Zoe Rhodes-Wolin, a ninth grader at Boulder High School, bikes to school with her little sister along Boulder Creek Path, until Rhodes-Wolin recently decided to take Arapahoe Avenue instead.
“Men who are hanging around the bike path have yelled at me, made lewd comments, asked for me to give them a ride, jumped out in front of me, blocked my path, yelled at my sister,” she told Boulder City Council at a regular meeting on Oct. 6. “And it has made us feel unsafe. This is not how it should be. We should feel safe riding … on a bike path for 10 minutes.”
Once a crown jewel of Boulder, the Boulder Creek Path has become an epicenter of community outcry.
Numerous community members, from public officials and downtown business owners to young people, have raised concerns about safety on the path — citing harassment and altercations on the public space from people experiencing homelessness.
Last year, Boulder’s Convention and Visitors Bureau took the creek path off its website of tourist destinations “because of increased crime and safety concerns around the path,” director Charlene Hoffman told Boulder Weekly in an email.
Hoffman didn’t respond to requests for a more in-depth phone or in-person interview, but wrote that, “for a variety of reasons, there is no intention to draw attention to the evolving approach to solving issues people are experiencing on the Boulder Creek Path.”
Boulder County residents interviewed for this story talked broadly about crime and safety — some spoke about harassment and other incidents that went unreported to the police. But people also spoke to a sense of being unsafe that didn’t necessarily depend on them experiencing crime.
Examining three years of police reports involving the creek path, Boulder Weekly found no significant increase of reported crime. But there are criminal behaviors along the creek path, driven by a rise in unmanaged mental health and addiction, an understaffed police department responsible for addressing and reporting crime, and conflicting systems that keep people cycling through the court system.
The City of Boulder’s Crime Dashboard has public-facing data, but doesn’t filter specifically for crime on the Boulder Creek Path.
However, the City keeps records of police dispatches to the creek for up to three years, which show 154 dispatches in 2020, 145 in 2021 and 131 in 2022. From Feb. 8, 2020 to Feb. 7, 2023, there were 436 total instances of police being dispatched to the creek path area.
Of those 436 calls, 92 were due to behaviors like harassment, assault, weapon, criminal misdemeanor, drug violence, menacing, suspicious activity and theft. Many more were filed as nonviolent, like loitering or animal
At the city level, according to the Colorado Department of Public Safety, the Boulder Police Department has seen a three-year increase of drug law violations since 2020, and an upward trend of violent crime since 2019.
In a “deep-dive analysis” of Boulder County, nonprofit criminal justice organization Vera found people experiencing homelessness were disproportionately represented in felony charges (10%) between 2018 and 2019. Boulder County District Attorney Michael Dougherty says those felony charges include “violent and serious criminal offenses.”
In the same Oct. 6 City Council meeting where Rhodes-Wolin spoke, Boulder Police Chief Maris Harold said the department had been understaffed for the last two-and-a-half years, had mandated overtime for officers, and asked SWAT officers to go into “soft uniforms” and patrol the greenways “as much as humanly possible.”
While sources interviewed for this story didn’t point directly to an increase in crime on the creek path, it doesn’t change the perception for many residents, including local filmmaker Bruce Borowsky.
Borowsky has been in Boulder for 32 years and lives downtown. He says he’s felt unsafe near the creek for the last few years.
“When my wife walks home by herself at night, I’m worried,” he says. “I never used to be worried and I know a lot of people in the community who feel the same way.”
Peter Waters, the owner of T/aco, says an increase in violent behavior over the last two years around his restaurant in downtown Boulder, two blocks off the creek path on Walnut Street, has impacted business.
Boulder County District Attorney Michael Dougherty is aware of these concerns.
“I’ve heard concerns, valid concerns, from community members about community safety and well being, particularly around the creek area,” he says.
