The good, the bad and the ugly

Ready or not, Boulder City and County change direction in their effort to combat homelessness

There were two major items the Boulder City Council needed to discuss at their meeting on May 16 — how to implement a tax on sugary drinks, and how Boulder was going to solve homelessness. By the time three hours of discussion about the soda tax was complete, there was only enough time, about 45 minutes, to breeze through a presentation of the Homelessness Working Group, which was tasked with coming up with a plan to revamp the city’s homeless services.

The Council had to vote on the sugar tax and merely discuss the homeless strategy, but stripped of this context, the scene was still an apt metaphor for how a lot of homeless people, and those who serve them, view Boulder’s approach to homelessness and its new plan: A well-intentioned afterthought.

Boulder is in the process of implementing a major shift in its homeless services. On May 1, it limited walk-up sheltering as an option for the roughly 1,800 homeless people that enter the city every year, and will effectively remove it by October, and now plans to shift to a system that either puts them in long-term housing or provides short-term support, such as rental assistance or reunification with friends and family. While Boulder charges ahead with its plan, many people experiencing homelessness and their advocates are concerned these changes will not provide an adequate menu of services for the community, which will have immediate consequences.

It was out of an expressed desire to find long-term solutions for day and night shelters that the City devised the Homelessness Working Group, which began meeting in fall 2016. Comprised of service providers and representatives — from Boulder Shelter for the Homeless, Bridge House, Attention Homes and more — and officials from the city and county Human Services departments, the Working Group met about a dozen times, eventually bringing in two formerly homeless people as members.

Then on May 1, even before the Working Group brought its findings to Council (and the public), some homeless services were terminated. Boulder Outreach for Homeless Overflow (BOHO) shutdown, taking away its 40-bed residence facility along with its emergency overflow operation that found shelter for the homeless in rotating churches and synagogues. In addition, a downtown resource center provided by Bridge House also closed. The closings marked the beginning of the Working Group’s intended shift from emergency, walk-up shelters to a program-based solution with more targeted outcomes.

But for many experiencing homelessness, the shift in services was disorienting, even stressful. People weren’t sure where to go to meet case managers and service providers, access meal services, or where to sleep at night given the City of Boulder’s camping ordinance, which prohibits people from sleeping on the streets. For many, there was no longer a space to just be.

“It cost a lot of people a lot of resources,” says David, a Nederland native who has been homeless in Boulder since 2008. “Let’s put it this way: I’ve stopped eating.”

To be sure, there are nuts and bolts issues to still hammer out with the Working Group Plan. But within the homeless and service provider communities, the switch of services has done little to assuage broader concerns about the way the plan was developed, and there are deep disagreements about what the plan actually calls for. What happens with this plan is likely to define homeless services in Boulder County for the foreseeable future, and with Council scheduled to consider the Working Group Plan on June 20, the community still has to address many of these questions.

Boulder Police Officer Jenny Paddock talks with David, who has been living on the street. Angela K. Evans

Changes without input

Boulder’s homeless services have heretofore been fractured between service providers, faith-based groups, food pantries and law enforcement. The impetus for the changes recommended by the Working Group were born out of the desire to streamline those services, and offer people effective solutions, instead of simply offering a bed through a lottery system. Isabel McDevitt, executive director of Bridge House and a Working Group member, says the lottery system approach is “not best practice because it reinforces a lot of friction and trauma for people experiencing homelessness.”

And by making homeless people go to different facilities for different services, “we’ve created more barriers than solutions because there’s so much friction just going around town to get your needs met,” she says.

Heather Pollock, executive director at the nonprofit food pantry Harvest of Hope, agrees. People hang out, eat and drink coffee during the two hours Harvest of Hope is open each afternoon for “people without kitchens.” They access WiFi, charge their phones and receive mail, in addition to shopping in the market. And since the resource center closed, outreach workers from Bridge House come to the pantry three days a week to meet clients, an “unforeseen benefit” Pollocks says.

