“Get out of Boulder”

How potentially unconstitutional anti-homeless policies and a weak social safety net perpetuate cycles of homelessness


While the dawn stars twinkled on Christmas Eve 2021, Boulder police officer Kevin Granberg beamed his vehicle’s flood lights into Jeni Shurley’s bike-drawn tiny home that she uses as her residence. Shurley was camping in Boulder’s Scott Carpenter Park, an activity that is illegal under the city’s prohibition on sleeping or other “activities of daily living” in public places. 

The officer wrote Shurley a camping ticket, her second in 25 hours. Around 7:30 the morning before, the same officer also ticketed her for camping in Scott Carpenter Park.

Shurley’s tickets were two of the 615 that Boulder police officers issued to homeless residents who violated the city’s camping and tent bans in 2021—a six-year high, according to 2015-2021 data obtained from Boulder Municipal Court. Due in part to enforcement of these bans, Boulder’s homeless residents were on average 53 times more likely to be ticketed for non-violent offenses than Boulder’s housed residents from 2018 through 2021.

During both encounters with Officer Granberg, Shurley says he told her to “get out of Boulder” and go to surrounding cities, including Louisville and Superior. 

Footage of the incidents was requested. City officials said no body camera recording was made of the Dec. 24 interaction; video from Dec. 23 was promised but has yet to be released by Boulder Police Department.

“This is my home,” Shurley says of Boulder, where she first moved in 1996. It’s where two of her three daughters, her son, and most of her community lives. 

For at least 600 years, cities have penalized homeless residents by evicting them from public space and encouraging them to move to other cities. While the focus of penalties has shifted from vagrancy and loitering to camping and sleeping, the substance of official efforts to control and expel the homeless remains the same. 

“When I’m told by the police officers and by policies, ‘You can go anywhere but here,’ that’s what everyone is saying,” Shurley says. “That’s what every city says.” 

Cycles of homelessness

In 2009, Shurley moved to Kathmandu, Nepal. But in 2015, her house and guest house—her residence and primary source of income—were destroyed by an earthquake. With little savings and no insurance to help her start anew, she moved back to the U.S. in 2018 after engaging in relief efforts for three years. 

Jeni Shurley stands in front of her bike-drawn “Gypsy Wagon” — a tiny home on wheels. Photo courtesy of Sam Becker.

“I had no job, I had no connections,” she says. “My whole life had been out of the country for so long.”

The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, a Switzerland-based organization, estimates that 14 million people around the world are thrust into homelessness from natural disasters each year—a number that is projected to balloon as climate change increases the frequency and severity of certain natural disasters.  

Local residents saw what this looks like on New Year’s Eve. Six days after Shurley was ticketed for camping in Scott Carpenter Park, more than 1,000 homes were lost to the Marshall Fire, and thousands of people plunged into crisis.

The majority of those experiencing homelessness in the aftermath of a natural disaster, however, are likely to have been homeless prior to the disaster. They are survivors of more private, slower-moving disasters, including domestic violence, medical debt and serious mental illness.

Shurley is a survivor of both. She first experienced homelessness in Boulder in the mid-’90s after leaving an abusive relationship with her son’s father. A custody battle ensued, which Shurley fought while sleeping on city streets. Financially and psychologically drained, she lost custody of her son.

According to a national survey, 57% of homeless women say domestic violence is the direct cause of losing their permanent home. The violence doesn’t necessarily stop when the abuser is left behind: Homeless women report they are far more vulnerable to physical and sexual assault when they move to hidden and less populated areas to avoid being ticketed by police.

No good place to go

After returning to the U.S. from Nepal, Shurley spent time in Boulder, New Orleans and Los Angeles. In each city, police gave her an ultimatum: accept shelter or be ticketed and told to leave.

She opted for shelter. Each time, staff had the same advice: Follow our rules and you’ll get housing. After months of waiting for housing, it had yet to materialize. Feeling frustrated about the lack of housing and anxious from the lack of privacy and theft she experienced at these shelters, she moved on.

Though 90% of Boulder’s homeless residents say they want housing, few get it. In 2021, only 12% of all homeless residents who completed a screening process received housing. Even those lucky few can wait years  for a voucher or unit to become available in housing-strapped communities like Boulder.

Experts and advocates recommend that people experiencing homelessness be placed into transitional or permanent housing as quickly as possible; Built for Zero, a national movement that works to measurably and equitably end homelessness, recommends that homelessness last no more than 30 days. Beyond that, life expectancy may plummet, and criminal justice and emergency health service expenditures may skyrocket. 

Solutions that add more privacy and autonomy also correlate with better outcomes. Cities that switched their focus from congregate settings to interventions like hotel rooms during the COVID-19 pandemic reported that clients had fewer interactions with police, improved physical and mental health, and quicker exits into housing.

The criminalization that pushes unhoused residents into shelters, Shurley says, “is not to the benefit of the homeless people, it’s to the benefit of the residents in houses who don’t want to see our tents. You’re just shoveling the homeless people into a warehouse and wondering why they don’t want to be there.”

When Shurley most recently returned to Boulder in April 2021, the city’s low-barrier winter shelter had closed. With four dogs, one of which is a service animal, the Boulder Shelter for the Homeless wasn’t an option for her; non-service animals must be kept at the Humane Society of Boulder Valley. 

“There is no way that I would pull myself out of this hole and abandon them after everything we’ve been through,” she says. Her only option was to sleep outside, on the streets she’d lived on 15 years ago.

During the summer and fall of 2021, she wasn’t bothered by police. In early December 2021, that changed. Shurley says Boulder police officers began approaching her regularly: ticketing her for camping, telling her to leave town and threatening to confiscate her belongings.

