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Debunking 10 myths on Boulder’s camping ban

This article was published by Councilman Bob Yates in his January 2021 Boulder Bulletin.

The text has been copied below and the original article can be found here.


Being compassionate for those who are homeless is not mutually-exclusive with keeping our town safe and clean. We can do both. But, in doing so, we should separate the good work being done to help the homeless from the need to enforce our laws and maintain our community standards. In the past, I have written several articles in the Bulletin about how the city and its nonprofit service providers are addressing homelessness in Boulder. You can find a few of them here and here and here. I support all of these efforts by the city and its partners to help unhoused people find stable housing and to get them the financial and health assistance they need. The city recently announced that, since Boulder’s revamped approach to homelessness began three years ago, more than 1,000 people in our community have exited homelessness. This is truly something to celebrate. But, this article is not about homelessness services. Rather, it is about laws that have been on the books in Boulder for many years and which many in our community do not feel are being adequately enforced these days: Boulder’s bans on camping in public spaces. Like many cities in the United States, Boulder prohibits camping in its parks, on Open Space, and along bike paths and creeks. In addition, it is illegal to be in a city park between 11:00 pm and 5:00 am. And, like many cities in the Mile High Flood District, Boulder prohibits setting up tents in the flood plain. Just two years ago, a transient woman camping along a creek in Lakewood was swept to her death when the waters rose suddenly. And, as Greg Harms, the director of the Boulder Shelter for the Homeless, observes, of the six homeless people who have died of exposure in Boulder in the last two years, five were “seasoned” campers who had camped in Boulder’s parks for a significant time, notwithstanding the availability of safe shelter. So, not only is camping in public spaces illegal, it can be deadly. Over the last few months, city council and city staff have received emails from hundreds of residents expressing concern about what appears to be an increase in camping on Boulder’s public spaces. The advocacy group SAFER Boulder has delivered to the city a petition signed by more than 8,000 people, demanding that Boulder’s camping ban be enforced. We could have a vigorous community debate about whether camping in Boulder’s parks and along bike paths and creeks should be illegal. Each community establishes its own values and norms for public behavior. There is probably widespread agreement that we don’t want people to defecate or have sex in public. Likewise, for many years, the Boulder community has determined that camping on public spaces should be disallowed, for reasons of safety and sanitation. And, as one resident observed to me recently, when a small group of people take over a public space for their own needs to the exclusion of others, the space is no longer public. Boulder’s prohibition on public camping is not unusual. Hundreds of cities across the country, as diverse as Clearwater, Florida, Manchester, New Hampshire, Santa Cruz, and

Colorado Springs, ban camping on public spaces. The number increases every year, with one report indicating that, during the 2010s, there was a 60 percent increase in the number of municipal camping bans nationwide. Bans seem to draw broad community support. Indeed, in 2019, a proposal by activists to abolish Denver’s public space camping ban was defeated when 85 percent of that city’s voters opposed repeal. Based on what the Boulder city council hears from the community, the sentiment is probably similar here. So, why do we see encampments in Central Park, near the Municipal Building and Library, along the Creek Path, and under dozens of bike path underpasses across town? Are those tents there because there are insufficient shelter beds? Are the police restrained in enforcing the camping ban? How has COVID affected things? In an effort to answer these good questions, and to help us prepare for a fact-based city council discussion on encampments on January 19, I have listed below 10 of the misconceptions and misunderstandings that city council hears most frequently from the community. The response to each comes from reliable sources, including the city manager, the director of the city’s department of Housing and Human Services, the police chief, and the director of the Boulder Shelter for the Homeless. These folks are working in the trenches every day. Their jobs are to minimize the number of people who are camping on public space, by providing housing resources and by enforcing our laws. Here’s what they tell us in response to the myths we most frequently hear:

Myth #1: People are camping on public spaces because there are not enough shelter beds. Fact: This is false on most nights and in most instances. The city publishes a dashboard showing the number of people who are sleeping in emergency shelter facilities and how many beds remain unclaimed each night, going back to October 2017. You can see the dashboard here and you can look at the data over any time period you choose using a date slider. You will note that, on nearly every night, there were shelter beds available. Indeed, the demand rarely exceeded the capacity over the course of the last year, with an average of 26 unused beds per night during 2020. Even on the very few nights when there were more people seeking shelter than there were beds available, arrangements were often made with hotels for extra beds, or to transport people to other places where beds were available.

