A place to go

Boulder is exploring an ‘alternative sheltering’ pilot program for people experiencing homelessness. Here’s what that could look like.

Courtesy Colorado Village Collaborative

There’s a race to end homelessness.

Earlier this summer, Denver Mayor Mike Johnston announced his ambitious goal to house 1,000 people by the end of 2023 after he declared a state of emergency earlier this summer on the issue of homelessness and housing insecurity in Denver. 

The Mile High City is building 11 new “micro-communities” — tiny homes with a healthy mix of supportive “wraparound” services — to help reach that goal. The first site (2302 S. Santa Fe Drive, Denver) is underway.  

Temporary transitional housing is hardly a new solution to homelessness, but it’s increasing in popularity among cities across the nation as a bridge between unsheltered homelessness and permanent housing that takes people off the streets.  

While projects (which are also referred to as safe outdoor spaces or designated camping sites) vary in scope and scale from city to city, they are typically non-congregate settings attached to some level of resources, from mental health and addiction support to WiFi, laundry and showers. Tiny homes, pallet shelters and ice fishing tents are also used.

It’s in this landscape that the City of Boulder is considering an alternative sheltering program (the City’s all-encompassing term) as it looks for solutions to its unsheltered homelessness problem.

Rachel Friend, whose term on council will end next month, has long advocated for this kind of project.

“People are going to be camping,” she says. “So to me there’s a question of where’s the best spot: Is it along the creek, or is it at a sanctioned spot that has resources? I think a spot with showers, bathrooms and staffing resources is better.”

The council has given direction to explore a pilot project, but Boulder is still in theearly stages of conceptualizing a program. While it’s further along in the process than ever before, major details of the project — like who would manage it, cost, structure type and location — need to be worked out before it’s even put to a vote before council. 

But it poses an important question: What could an alternative housing community look like in Boulder? 

Extending dignity

The Colorado Village Collaborative (CVC) is a nonprofit in Denver that operates two tiny home villages and three safe outdoor spaces that mostly consist of insulated ice fishing tents and some pallet shelters. CVC was recently chosen to manage the largest micro-community in Mayor Johnston’s House1000 plan so far (2301 S. Santa Fe Drive), but it also operates programs separate from Johnston’s initiative.  

Cuica Montoya, director of CVC’s safe outdoor space program, says congregate shelters don’t work for everyone experiencing homelessness for a number of reasons. Alternative sheltering can “extend dignity” to those people for whom it doesn’t. 

“Our primary goal is to make sure folks have access to the basic resources that they need to live, even if it’s temporarily in an alternative sheltering program,” Montoya says. “Nobody deserves to not have access to a bathroom or a shower.”

Montoya experienced homelessness in Denver before joining CVC. She was in her mid-30s and had a career in commercial and residential real estate. When a romantic relationship ended, she coped with depression through drinking and drug use that spiraled into housing instability, then homelessness.  

“I experienced homelessness on the streets that I grew up on,” she says.

While today Montoya believes congregate shelters play an integral role addressing homelessness, when she was homeless from 2011 to 2014, she “didn’t hear great things” about larger congregate shelters. So she stayed outside, slept in hotel rooms and couch-surfed when she could. 

During the last point-in-time count when the City of Boulder asked people experiencing homelessness if they occasionally stay in the shelter, more than 90% said no, citing reasons like “prefer to stay outside,” “do not feel safe,” “cleanliness concerns,” “location of shelter,” and “lack of independence.” 

According to the City’s website, “roughly 80% of people experiencing homelessness in Boulder are utilizing some form of sheltering.”

Boulder Shelter for the Homeless (BSH) is a nonprofit that holds most of the city’s sheltering capacity with 160 beds. It also provides wraparound services like meals, counseling and medical care.

Courtesy Colorado Village Collaborative

BSH averaged eight unoccupied beds per night in 2023, according to Boulder’s homelessness dashboard, the lowest annual average since the City started tracking that data in 2017. (The highest was 31 unused beds per night in 2019.) 

The shelter has also turned people away on 10% of nights since 2020 because it ran out of beds. Because emergency beds are first-come first-serve, being turned away could discourage people from seeking shelter in the future. Boulder Shelter is also closed during the day, separates sleeping arrangements by gender and doesn’t allow dogs.  

Boulder’s estimated total sheltering for this winter is 194 to 239, depending on hotel room capacity and overflow space. The total number of people experiencing homelessness is harder to track, even with the City’s latest PIT counts, but Newton says “there’s been an increase in visible unsheltered homelessness.”

Alternative sheltering options like tents or pallet shelters are quick and cheap ways to create shelter. Although Newton says there’s no guarantee people will utilize alternative sheltering at a higher rate than congregate settings, it’s clear they could remove some barriers. 

For example, CVC’s safe outdoor spaces accept people, via referral from street outreach, with partners and pets, are open 24/7 and do not impose a time limit on the duration of residents’ stays; the average stay is nine months. 