The plan, as presented to Council, seeks to aggregate services like that on a broader scale. It first calls for a coordinated system of entry for people who look to use homeless services in the city. At the point of entry, which could be a single location, or one of several throughout the city or county, people will be asked for basic information and given an assessment. McDevitt says her organization’s intake system is “not so far off” from what the Working Group Plan could entail.

“We do a welcome meeting, a face-to-face conversation, coupled with a 55-question intake, which is all self-reported,” she says.

After that, the intake manager will separate homeless people into two groups — those with high needs better suited for long-term program help, and those whose issues are short-term and can be resolved through what’s being called diversion. The latter group represents at least 80 percent of the homeless population in Boulder, according to the Working Group, consisting of people who need sheltering eight nights in a row or less. Diversion seeks to offer short-term rental assistance to people, transportation to friends or family who could house them, or even mediation of relationships to alleviate the reason someone is homeless.

To accommodate the high-needs group, the plan increases the amount of long-term housing at the Shelter to 160 beds, a move that will eliminate most walk-up services this October. After some controversy following BOHO’s closing, Bridge House offered to provide 50 walk-up beds just for this summer, and shelter during emergency weather conditions will still be available.

That all looks good, says Working Group member Mike Homner, but there are major issues with how the plan was developed and what it involves.

Homner was homeless for five years in Boulder before he was able to get a house through the city in 2013. He served on the BOHO board for three years. Naturally, he thought himself a logical fit for the Working Group. So after requesting a seat at the table, the City put him and another formerly homeless person on the group. But when Homner attended his first meeting, he found the group had “very quietly … pre-determined what was going to be done, line by line.”

Working Group members were asked to attend different meetings, and some received presentations while others did not, Homner says. Not once could he recall the group ever voting on something.

“It was all pre-determined,” Homner says. “Ron [Eslinger, the other homeless member] and I were tokens to make them look good. … We didn’t have enough meetings and/or time to really do something.”

Rabbi Fred Greene of Congregation Har’Hashem, says his organization and many of the other faith organizations that worked with BOHO to provide rotating shelter locations didn’t know the organization was closing, and were only notified of the Working Group Plan two weeks before it was presented to Council.

BOHO provided a valuable service in an imperfect system, he continues, and there could be serious consequences for the homeless community without a clear plan to replace it.

“The city’s leadership, not just Council, but the business leaders, civic leaders, religious leaders, have all depended on that overflow for way too long,” he says, noting that the organization’s programs saved lives during the winter. “It [was] not a solution, it was just a band-aid. So the fact that BOHO won’t be here to provide that band-aid is challenging.”

There’s been a steady increase of clients at Harvest of Hope each afternoon since the services changed, Pollock says, and since many people experiencing homelessness operate day by day, the questions left unanswered by the long-term plan have left them feeling uneasy.

“Unfortunately, some of our clients expressed that this was sending a message that they’re not welcome here (in Boulder),” Pollock says. “I know that was not the intent, but that was the perception.”

Karen Rahn, Boulder’s director of human services, argues that although the Working Group did work quickly, they operated from a base of knowledge built on years of research.

“We knew it would be a tight timeline but conversations about coordinated entry and intake for homeless individuals had been happening for several years and most agencies and organizations were supportive of the new system of services and recognized we needed to change the system of services to be more effective,” Rahn says in an email.

McDevitt, of Bridge House, says “it was very clear” from the Working Group’s first meeting that the day shelter and BOHO programs were going to end this year. However, closing those services before a Working Group Plan was finalized did concern her.

“Some of us thought that the Working Group was going to address that and efforts to bring that up were not really entertained,” she says.

Sarah Huntley, deputy communications director for the City of Boulder, says without BOHO or a plan in place until fall, sheltering and implementing the new plan “will be a system of trial and error.”

An imperfect plan emerges

The main aspect of the new plan — an entry system where homeless people are assessed and either entered into a long-term program or diverted to a short-term solution — is rife with potential pitfalls.

First, there’s the issue of who is going to be deciding which people get sent in which direction. McDevitt says hiring “psychiatrists and licensed social workers” to run intake stations would require far too great an investment from the public. So the goal would be to use collective experience along with industry standard guidelines to supply intake workers with best practices.