Despite the lack of evidence that criminalizing the homeless reduces homelessness, Boulder City Council last year reaffirmed its commitment to removing people living in public spaces. A six-member majority passed a tent and propane ban and allocated an additional $2.7 million over 18 months to increase enforcement of these bans—enough money to house 90 of the estimated 100-150 nightly campers in Boulder for one year. 

Boulder is not alone in its efforts to ban unsheltered living. According to a 2019 National Homeless Law Center report, municipal laws prohibiting camping on public property have increased by 92 percent since 2006. 

That’s the cruel irony of being told to go somewhere else by police officers, Shurley says: “There isn’t any good place to go in this country.”

Evolving legal landscape 

Cities’ ability to criminalize and expel homeless people was somewhat limited by a landmark court case in 2018: Martin v. City of Boise. A group of homeless residents successfully sued the City of Boise, Idaho, for violating their constitutional rights by ticketing them when shelter was not available. 

The ruling, tacitly upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, found that doing so violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. That means Boise police cannot ticket homeless residents when shelters are full or inaccessible to those because of sex, sexual orientation, parental status, or physical or mental needs, among other reasons.

Photo courtesy of Sam Becker.

“The lack of humanity of looking at someone and saying, ‘If you can’t sleep in a shelter then you should just leave,’ it hurts,” Shurley says.

The ACLU of Colorado has ramped up its assertion that Boulder’s camping ban is unconstitutional, particularly in light of increasing turnaways at the Boulder Shelter for the Homeless due to capacity constraints. Annie Kurtz, an attorney and Equal Justice Works Fellow at the ACLU of Colorado, has sent one letter to the city and testified at one city council meeting.

“The government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors, on public property, on the false premise they had a choice in the matter,” Kurtz wrote in a Dec. 23 letter to city council. Doing so “is cruel, dangerous and unconstitutional.”

Boulder City Attorney Teresa Tate responded to Kurtz’ Dec. 23 letter via email, writing, “Boulder’s camping law has been found to be constitutional by both the Boulder municipal court and Boulder district courts on each occasion it has been challenged. … ​​Boulder’s laws have been upheld because we are in no way focused on the status of being unhoused.” 

Tate is referring to People v. Madison, a 2010 case in which the Colorado Supreme Court upheld Boulder County District Court’s ruling that the city did not violate the constitutional rights of a homeless man who was ticketed for using a sleeping bag on city land when shelters were full. 

A lot has changed since 2010, Kurtz says: “Our sense of what amounts to cruel and unusual punishment is something that evolved.” 

Tate, who would be in charge of defending the constitutionality of the city’s camping ban in court, declined to comment for this story. 

While Tate is right that Boulder’s camping ban language does not intentionally single out those who are homeless, Boulder’s homeless residents were 2,818 times more likely to be ticketed for violating the camping and tent bans than housed residents in 2021, according to Boulder Municipal Court data. Boise’s camping ban language prior to Martin didn’t discriminate based on housing status, either.

“Boulder’s laws punishing homelessness violate the constitution whether or not their purpose is to single out that group,” Kurtz says. “What matters, ultimately, is whether the effect of the law is to punish homeless residents who have no meaningful choice but to sleep outside in Boulder’s public spaces.” 

“There are a zillion reasons why people sleep outside,’’ says Howard Belodoff, associate director of Idaho Legal Aid, who represented the residents in Martin. Of Boulder’s camping ban, he says, “Somebody has gotta challenge it. 

“They don’t have to reinvent the wheel; just get it in front of a judge.”

Kurtz would not comment on whether the ACLU of Colorado intends to sue the City of Boulder. 

‘I don’t want this for anyone else’

Experts on homelessness concur that laws that criminalize homelessness make life more challenging, more stressful and less safe for homeless residents.

Surveys conducted by the outreach organization Denver Homeless Out Loud Colorado revealed that criminalization of homlessness has successfully moved homeless Denver residents out of central, well-lit areas frequented by shoppers and tourists, but failed to reduce the number of residents experiencing homelessness. Instead, criminalization prolongs homelessness, erodes trust in services and reduces interaction with services in times of need. 

Past attempts to expand low-barrier sheltering options have been rejected by a majority of Boulder’s City Council, acting on recommendations from city staff who argue that any additional funds for homeless services should go toward permanent housing and policing.

The current city council has aligned around the idea of a day shelter, making it a priority for the 2022-2023 work plan.

In the absence of city support, nonprofit organizations have heightened their advocacy for centralized services, safe parking and legal camping. Their advocacy has not included decriminalization, which experts on homelessness say is key for ending cycles of homelssness.

Shurley helped Homeless Cares, a Boulder-based non-profit that provides basic needs to homeless residents, develop its proposal for a sanctioned campground that would be co-governed by the nonprofit and residents living there. She also wants to see the city construct tiny home villages and create safe parking spaces.

“I really worry that if we don’t do something now, there are going to be so many people that live my life,” she says. “I don’t want this for anyone else.”  


Sam Becker is an organizer, writer, and researcher living in Boulder. He volunteers time researching the efficacy of low-barrier services and decriminalization for Wake Up Boulder and a local coalition of nonprofit leaders and citizens, both of which advocate for low-barrier services and decriminalization of homelessness. He also volunteers time distributing survival gear to homeless residents.

Correction: Originally, this article incorrectly stated that initial costs for a new day shelter in Boulder will be funded by part of the $20 million Boulder is set to receive through the American Rescue Plan Act. To clarify: it has only been put forward during council meetings that a portion of the city’s ARPA money be dedicated to a day shelter, but the money has yet to be allocated to any projects yet, according to an email from councilmember Nicole Speer.


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