“It’s not just a shelter, it’s a program,” says Dede de Percin, chief executive officer at CVC. “If you just build a shelter, and there are no services and supports, it’s not going to work long term. Moving somebody into stable housing requires the time and effort to connect them to services and supports and resource navigation.”

CVC rounds out its safe outdoor space program, which is funded by private foundations and federal dollars from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), by providing meals, bathrooms, laundry facilities, showers, electricity and WiFi. Drugs and alcohol aren’t allowed, but it has harm-reduction policies that allow staff to work with people if they still use drugs. The site also has controlled access — it’s not a walkup shelter — and residents are free to come and go. 

Most of CVC’s staff, nearly 80%, also bring lived experience — including recovery from homelessness, substance use and domestic violence — that staff say helps them connect with residents. Montoya calls this “the secret sauce.”

Newton says Boulder has received feedback from individuals experiencing unsheltered homelessness that one attraction of the safe outdoor spaces is people getting their own space.

Andre DiCarlo, senior program manager of Safe Outdoor Spaces for CVC, says all of that comes together to help people who are coming from “crisis” to take the next step toward housing.

“It’s really hard for anyone to start thinking about higher-level goals when you’re being robbed or swept” by police or city removal teams, DiCarlo says. “Giving people a stable place where they know their stuff is secure and they can come home, get clean and sleep [makes a difference].”

CVC’s safe outdoor spaces haven’t come without challenges. Staffing, funding and site selection are reoccurring organizational struggles. 

Some people are apprehensive to the idea of a safe outdoor space in their neighborhood, with worries surrounding safety, increased crime and disruption (one Colorado Sun analysis found less crime reports in areas with sites). Two lawsuits were filed by residents in the Park Hill neighborhood challenging operating permits given to CVC.  

A recent Westword article cited criticism from residents and past employees about the organization’s claimed disfunction, and described tensions in the Overland Park neighborhood over the city’s nearby micro-community to be managed by CVC.

De Percin says measuring outcomes and defining success is also tricky. It is hard to track how many people are accessing support services, because reporting is voluntary.

“Counting people and nights isn’t sufficient,” she says. 

Out of 469 exits from CVC’s safe outdoor spaces from 2020 to 2023, 50.8% returned to homelessness and 40% went into either permanent or stable housing, according to data from Metro Denver Homeless Initiative published by Denverite

So far this year, about 30% of people who have gone through Boulder’s coordinated entry screenings exited homelessness. 

Programs can measure transitions into permanent housing, but that data is influenced by the amount of available housing resources, which could make the design of the site matter less than how the program fits into the larger housing plan.

“No matter if [people] go into the shelter or an alternative shelter,” Newton says, “if there’s no housing, then the outcomes are not going to be great.” 

Where Boulder sits 

The conversation about alternative sheltering has been discussed by the City of Boulder since 2016. As recently as 2021, City staff recommended against establishing an encampment, citing high costs and other cities’ challenges in managing similar sites. 

In that same report, the City estimated a pilot sanctioned camping program with up to 25 tents would cost $42 per tent, per night, for security and operations. Funds for supportive services were estimated at $1,911.26 per tent, per month. In comparison, permanent supportive housing costs Boulder an average of $1,666 per person, per month. 

While the City staff wrote “most communities have been challenged to successfully manage sanctioned camping,” they noted successful camps are “well resourced, small in scale, have rules similar to shelters, include wraparound services and are managed by well-run organizations.” 

Matt Benjamin is one council member supporting the idea who says it’s time to move it forward. 

“This has been discussed so much that it isn’t a lack of information or analysis, but rather a lack of will to invest in these additional solutions that get people off the streets and into stable environments with services from which they can grow their independence and attain housing,” he wrote in a public email to council. “So many communities around the country have done this. We can easily pick from what works and steer away from what doesn’t.”

Los Angeles, Sacramento, Austin, Salt Lake, Portland, Seattle and Tacoma have pursued similar alternative sheltering projects. 

Boulder’s elected officials will inevitably decide if the City pursues an alternative sheltering project, but the substance of that project is still being discussed. 

In an October meeting, a majority of Council gave Housing and Human Services (HHS) staff direction to explore a one-year safe outdoor space pilot project for up to 30 individuals who are unwilling or unable to live in congregate settings. HHS staff are looking into a wide swath of services and program options for the site to determine costs, impacts and outcomes in different scenarios.

Six locations have been identified as potential sites within the city, including 63rd Street in Gunbarrel, Valmont and Foothills, Pearl Parkway and behind King Soopers on Arapahoe. Most are owned by the City, are about two acres in size and are currently zoned for industrial use.  

City staff are figuring out program cost estimates, which will vary based on location, structure type and what supportive services are offered. 

Adding to the uncertainty are the four new city council members who are taking office on Dec. 7. Staff are expected to present Council with approximate timelines for an operational site and estimate cost alternatives in the next few weeks, with a more formal proposition to be brought forward in early 2024.  

Friend, who will be off City Council by the time it votes on a project, is adamant it should go through.

“It’s something that is needed that is proven to work in some other cities. And it’s something we haven’t tried,” Friend says. “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”