Rahn says “implementation teams” of City and County staff and service providers are currently being formed to determine these standards.

If a person is determined to have short-term needs and is chosen for diversion, the Plan assumes a certain level of self-resolution; that is, with some assistance, the majority of homeless people can find a housing solution.

But diversion will sometimes require mediating potentially volatile relationships, which could pose a liability — what if the city’s homeless services send people back into unsafe situations? Or what if they send an unstable person on a bus to another facility and an incident occurs?

“Because we’re not employing licensed people and homeless service providers aren’t typically licensed, I don’t think liability is a concern,” McDevitt says when asked specifically whether intake personnel are responsible for what happens once a homeless person is diverted. “I think we’re just doing the best with what we have, but the reality is if there’s a public safety concern about somebody, the worst place to be is on the streets.”

Regardless, Rabbi Greene says the City has put too much emphasis on diversion.

“[Diversion] should be perhaps part of the toolkit, but I don’t think that [it] should be the primary funding allocation so that we can just ship people out of Boulder,” he says. “That doesn’t seem compassionate, and it has lots of risk.”

Critics of the prospective plan furthermore question whether and how many homeless people will even be willing to utilize the services when they come with an invasive intake procedure and a system perceived as complicated.

“When Bridge House was doing all the meals, many people would not eat because they didn’t want to go into a system,” Homner said. “We have a lot of mental illness out on the street and [entering the system] is seen as cooperating with the man and that’s not something people want to do with mental illness. Some people are very tough to reach.”

But Bridge House’s McDevitt says “there has to be a practical reality,” and asking a few questions protects the homeless person being asked and the people beside whom he or she would be sleeping.

Nonetheless, many people will choose not to use the services because of the restrictions, Homner says. It will “absolutely” result in continued deaths of homeless people, he concludes, which means the City will have to implement the program proactively with members of the homeless community if it wants to get everyone off the streets.

“We already have a diversion program,” Homner says. “It’s called the police.”

Officer Abel Ramos, Crispy and a friend in Boulder. Angela K. Evans

Challenges in enforcing the plan

In the past, the City of Boulder has put in place several policies that ban camping and smoking in certain areas, and which many advocates say target the homeless community. The ACLU and others have criticized these policies, especially after several reports in 2016 revealed that roughly 85 percent of camping ban violations were given to people experiencing homelessness. It also left law enforcement with few options to offer people when encountering someone sleeping on the streets.

In response, last year the Boulder Police Department (BPD) formed a two-officer Homelessness Outreach Team (HOT) to engage with people experiencing homelessness in a service-oriented way. Officers Abel Ramos and Jenny Paddock, both 20-plus-year veterans of BPD, spend four days a week walking the Pearl Street mall, City Park and other places the homeless hang out, talking with people, connecting them to services and following up with people with whom they’ve previously interacted.

“We’re not enforcement-oriented; in that respect, we don’t write tickets or take people to jail,” Officer Paddock says. “There’s a lot more freedom to spend time with people and address problems.”

While it took a little time, Ramos says there’s a level of trust that allows people to approach the officers and ask for help.

“Now that we’re getting to be known in the homeless community as far as what we do and what we can help with, they call us,” Ramos says. “The phones, at times, they just don’t stop ringing.”

When BW did a walk-along with Paddock and Ramos on 15th Street one morning, several people approached the officers. Some just wanted to chat, others had questions about services. One woman asked for help in order to confirm her court appearance that afternoon, and Officer Ramos made a few calls. Several of them affirm that they do in fact trust the officers.

“I hate dealing with them, but I’ll talk to them,” says Crispy, who has lived “roofless” in Boulder for the past two years. “Dealing with them and talking with them are two different things.”

When Crispy approached Officer Paddock to say hello, Paddock asked, “Have you talked to your mom lately?” Later, Paddock explained that the HOT team is often in contact with people’s families, and the conversations we heard revealed that the officers are invested in some of these people’s lives.

