Ease the harm

Tent fires fuel debate on Boulder’s camping ban

Photo by Jeff DeMeyer.

On a Friday afternoon, student-athletes from Boulder High School were practicing at Christian Recht Field. Around 4:30 p.m. people reported hearing “small explosions.”

As students evacuated the field on March 17, Boulder Fire-Rescue responded to a tent fire. There were no known injuries. The department confirmed there were propane tanks “on fire and off-gassing” at the fire, but was unable to say exactly what started the fire.

The tent and everything inside were destroyed. 

The following Tuesday, the fire department responded to another tent fire near the turf football field under similar circumstances, this time spreading to a nearby tree that got “significantly” burned, according to the fire department’s incident summary.  From Wednesday night to early Thursday morning, the department responded to five more reports of “unauthorized” fires — those in violation of the City’s permanent ban on open burns — in unhoused encampments. 

Fires in encampments do happen, but the amount of blazes in mid-March was above average, according to Marya Washburn, public information officer at Boulder Fire-Rescue. 

There were 297 total confirmed fires in Boulder in 2022. That year, the fire department dispatched staff to 95 fires in locations where it typically engages with the unhoused community, including the Boulder Creek Path, Foothills Parkway corridor and the Goose Creek Path, according to Washburn. 

So far this year there have been 20 reports of unauthorized fire calls to those locations, but Washburn emphasized that those fires weren’t all necessarily started by unhoused communities. The department doesn’t record data regarding housing status during dispatch calls. 

Boulder City Councilmember Nicole Speer says the fires make her concerned for everyone’s safety — from the people experiencing homelessness in tents to high school students nearby. 

“People need to stay warm if we don’t have shelter for them,” says Speer. “So if we don’t want folks to have propane tanks and things that are going to catch on fire, what are we doing to provide alternatives?” 

To many in the community — many of whom have different ideas on the subject — this spate of fires highlights Boulder’s homelessness problem and the lack of alternatives for people experiencing homelessness. 

“Our current strategy is not working,” says Boulder City Councilmember Matt Benjamin.

A divided community

Since the City cut the number of overnight beds in 2020, Boulder Shelter for the Homeless hasn’t had the capacity to provide space for the approximately 450 unhoused residents in the city.

The impacts of not providing adequate resources, like shelter, to people experiencing homelessness has resulted in compounding consequences across the community. 

Benjamin says it’s an “emotional” topic for divided community members, making already anchored opinions hard to sway. But he thinks that is part of what’s prolonged the problem.

“Each side of the homelessness debate has to recognize that the other side has very valid points, and that those needs still need to be met,” he says. “And quite honestly, each side has to be able to give and get in order for us to incrementally make improvements here.”

After the fires near Boulder High on March 17, the high school wrote a letter to families and staff on March 21 promising to increase its “security presence” on paths adjacent to the school. 

Some parents of Boulder high schoolers are taking it upon themselves to address their safety concerns because of “the lack of leadership and lack of action” from the “City Council, City Manager and BVSD,” according to Safe Zones 4 Kids, a ballot initiative started by a group of Boulder parents.

Safe Zones 4 Kids was started in October 2022 to establish a “priority enforcement zone” of ordinances like the camping and propane tank ban 500 feet from school property lines and 50 feet from multi-use paths and sidewalks.

Jud Valeski, a Boulder High School parent involved with Safe Zones 4 Kids, said in a text that he wants to put a buffer between students and “significant adult challenges associated with City of Boulder prohibited items.”

According to the City, 354 propane tanks were confiscated between January 2022 and February 2023. 

The Safe Zones 4 Kids initiative, which has a Boulder Direct Democracy Online petition with more than 120 signatures, calls the paths around Boulder High unsafe, and says the recent fires show “immediate danger to our students.” If the petition reaches 3,437 signatures, it will be put on the ballot for City of Boulder voters this November. 

Jennifer Rhodes, a parent of two teenage daughters in the BVSD system who helped start Safe Zones 4 Kids, says the ballot measure could help protect kids from “harassment and other inappropriate adult behavior.”