And while some community members report incidents on the creek path, there’s also reluctance to speak out. One resident Boulder Weekly spoke with says her son fears the creek path after being verbally harassed by someone experiencing homelessness. The mother, who has lived in Boulder since 1993, requested to remain anonymous because “this is such a heated topic and I’d hate for me or my son to be the target of anything.”
Community members experiencing homelessness also face safety concerns, both on and off the creek path. Dougherty says he currently has cases — including murder, attempted murder, arson and serious assaults — with unhoused individuals as victims.
These experiences stem from a complex array of causes, including unmanaged mental health and addiction within the unhoused community, reduced capacity in the justice system and repeat offenders — all within a state that ranks 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.
Jen Livovich has spent 11 years around homelessness in Boulder, experiencing it herself and later providing low-barrier services like food and clothing to people experiencing homelessness through Feet Forward, the nonprofit she founded in 2020. She lays out the complex issue plainly.
“We have multiple intersecting systems that are failing,” she says.
A changing community
Tracking the number of people experiencing homelessness in Boulder is difficult. According to estimates from the 2022 Point in Time Count, which calculates the unhoused population over one night every January, there were 457 people experiencing homelessness in Boulder County. Results from the 2023 PIT Count will be released this summer.
One of those people is Nicole, who has experienced homelessness in Boulder since 2019. Originally from Pennsylvania, this is her second time without a home in Boulder.
She’s sitting on a bench with her dog, Daisy Mae, near the Bandshell at Feet Forward’s Tuesday in the Park event. She goes every week.
With the exception of her boyfriend, she says she stays away from people and the creek path, which has helped her stay sober for a year and two months.
She thinks the way housed residents treat people experiencing homelessness has changed since she was first homeless in Boulder in 2015, and that people are less supportive of the homeless community now.
“The way people that don’t support the homeless treat us, it’s like bugs needing to be squashed,” she says. “People don’t care. They don’t care.”
During her first experience with homelessness in Boulder, she says, “things were kept up better and we didn’t destroy things as much as it’s being done now.” Today she feels like the unhoused community doesn’t take care of each other like they used to. She says the actions of the few make it hard for her and others who have goals to rebuild themselves.
“Some people, and it’s usually the same couple of groups you’ll see, make it bad for the rest of us,” she says.
Justice, mental health, addiction
Dougherty at the DA’s office says the pandemic had a “tremendous” impact on the justice system. He saw a rise in criminal activity around the county, in addition to an increase in people struggling with mental illness and drug addiction, which continues today.
For example, the Boulder County Jail was forced to reduce its capacity due to COVID-19 protections, “leading many exiting the jails to the streets,” according to the City.
State data shows that the Boulder County Jail had half the bookings in the third quarter of 2022 (1,031) than it did before the pandemic in the first quarter of 2020 (2,025).
Some of those bookings would have come through the Boulder Municipal Court, which has jurisdiction over certain offenses, like violations of city ordinances and misdemeanor criminal offenses from within city limits.
Boulder’s Community Court program is a voluntary diversion program that attempts to “hold participants accountable while connecting them to social services to help address the root causes of crime.” Most violations addressed in Community Court (including camping violations, alcohol or marijuana in public, public urination) are often committed by people experiencing homelessness.
Through this program, low-level offenses can be removed from someone’s record if they comply with orders from the municipal judge, like signing up for food stamps or getting a copy of their birth certificate.
According to Shannon Aulabaugh, communication manager for the City of Boulder, “it is common, normal and expected that Community Court clients will return repeatedly until the goal of housing is reached.” She says seven “high utilizers” of the Community Court system accounted for 988 Municipal Court violations until they were housed.
Sarah Huntley, director of communication and engagement for the City of Boulder, says there are 45 people on the county-wide “high utilizer” list (does not include the seven high utilizers of the Boulder Municipal Court) who have had “many contacts across the county with courts, hospitals and emergency services.”
Huntley says while someone who is on the high utilizer list may participate in criminal activity on the creek path, “it would be presumptuous to say the two are linked in a substantial way.”