Still, Paddock says, there are times when they have to tell people to move along. They may not have options to offer them, but they do say, “you’ve worn out your welcome here.” Meanwhile, other police officers, not on HOT, remain enforcement-oriented, as the department recently announced it would add overtime patrols in areas with high populations of people experiencing homelessness.

It will be a difficult line to toe if the City doesn’t provide a walk-up shelter, requires entry into a system for long-term shelter and continues to outlaw camping.

“As a community, we have to balance a lot of different interests,” McDevitt says. “It’s OK to say you can’t use this public space as a campground. What’s not OK is not having an alternative.”

Mark Silverstein, the legal director for the Colorado ACLU, also sees potential issues at the crossroads of shifting services and police enforcement.

“If people are prosecuted for something that they can’t help doing and if people are prosecuted for sleeping outside when there is no shelter space available, then that sets up the question about whether the criminal penalties must be considered cruel and unusual punishment,” he says. His argument is backed by a Justice Department letter of interest in a Boise court case challenging that city’s camping ban, which invoked the Eighth Amendment, which deals with cruel and unusual punishment.

“If they continue to prosecute people who don’t have any choice and don’t have anywhere else to sleep, then I think Boulder is probably setting itself up for another court challenge,” Silverstein concludes.

In the City’s defense, Huntley says, this is exactly why they enlisted the help of Bridge House to offer minimal summer shelter beds this summer.

“There was a feeling that we needed to have some sort of short-term option for people because it is really difficult for police officers to encounter someone sleeping in a park and their option is to issue them a ticket, and there’s no place else to give them to go,” she says.   

The proposed Attention Homes apartment building will house previously homeless youth. Courtesy of Attention Homes/Studio Architecture

Examples of success exist

There are models, based on a “continuum of care,” that the City can replicate in order to mitigate legal risks, while providing services necessary to the homeless community.

Attention Homes, for example, has built a system for homeless youth (up to the age of 24) that involves street outreach, drop-in services, an emergency shelter and transitional housing, with plans to build a 40-unit apartment building on the corner of Pine and 15th.

“For the City, a lot of those services have not been well-aligned,” says Chris Nelson, deputy director for Attention Homes. “Somebody couldn’t just meet an outreach worker on the street, and then go get connected to a case worker at a drop-in center and then if they need shelter have a place to stay until they can get the support needed to move into stable housing.”

While Attention Homes serves a significantly smaller population than the adult service providers, it is a case in point of the Working Group’s goals.

“The Attention Homes project … is the absolute best fit for the kind of housing all the people on the Working Group have agreed to,” McDevitt says. “We want permanent solutions, we want housing, we want people to not be homeless anymore and camp by the creek. But yet, there’s so much pushback to actually get it done. They’ve raised a lot of money, they’ve leveraged outside investment, they have a site and they’re ready to go, and yet it’s still a challenge.”

Despite neighborhood concerns on a variety of issues from density to parking to safety, the proposed building at 1440 Pine St. underwent a rigorous Planning Board process and was approved May 30. And although City Council held a public hearing at the June 6 meeting, they deferred to the Planning Board decision and did not vote on the project.

It is modeled after several similar and successful projects already functioning around the country which give young people who’ve been on the streets the chance to have their own apartment while also providing in-building services to help them adjust to independent living.

On-site case managers will help residents with a variety of things, from turning on utilities and budgeting for rent to navigating public transportation and advocating for themselves at jobs or in school. There will also be mental health and substance abuse services for those who need it.

The expectation is that young people will gain the life skills they need to move out of the building within about two years, although there will be no specific requirement to do so. Attention Homes administrative offices will also be on the ground floor, along with a grab-and-go cafe, most likely operated by Blackbelly Market, that will also employ some of the residents.

“This in and of itself is going to help 40 people at a time, it’s not going to change the world or solve the problem,” Nelson says. “But if you look at 60 years of that, let’s say 25 people a year on average, that’s a significant number of people in our community that won’t be homeless.”

Plus, chronic homelessness often starts as early as 15 years of age, he says.

“For every homeless youth that becomes financially self-sufficient, taxpayers save almost $250,000 dollars in social service cost,” adds Claire Clurman, executive director of Attention Homes and a Working Group member.

