Boulder City Council gives initial OK for $2.7M to clear homeless encampments and hire more ‘eyes on the ground’

Initiatives would increase the policing and enforcement of the city’s camping ban without providing housing solutions

A man who gave his name as Jeff sits at an encampment on the Boulder Creek path near Athens and 17th streets in Boulder on April 28, 2021. (Derek Miles for Colorado Newsline)

Boulder City Council members on Tuesday night gave the green light for city staff to move forward with four proposals that would ultimately increase the policing of people experiencing homelessness and the enforcement of the city’s camping ban. 

Council members unanimously supported creating an encampment cleanup team to be located within the city’s Utilities Department. The four-person team would be tasked with clearing homeless encampments throughout the city with support from law enforcement, as well as helping with other routine maintenance.

Currently, Boulder pays an outside contractor, Servpro, to conduct encampment clean-ups for around 20 commonly occupied areas. Two to four sites are cleared every other week, according to a staff memo that was distributed to council members. On any given night, there are approximately 100 to 150 people sleeping outdoors in Boulder, according to staff.

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“The current staff are really impacted by this work, partly because there’s not enough resources to do it all,” said Kurt Firnhaber, director of the city’s Housing and Human Services department, told council members during the study session on April 27.

The other three proposals, which weren’t universally supported but ultimately given the green light, included creating a pilot ambassador program that would provide more “eyes on the ground” for law enforcement; funding two unarmed park rangers to help police public spaces and issue citations; and adding six specially trained police officers to support both teams and to be present during encampment clearings.

The initiatives would cost nearly $2.7 million over the course of 18 months. City council will discuss adjustments to the city budget on May 18, according to council staff. But staff members got the go-ahead to start implementing their plans during the April 27 meeting.

“Police resources are essential for our utilities or parks or other departmental staff to be able to perform the work safely,” said Joe Taddeuci, the city’s Director of Public Works for Utilities. “There really isn’t an option to make the internal crew a workable solution without the police support.”

More ‘eyes on the ground’ for Boulder’s public spaces

The 18-month ambassador pilot program, which would cost the city $568,000, would increase uniformed presence in busy public spaces in Boulder to “create a warm and inviting atmosphere for all,” according to the memo. 

The goal would be for the ambassadors to address less serious code violations to lessen the burden on the police department. But the program comes with a request for more police as well.

“We acknowledge that any additional eyes on the street that we’re proposing through this work will require additional presence from the Boulder Police Department,” Cris Jones, deputy director of community vitality, told City Council members, adding that the ambassador team leader will be in direct contact with BPD.

The ambassadors, who would be trained in de-escalation tactics, would educate people on what is deemed acceptable behavior in public spaces — including applicable laws related to loitering, walking dogs on the downtown Pearl Street Mall, riding bikes on sidewalks and smoking in public. Ambassadors could also perform maintenance requests such as cleaning graffiti, removing trash and monitoring public bathrooms.

A handful of council members expressed the need for staff to determine specific performance outcome goals for the programs.

“It’s critical to collect real data, and both to track outcomes and determine the efficacy of this program. It’s not a cheap program,” said Council Member Mark Wallach. “If we’re going to spend this money and go down this road. We do need to know that it’s impactful at the end of the day, so that we can make a determination as to whether or not it’s renewed after 18 months, or we take a different path.”

Staff members also gave a presentation on the possibility of implementing a safe outdoor space in Boulder, similar to what has been established in Denver and other cities around the country, but council members quickly shot it down.

Some council members expressed concerns that the city lacked the financial resources necessary and that there isn’t enough indication that the efforts would be successful. The estimated cost to create a sanctioned camping site for 25 people was $716,722, or 1,911.26 per tent each month. 

The staff’s analysis showed that providing permanent supportive housing is cheaper for the city than establishing sanctioned camping or providing hotel rooms. For a person accessing permanent supportive housing, the cost to the city would be $52.62 per night compared to $59.55 for sanctioned camping and $60 for a hotel room.

$1.5 million increase to police budget

Three City Council members took issue with the requests to add more money to the Boulder Police Department’s budget to hire additional police officers. The total cost for the additional officers would be $1.5 million, including salaries, additional vehicles, training and outfitting.

“The ambassador and park rangers programs were sort of pitched to me by several people as an alternative to policing,” said Rachel Friend, a Boulder City Council member. “So, I’m disappointed that this request came with a request for more officers.”

Council Member Adam Swetlik had similar concerns, saying there was little in the proposals that would provide support for people experiencing homelessness or offer housing solutions.

A man camps near the Boulder Creek path behind Boulder High School in Boulder on April 28, 2021. (Derek Miles for Colorado Newsline)

“I’m looking for new solutions and additional police isn’t a new solution,” he said. “To me, if that $1.5 million is still on the table, I would love to put that towards transitional housing or to start eliminating the reasons why people can’t go to shelter or won’t go to a shelter.” 

