelter year-round for people who do not have housing. Communities that have tried the campground option have, almost without exception, been disappointed by the results. It is certainly not a panacea.
Bridge House, a Boulder treasure, has been working on how to more effectively weave together transition services, temporary housing alternatives and emergency shelter options, but it has been frustrated by the reluctance of the Boulder Shelter for the Homeless to provide an ”integrated, robust, dedicated (overnight and day) shelter,” as voiced in a June 15 Camera guest opinion.
A sense of urgency and renewed focus is needed to allow a community consensus to emerge supporting an enhanced blend of services and housing choices. BSH: lead, follow, or get out of the way.
Ed Byrne, firstname.lastname@example.org
Recently, ultraliberal San Francisco recalled its district attorney over a failure to clear the streets of the homeless, proving that even the far left has a limit to the lawlessness it will endure.
Our problem isn’t nearly at that level, but a year ago we approved funds to enforce the removal of homeless encampments, especially in our most cherished spaces. Unfortunately, it hasn’t worked.
I recently rode my bike along the Creek Path and then west to Boulder Canyon. I called that ride the Tour de Homeless because of all the encampments I passed. I was shocked at the vast number of them, especially after approving $2.7 million to clean up these camps and reading reports that 389 camping sites were cleared.
It isn’t just me, either. Reports of encampments have gone up. Los Angeles spent $18 million doing the same thing with no visible change. I’m reluctant to continue this program as currently implemented, since the initial efforts haven’t yielded results.
I don’t know the solution to this problem. No one really does. Obama spent $11 billion dollars on homelessness, targeting 10 cities, and they not only still have chronic homeless problems but some are among the fastest-growing homeless populations.
“Housing First” advocates are aplenty, but this hasn’t been a panacea and is fully critiqued in Michael Schellbacher’s book “San Fransicko.”
There is a moral hazard in providing the homeless, who make our public spaces unpleasant or unsafe, with housing in Boulder, where so many others commute from distant homes because of the high rent.
We want to help the homeless, not reward them for ruining our parks. A safe camping/parking spot could be a small step toward a real solution. Numerous other cities have done this. It isn’t a full solution, but a small step. We can’t just evict campers from parks without an alternate place for them to sleep.
The homeless are not homogeneous. A woman escaping domestic violence has nothing in common with the meth addict living under a bridge. One size definitely doesn’t fit all. The temporarily homeless don’t need the same kind of assistance as the chronically homeless.
Assessing the needs of each person is paramount. It is essential to categorize the homeless in this manner, not to stigmatize them, but to better address the right way to help them.
At a central camping location, we could triage each individual’s needs. Ideally, we’d also offer treatment to ones who need it.
The key to this all, though, is to collect data to characterize our homeless problem. Proposing a solution without fully knowing the problem is putting the cart before the horse.
Bill Wright, email@example.com
Urban camping allows a small group of people to monopolize public spaces intended to be shared by everyone. It generates physical and human waste that harms public spaces, spreads disease and further limits the public’s use and enjoyment of its parks and open space.
Boulder Creek and many of Boulder’s public greenways serve an important role for flood mitigation. Camping impedes flood mitigation and increases the risk of fire. Encampments create risks for vulnerable members of society, and some serve as a base for drug and bike theft operations. For these reasons, Boulder has banned urban camping since the 1980s.
Nonetheless, Boulder is an alluring place to visit and camp, including for those experiencing homelessness. According to screening results for those seeking homeless-related services in Boulder conducted during the first three months of this year, 60% self-reported that they were new to Boulder.
Boulder’s environment and generous services and citizens are a draw. Some of these visitors have no interest in Boulder’s homeless shelter and its rules. On rare occasions, the homeless shelter is full. Yet every day, individuals set up camps and refuse to vacate them, even when asked to do so by authorities.
The removal of their encampments is a last resort. Until 2021, Boulder was outsourcing encampment removal to professionals experienced in hazardous waste removal. That was costly, and the service provider was at times unavailable due to unexpected disaster recovery operations elsewhere.
In an attempt to save money and develop a more flexible response, last year Boulder initiated a two-year pilot program to bring encampment removal expertise and services in house. The public can report encampments, view results on a dashboard updated daily, and learn more about Boulder’s approach on a dedicated section of the City’s website (bouldercolorado.gov/unsanctioned-camping).
Over a seven-day period preceding this writing, Boulder cleaned up 18 campsites, removing two tons of trash. Over the preceding 30 days the city cleaned up 96 campsites, removing 12 tons of trash.
Consider what Boulder might look like absent this program, and consider how many additional people would travel to Boulder to camp if Boulder didn’t remove campsites.
Has Boulder solved urban camping? No. But the city continues to make a good faith effort at balancing the need to protect public space and safety, on the one hand, with the complex challenges associated with homelessness and providing a safety net on the other. I applaud their efforts.
Andrew Shoemaker, firstname.lastname@example.org