Similar statistics from the U.S. Department of Housing and Human Services reveal that housing chronically homeless adults saves between $30,000 and $50,000 per person per year. This “housing first” philosophy — offering permanent housing before supportive services — has been proven to reduce homelessness around the country and is the basis for the proposed Working Group plan.

In coming up with approaches to solve homelessness, the City and County have many examples across the country to pull from. Representatives from the Working Group took a trip to Portland and Eugene, Oregon, last year to observe how those cities are managing homelessness. Homner, who was on the trip, says he saw innovative solutions, like a tiny home village, but he is unsure if the lessons of that trip had a real impact on city officials.

“When we went out there, I think the bubble was burst,” he says. “They saw real commitment to homeless issues. When they came back, they did absolutely nothing.”

Rabbi Greene, who moved to Boulder from an Atlanta suburb two years ago, says his former city offered a better continuum of care than Boulder does — an all-in-one resource center and emergency services complemented long-term approaches and collaboration with the community. That, he says, can be achieved in Boulder, but it’s still shocking the City hasn’t developed a plan like this yet.

“Boulder has enough wealth, enough smarts and enough people with an entrepreneurial spirit and gifts to share that there could be leading models of ending homelessness in a city of our size, and I don’t hear anybody talking about that,” Greene says.

Cooperation needed for success

Whether Boulder and the region have the resources to meet the goals laid out by the Working Group Plan likely depends on political will, community support and the funding commitment to see it through. Still, Clurman, Pollock and others say it’s a move in the right direction despite the challenges left unresolved.

“There’s no question that it’s not going to be easy,” Clurman adds. “Everything looks good on paper, right? But then you have to put it into reality.”

And it depends in large part on more affordable and permanent housing solutions for people coming out of homelessness, which as both the investment and timeline for the Attention Homes project indicates, is still several years away.

“We simply do not have enough resources to accommodate the number of people even if we do screen them appropriately,” McDevitt says.

Homner suggests the Working Group purposely underestimated the number of homeless people who would use the services this year and into the future. He says the city hired a consultant who produced an estimate of the number of affordable homes needed to accommodate the program in the next 3-5 years.

“When they came out with [an estimate], everybody gasped,” he says.

Homner says the initial report found that 1,800 people needed to be accommodated, but the Working Group segmented the population down to achieve a goal of 30 new housing units per year. Rahn says the 1,800 includes “light touch users of the current system who may only need short-term assistance.”

Still, the issue remains: Where will these units be located?

Building housing for members of the long-term program will likely not be in Boulder, where securing it is “too expensive and too hard,” says Greg Harms, executive director of the Boulder Shelter for the Homeless and a Working Group member. There was a project planned in Louisville, he says, but it fell through because of a failed federal grant request.

“The goal is not to build more stuff,” Harms continues. “The goal is not to build a new place for diversion beds or a new place for intake; we want to use the existing resources that we have as best we can.

“I don’t think the city is going to spend less money on the homeless in the future. In fact, they’re probably going to spend more. It’s a question of where?”

McDevitt says Bridge House currently spends about $60,000 per year on clients’ needs from refilling prescriptions to paying for bus tickets. That money, which is mostly privately raised (as it is with the Shelter), will be diverted into the new program. But the Plan will most assuredly cost more.

“I think it’s hard to say how much new money would be required until we know where we’re going to land in terms of implementation,” she says.

And about that political will? “I really think we don’t have political leadership in our city, they don’t have the guts to say, ‘We’re gonna do this. This needs to be done,’” Homner says.

Ultimately, the Boulder City Council has the final say over the direction of the program and will consider the Working Group Plan on June 20. Assuming they adopt the plan, there’s a lot left to do before it can be executed by October 1, and it depends on service providers and the City and County working together to make it happen, a point of particular concern among many advocates.

“My perception is that folks aren’t working well together and that it’s siloed,” Rabbi Greene says. “I hope that this is an opportunity for leadership, not just the directors [of service providers] but their boards, the folks that are in the trenches that know this population the best … that they’re going to come together and say, ‘This is how we end this.’”

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