“There’s still holes in our shelter system,” he added. “There’s still holes in our transitional housing system. There’s still holes in our system for health care, especially around substance abuse and mental health issues. And I really think it’s important that we balance our approaches, so it’s not just enforcement based but it’s also service based.”

Maris Herold, Boulder’s new chief of police, said the department needs dedicated staff if they are expected to assist at encampment sweeps. Currently, three to 12 police officers are present when individuals are forced to move along during a homeless sweep. 

Boulder police already have a two-person homeless outreach unit, but the new six-person team would operate separately, according to Herold. She said they would receive specialized training on how to interact with members of the unhoused community.

“So, they’ll receive a lot of training from the (homeless outreach team), but I think the work will be completely separate and will be much more robust crime prevention and problem solving,” she added.

The funding request comes as the department is already down on staff. BPD is authorized to have 184 officers, but it currently only has 145 that are “fully operational” due to vacant positions, people being away on training or on family or injury leave.

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The chief said during the meeting that it’s been hard to fill the positions that are currently vacant, and that it will likely be similarly challenging to fill the new positions. Like other police departments, BPD has struggled to recruit and retain officers. Regardless of having less staff and therefore fewer salaries to pay, she said more financial resources are still needed. 

“I am hoping to remarket this and that we have success recruiting officers that have much more of a service-minded aptitude,” Herold told lawmakers.

Friend questioned the need for armed law enforcement officers during the encampment sweeps in the first place.

“My daughter and husband both work in an emergency room and they frequently go into rooms where there are people who are violent or refuse to leave, they get spit on and peed on, but they do not go into those rooms with three police officers, even though that’s a common outcome,” she added.

Unclear outcome goals

When Swetlik asked staff members if the initiatives would decrease illegal camping in the city, he was met with a noticeable silence.

“I definitely don’t have a percentage and I don’t have input on whether it would contribute to decreased camping,” said Alison Rhodes, director of Boulder Parks and Recreation, who presented the park ranger program.

“I think that the answer is, we need to evaluate the work,” Herold said. “I think what you’re asking is very fair. And I think that’s why we’re looking at this as a pilot project program that needs to be evaluated.”

People experiencing homelessness gather at First United Methodist Church on Spruce Street in Boulder near the Pearl Street Mall on April 28, 2021. (Derek Miles for Colorado Newsline)

Swetlik responded that since the proposals come with a hefty price tag, he’d like to see more specifics on what success looks like. “How much do we anticipate this policy is going to decrease our overall crime rate?” he asked the staff members.

“The more eyes and ears, always reduces crime and disorder issues,” Herold said. “To what level? I don’t know.”

Swetlik continued his questioning, asking staff, “If these policies are enacted and camping continues, do we anticipate we’re going to come back to have this conversation again and that more enforcement is going to be the suggestion?”

Rhodes, with Parks and Recreation, responded, “This proposal is really specific to addressing the conditions that we’re seeing in the public spaces in downtown and in the parks and so what we would be watching for and monitoring is are we impacting those conditions.”

Friend also criticized the proposals for not having a clear goal.

“I just would love for staff to clarify what are the targets? What would a successful outcome look like if this all works?” she added. 

Rhodes said her department will be tracking vandalism and whether the changes lead to a decrease in trash. Herold added that her department would be looking to get less community complaints about homeless encampments and illegal camping. But there was little discussion around how the changes would improve conditions and treatment for people experiencing homelessness.

‘We always seem to have money for more police’

Eric Budd, a Boulder-based software developer and housing advocate, said he was disappointed that council members gave the green light to increase the police budget during a meeting when members of the public couldn’t give their input.

“There was really no evidence given at all that any sort of increase in enforcement or police presence is going to actually improve safety,” Budd said, who is the co-lead on a campaign called Bedrooms Are For People in Boulder that aims to get the city to allow more than three unrelated people to live under the same roof. 

“I personally don’t feel unsafe going around Boulder,” he added. “It’s very apparent that people are camping but many of the increases in crime are essentially just blamed on unhoused people. When oftentimes, they’re also victims of crime. So, it’s not clear to me who these changes are going to benefit.” 

Budd said he wants to see more initiatives to increase the affordable housing and accessibility of affordable housing in the city. “We’ve done a lot of things to preserve public lands and open space, but we’ve made it incredibly difficult to build housing here. And that includes different housing types.”

He said the lack of affordable housing drives up rental prices and makes housing inaccessible to lower-income households, which ultimately increases homelessness.

“What I see is that our city leaders think the status quo is OK,” Budd said, who has lived in Boulder for nearly 10 years. “There’s almost no action to actually try to reduce rental costs, to make it affordable for working class or middle class people to live here. And so every year that goes by, more people are getting priced out.”

“Just the fact that we always seem to have money for more police and we never have money for more housing or resources to help unhoused people, that’s really disappointing,” he added.

Editor’s note: This story was updated at 8:52 a.m., April 29, 2021, to correct when council will next discuss adjustment’s to the city budget. It will be discussed again on May 18.

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