Dougherty says there have to be consequences for criminal conduct.
“We’re not doing right by anybody if someone comes into Municipal Court 30, 40 or 50 times … Think about the impact on that person’s rights, the court system and the community as a whole,” he says. “Each time they’re touching the Municipal Court system, there’s an opportunity for us as a society to ensure that they’re not going to return.”
Nicole has been in Boulder’s court system, but didn’t share on what account.
“It’s a black hole. Once you’re in it you might as well kiss your butt goodbye,” she says. “Because it’s a revolving door, like, [we] can’t get [ahead] because we’re out here. There’s no place for us to be safer or to be sanitary.”
Dougherty points to the fact that most people who commit a crime will be reintegrated “back to our community.”
“We’re not able to jail our way out of this crisis,” he says. “Because if someone spends five days in the jail, day six they’re back out exactly where they were before.”
Livovich, with Feet Forward, says there are multiple conflicting systems on top of limited treatment options for people.
“We’ve got people with under four grams [of illicit drugs like meth] being booked and released, and other low-level homelessness charges being quashed,” she says. “A decades-long police plan to evict and clean up campers, that costs a ton of money and has not reduced the visibility of homelessness nor ended homelessness.”
She says people experiencing homelessness need more options and resources, including inpatient care, for the rise of unmanaged mental health and “skyrocketing” addiction rate in the unhoused community.
“We need to address the root causes that lead to the behaviors that make people feel unsafe,” she says. “It all goes back to our well-known deficiency in mental health and addiction programs, and [solutions] cannot be outpatient. They must be rooted in community, which is central to homeless people, and provide a stable place to live.”
Dougherty says there’s a “glaring need” for mental health and treatment services throughout Colorado, which can drive criminal activity.
Nicole says she’s been trying to find mental health services for months and that most of the people she knows who are experiencing homelessness have mental health issues.
Meth use in the community has also been more apparent lately, with the main branch of Boulder’s public library and a restroom in the downtown Boulder RTD station closing recently due to meth contamination.
During Livovich’s “time outside” from 2012 to 2017, she says if people struggled with addiction, it was mostly alcohol. Sometime in 2016, “meth crept in and grew to be a far more cost-effective habit.” When she came back to the community looking for ways to support it after being housed, she was surprised to see how prevalent its use was.
Data reflects Livovich’s observations. The Colorado Department of Public Safety found that within the total drug seizures by the Boulder Police Department, the percentage of stimulants seized, including meth, more than doubled between 2017 (19.7%) and 2018 (42.1%). Today, 49.3% of drug seizures in 2022 were of stimulant drugs.
“If we address some of the very known voids, these other components that intersect with safety, like poverty and unmanaged mental health and addiction, we would see a reduction in community members not feeling safe” in public spaces like the creek path, Livovich says.
Livovich says having alternative places for people experiencing homelessness to stay could help community members feel safer.
“Whether you’re coming from a place of compassion, public health or public safety,” she says, “if you don’t want people camping along the creek and in other public spaces, you’ve got to create alternative places for them to be.”
One such space in development is the County’s Project Recovery, where Tribe Recovery Homes, Inc. will manage three recovery homes that will provide mental health, substance-use and trauma treatment. The City of Boulder is using money from its Affordable Housing Fund to purchase a home for the project, set to open in early 2023.
Dougherty is hopeful about the coming year. He says the court system is no longer “limping along,” and officials can make decisions without limitations imposed by the pandemic, such as reduced capacity at the Boulder County Jail. The Boulder Police Department also recently hired 20 new officers, but Dougherty made it clear that we cannot incarcerate our way out of these issues.
“If we really want to make communities safer and help people along the way, it has to be a multi-pronged response, including that behavioral-health treatment piece,” he says.
To that end, the Boulder Creek Path is at a crossroads — whether increased crime on the public space is a perception or reality.
“I want my wife to be able to walk home safely living downtown,” Bruce Borowsky says. “I don’t think that’s asking too much.”