“We don’t want to wait and see what happens while the City continues to ignore its own prioritization matrix and ponder the issue for months on end,” she wrote over email.

On its website, the City writes that because Boulder’s camping policy enforcement is citywide, a safe zone around schools “would not add to Boulder’s enforcement toolkit because camping is already banned near schools and in all other public spaces.”

Boulder Fire Chief Michael Calderazzo said in an email that the recent fires are concerning for our community.  

“We do consider these fires a wildfire start risk, as are any fires that occur in location or conditions where a fire could spread quickly,” he wrote.

As part of its 2023 budget, the City is allocating $1.3 million to its Safe and Managed Spaces program to add an additional “encampment management” team to “keep up with demand.” 

According to the City, the encampment management team has seen “many successes” over the last year, including “389 encampments successfully cleaned, 106 tons of trash removed from public spaces and waterways, over 5,000 downtown graffiti trash removal response, and 174 connections between people experiencing homelessness and service providers.”   

On March 29, the City adjusted its policy that gave people participating in unsanctioned camping a 72-hour notice to clean up and leave. Now, the City can clear a person or property without notice when a city street or multi-use path obstruction creates a “significant potential for an accident or harm to other path users.”

Dan Williams, a Boulder-based attorney representing plaintiffs in the ACLU’s lawsuit challenging the City’s camping ban, calls the policy a “cruel and unconstitutional policing-first strategy.”

“The City knows full well that without safe and welcoming places for people to go, it’s just shuffling people from one place to the next, meaning its newly revamped enforcement policy is doomed to fail just as badly as the City’s current encampment removal policy,” Williams wrote in an email. 

Homelessness advocates like Boulder nonprofit Feet Forward say the City needs more options and resources, including inpatient care, to mitigate the rise of unmanaged mental health and addiction rates in the unhoused community. 

According to its website, the City is still in the design phase of its proposed Homeless Day Services Center after Boulder Shelter for the Homeless (BSH) expressed interest in operating the space. 

The center would provide a “collection of services,” according to the City’s website, but no overnight shelter. Properties are being evaluated for the center’s location by the city. 

Colorado struggles to offer support for unhoused communities state-wide — ranking 45th nationally in prevalence of mental illness (including substance use disorder) and access to care. Low-ranked states have high rates of mental illness, lower access to care, according to Mental Health America (News, “Troubled waters,” Feb. 16, 2023). 

Councilmember Speer says there needs to be other options for people experiencing homelessness if “we’re not willing to put them in homes or in shelter.” 

“People are not going to stop being cold if they don’t have shelter,” she says.

A place to be

Boulder City Council will discuss homelessness at its April 13 meeting. Benjamin says he anticipates discussion around a sanctioned camp zone, something he says has been brought up during his tenure on council before.  

The idea is to establish a safe area where people experiencing unsheltered homelessness can camp legally, not in public spaces. 

The Colorado Village Collaborative (CVC) is establishing and operating Safe Outdoor Spaces around Denver that are “healthy, secure, staffed, resource- and service-rich environments that provide an outdoor, individualized sheltering option for people,” according to the organization’s website. These spaces also have resources like bathrooms, showers, electricity, and services like housing and employment referrals. 

At the beginning of March, Denver City Council approved a $7.5 million contract extension for CVC to operate through 2024.

Benjamin says one of the main barriers to establishing that resource in Boulder is figuring out where to put the encampment in a city with few open lots. 

“At the end of the day, we need to be able to support our unhoused so that they can feel safe, secure and have a place to be while they’re working through trying to get back on their feet and get the services and support they need,” he says.  

No matter the solution, Benjamin says it isn’t realistic to end homelessness. Instead, he hopes to find a balance. 

“We’re just trying to ease the suffering and ease the harm for those that are unhoused and find a way to help as many [people] as we can with the resources we have,” he says, “while providing the least amount of harm to the rest of the community. 

Correction: A previous version of this story conflated Safe Zones 4 Kids’ change.org petition, which has more than 2,400 signatures, with its Boulder Direct Democracy Online petition, which has 129 as of the morning of Thursday, April 6.


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