Car camping ban advances in Boulder County as homelessness advocates protest

Ordinance proposed following complaints about people sleeping in their cars

By: - May 19, 2022 5:00 am

Protesters stand outside of the Boulder County Sheriff’s office, encouraging Sheriff Joe Pelle to halt a car camping ban. May 15, 2022 (Zoe Schacht for Colorado Newsline)

The Boulder sheriff earlier this year proposed a new ordinance to Boulder County commissioners that would expand camping bans already in place in the cities of Boulder and Longmont to the county level and prohibit residents from sleeping in their cars. People in violation would be at risk of citations and losing their valuables.

Now the ordinance is advancing toward adoption.

“These are people who have the least amount of resources. They have to pay fines and deal with the criminal justice system as a result of simply not having a home, but also as a result of active choices that our cities and counties are making to tell these people that we have very limited resources for you,” said Darren O’Connor, the criminal justice chair for the Boulder County NAACP branch. “Their solution is, ‘You should just leave.’”

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Urban camping bans are not new to Colorado. Denver’s camping ban just hit its 10th anniversary. The city of Boulder’s ban, at 6, is not far behind. Nearly two months ago, Aurora added itself to the list, passing a similar camping ban. 

Though each ban is slightly different, the common theme is getting unhoused residents to move themselves and their encampment somewhere else, and activists and others who aid unhoused community members fear the effect of Boulder County’s proposed ordinance. 

County Ordinance 2022-1 will prohibit people from “residing” on Boulder County-owned land. Those in violation can be ticketed up to $300. The ordinance will penalize people for sleeping, cooking or “engaging in activities of daily living.” The ordinance also targets items for daily living such as clothing, personal hygiene items, cooking materials and shelters such as tents and vehicles. 

“I’m just concerned for the individuals who are falling through the gaps, and their needs are not met,” said Alice Sueltenfuss, the executive director of HOPE for Longmont, which offers resources, shelter and a safe parking lot to unhoused people. 

Darren O’Connor addresses protesters who oppose a potential car camping ban in Boulder County, May 15, 2022. (Zoe Schacht/Colorado Newsline)

Sheriff Joe Pelle initially requested the ordinance from the county commissioners to solve a “specific problem.” According to Pelle, the sheriff’s office was getting complaints from residents about people camping in their cars. He said officers were issuing parking tickets, but their car only has to move a few feet to avoid receiving an additional ticket. Essentially, the ordinance allows officers to tell unhoused people to “move along.” 

Pelle sees the ordinance as a tool to give warnings to move campers out of neighborhoods, but he doesn’t anticipate many tickets will be issued. The decision to write a ticket is up to officer discretion. 

“We train, and we hire compassionate people. We encourage them to be that way,” said Pelle. “But, my constituents that own homes and neighborhoods, on the other hand, don’t want junk cars and RVs parked in front of their house with people living in them.” 

Two dogs arrive with their owners at HOPE for Longmont’s safe lot, May 16, 2022. (Zoe Schacht/Colorado Newsline)

Pelle has been under scrutiny for the ordinance from Wake Up Boulder, a local media organization that focuses on social justice issues, and Safe Boulder, an organization that provides mutual aid and shares information for unhoused people. O’Connor has criticized Pelle for changing his tone towards urban camping. 

Pelle gave authorization to O’Connor in 2018 to read a statement at a Colorado legislative committee hearing for a failed “right to rest” bill. The statement said, “In my experience, criminal penalties for activities like camping in public do nothing to change the behavior of homeless individuals, nor do they make our communities safer … Surely there must be a better way to direct these folks to resources that may be able to help break this cycle.”

O’Connor said for many that live in their vehicle, it is their last asset. He believes that receiving a ticket at times could lead to the impounding of cars. 

“The poor will be made poorer,” he said. “Those who are just barely getting by will be pushed into abject poverty.”

According to O’Connor, the county is offering little-to-no solutions for people currently residing in their cars. He said commissioners are concerned with putting money into housing rather than a safe parking lot, especially because HOPE for Longmont’s safe lot already exists.

However, Sueltenfuss said HOPE’s safe lot can only accept 30 individuals at once. Most of the time, the safe lot is at full capacity and has a waiting list, she said. Though the organization often makes exceptions to the rule by allowing one or a few more people, HOPE is not in a position to expand anytime soon. 

“I need to work within my own budget. It would help if (the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) and the overarching people that do big grants realize that this is a program that’s taking shape,” said Sueltenfuss. 

Safe Boulder took to Instagram to spread awareness about the ordinance. In a post promoting a protest against County Ordinance 2022-1, the organization argued there should be no car shelter ban after the Marshall Fire in December. O’Connor agrees, sharing his frustration with how the county handled sheltering those who lost their homes in the fire compared to their unhoused neighbors. 

Emergency shelters were put together in hours for the families who lost their homes or were under evacuation orders due to the disaster. Meanwhile, shelter and hospital beds available to unhoused residents in the city of Boulder have been sliced nearly in half since the pandemic’s start.

“We’re making judgments about the value of people based on whether they had a home yesterday or whether they’ve been on the streets for a week or a month or a year,” he said. “And that just is a blatant, classist and judgmental provision of basic services.” 

On Sunday, May 15, Safe Boulder organized a protest at the Boulder County Sheriff’s office. Community members brought signs, banners and marched around the office chanting. Protesters could be heard shouting, “Quit your jobs.” Eventually, the group made its way to a parking lot entrance where protesters blocked cars from coming and going with a sign that read, “Move along to where?” 

O’Connor joined the protesters and shared his experience with Pelle. With a megaphone he addressed the crowd, saying what Pelle authorized him to read at the Colorado legislative committee hearing in 2018. He also raised the question of who would be prosecuting those who violate the proposed ordinance. 

Twentieth District Attorney Michael Dougherty said that the ordinance would be a civil infraction and go through the county court, not the DA’s office. No warrants for arrest will be issued for people ticketed who fail to appear in court, he said. However, they may receive additional fines. 

In 2018, the Daily Camera quoted Dougherty as saying, “Under my administration and leadership, being homeless is not and will not be a crime.” While he will not personally be involved, he said he could see both sides of the argument for the proposed ordinance. 

“I think the county commissioners and the sheriff have a difficult balance on this one, deciding what’s best for public welfare,” Dougherty said. 

A second hearing for the ordinance will be held Thursday and is open to the public.

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Zoe Schacht
Zoe Schacht

Zoe Schacht is a reporter for Colorado Newsline. In December 2022, she will graduate from the University of Colorado Boulder with a degree in journalism and a minor in communication. At CU, Zoe was Editor-in-Chief for the CU Independent where she gained a passion for journalism and storytelling.

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