Myth #2: The Shelter turns away people who are intoxicated, who are married, or who have dogs. Fact: This is mostly false. While illegal drugs or alcohol cannot be consumed while actually inside the Shelter, the Shelter does not require sobriety for access to a bed. Rather, anyone who registers through the coordinated entry system and acts respectfully to others is welcome to a bed at the Shelter. People who are married or otherwise in a committed relationship are also welcome at the Shelter, although the Shelter’s sleeping quarters are segregated by gender for safety reasons, and the Shelter does not have the capacity to provide a place for couples to sleep together privately. Service animals are allowed at the Shelter. The Shelter also used to allow pets, but dog messes, dog bites, and threats of lawsuits ended this practice, and people seeking a bed at the Shelter are encouraged to leave their pets with friends or at an animal shelter.

Myth #3: For unhoused people exposed to COVID, there is no place to shelter; or, people shouldn’t go to the Shelter because COVID is rampant there. Fact: This is false. Last March, just as the coronavirus started appearing in our community, the city’s department of Housing and Human Service opened a COVID Recovery Center, first at one of the city’s recreation centers, then at a former church building, where it continues to operate.

At the Recovery Center, unhoused people who have been exposed to COVID, who have tested positive, or who have been discharged from medical care, can live, eat, and recover in a segregated place. Staffed by off-duty city employees volunteering their time, CU students, and other community members, the Recovery Center has housed as many as 17 people at a time, keeping them quarantined from those at the Boulder Shelter who have not had COVID exposure. As a result, the Shelter has had a much lower COVID rate than that experienced in Boulder generally. You can see the nightly census at the COVID Recovery Center here. If you’d like to volunteer to work Recovery Center, drop mean email. Myth #4: Most people who camp in the city’s parks are long-time Boulder residents who are simply down on their luck. Fact: This is mostly false. Prior to the implementation in 2017 of the current system of permanently housing homeless folks, a majority of the unhoused in our community did have long-standing Boulder ties. However, due in part to the success of this program, last year more than two-thirds of the people who sought homelessness services in Boulder had lived in Boulder County for less than six months, with a vast majority of those residing in the county for less than one month. Undoubtedly, a few of the people who are camping in our public spaces are long- time Boulder County residents who are simply financially disabled and who—for some reason— are resistant to seeking the permanent housing assistance that is offered to them. But, our police and social services workers say that this is a minority of those found camping. Indeed, when they clear an encampment, the Boulder Police Department often finds tents filled with illegal drugs, stolen bikes and other stolen property. Sometimes they find illegal guns and evidence of drug trafficking. It is with these criminal enterprise encampments that community members are understandably most concerned. On January 19, city council will be asking the police department what we can do to end them.

Myth #5: City council allows, or even encourages, camping on public spaces. Fact: This is false. Many years ago, the city council passed an ordinance that makes camping in public spaces illegal. That law remains in effect and is supported by the current city council.

While council is prohibited by the City Charter (our local constitution) from directing the police in specific law enforcement actions, council has consistently and repeatedly urged the police department and the city manager to enforce the camping ban. I believe that we will do so again at our city council meeting on January 19.

Myth #6: The hands of the police are tied. Fact: This is mostly false. As with all of the laws in Boulder, our police department has the discretion to enforce the camping ban, with no restrictions or limitations by city council. However, local laws prohibiting camping in our parks and along our creeks are subject to limitations imposed by the United States Constitution. And, so, while some residents may wish that our police could be even more proactive in enforcing the camping laws, the police are constrained by what the Constitution prohibits, as interpreted by the courts. Our police department and city attorney’s office closely monitor court rulings in other jurisdictions and try to strike a balance between the expectations of the community and Constitutional limitations.

Myth #7: The city’s laws are weak, or we don’t give the police the resources they need to enforce the camping ban. Fact: This is false, based on what the police have consistently told us. City council frequently asks the police chief whether the laws are adequate and the resources sufficient for her team to keep our community safe. So far, she has told us that they are. If there ever came a day when the police chief told us that we need to adjust the city’s laws or give the police additional resources, I believe we would provide those. We are going to confirm this with the police chief and the city manager again when city council discusses this topic with them on January 19. Myth #8: The Boulder police don’t enforce the camping ban. Fact: This is mostly false, although there is often a significant delay between the report of a camping violation and law enforcement. Those who don’t like Boulder’s camping ban claim that Boulder is tougher on public camping than any other city in Colorado, asserting that Boulder issues more camping ban tickets than all of the other Colorado cities combined. Regardless of whether this is accurate, over the last few months, the police department has cleared more than 100 encampments in Boulder, with new enforcement activities occurring nearly every week. However, one thing that many people(including me) would like to see changed is the practice of the police and city staff to give those camping illegally several days’ notice before enforcement is undertaken. What invariably happens is many campers simply move around from one site to another, avoiding any consequence of the violation of law. I’m not aware of any other Boulder criminal law where the perpetrator is allowed by the police to continue to violate the law for several days before actual enforcement begins. Perhaps if there was immediate enforcement, combined with an offer of transportation to the Shelter, there would be fewer violations. This is another thing that council will be discussing with city staff and the police on January 19.

Myth #9: The county jail is closed and so the police can’t arrest campers. Fact: This is partially true and partially false. There is one jail in Boulder County, used by all of the county’s cities, including Boulder. The jail is operated by the county sheriff, over whom neither the Boulder police department nor the Boulder city council has any authority. It is true that, due to COVID, the county sheriff has reduced the number of jail beds available by about half to reduce outbreaks there and, as a result, will only accept those arrested for violent or other

serious crimes. This means that people who otherwise would have been arrested in pre-COVID times for less serious offenses are not currently being arrested, because there is no place to put them. However, even before COVID, the police generally did not arrest violators of the camping ban, which is a misdemeanor offense. In the course of issuing a citation for a camping violation, if the police discovered a more serious crime, like possession of illegal substances or an outstanding bench warrant, then, in the pre-COVID days, the person might have been arrested and taken to jail. It is many of these collateral arrests which are not happening, due to the COVID-caused reduction in jail beds. With that said, if the police discover a serious or violent crime in the course of investigating a camping violation, they still can, and sometimes do, arrest the person.

And the reduction in jail capacity is temporary, likely to be rolled back as the health crisis eases later this year.

Myth # 10: The city plans to set up a sanctioned campground. Fact: This is false. Well-intended residents have proposed that the city set up a sanctioned campground, away from our parks and common spaces, that could be safe and sustainable. However, our local homelessness experts have warned that this is a bad idea, for several reasons: First, they say, it is not apparent that sanctioned camping—even if it could be done safely— would be fiscally viable when compared to the current solutions of bricks-and-mortar sheltering, followed by permanent housing solutions. Second, people who camp in sanctioned campgrounds are still homeless and, unless they participate in the coordinated entry system that ultimately places people into stable and permanent housing, they may remain homeless indefinitely. Third, cities that have experimented with sanctioned campgrounds, like San Diego and Portland, have found that demand almost always outstrips supply; word of a sanctioned campground gets out and large numbers of people from out of town flock in to camp. Finally,those who use their tents in Boulder’s central locations to further criminal ventures are unlikely to move to a well-policed, sanctioned campground outside of town; they are probably more likely to keep camping where they do now. As summarized in a July 14 memo to city council, city staff has examined sanctioned campgrounds in other cities and they report that they have been warned by their peers in those cities that we should not try it in Boulder. Those cities tell us that sanctioned campgrounds are expensive to maintain, are often unsafe and unsanitary, and add little value when there are good bricks-and-mortar alternatives already available. Many of those cities have said that they have regretted experimenting with sanctioned campgrounds, and some have stopped using them. For all of those reasons, there is currently no plan by the city to open a sanctioned campground in Boulder. * * * * * Addressing homelessness is, and always has been, challenging. And neither camping in public spaces nor living in temporary shelters are good long-term solutions. The true solution to homelessness is permanent housing, paired with financial stability and good mental and physical

health. Over the last three years, we have helped more than 1,000 people exit homelessness. We’ll keep at it.

But, those who take advantage of this community’s compassion for the unhoused to engage in criminal activity invariably erode the community’s support for programs aiding those who truly need and want help. We can be compassionate for those in need, while keeping our town safe and clean. But, in doing so, we need to separate our policies on helping the homeless from enforcing our laws. Being homeless—or claiming homelessness—does not exempt one from honoring our community values. By preserving and equitably sharing our public spaces, Boulder can be clean, Boulder can be safe, and Boulder can be compassionate.

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