Boulder’s camping ban leaves unhoused residents no alternatives, plaintiffs say

Lack of choices and resources for Boulder’s homeless community prompted lawsuit against the city

By: - June 16, 2022 5:00 am

Jennifer Livovich poses for a portrait with Sabrina Fehr, an unhoused Boulder resident, during Feet Forward’s outreach in Boulder’s Central Park, June 14 2022. (Zoe Schacht/Colorado Newsline)

On Christmas morning, Jeni Shurley was greeted by a Boulder police officer. This was the third interaction between the two, leading to Shurley’s second ticket for camping outside.

She can’t stay at a shelter due to her pet dogs, and Boulder’s high rent rates have left her with few choices. 

Shurley is one of the unhoused plaintiffs represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado in a lawsuit against Boulder. The lawsuit alleges that the city’s camping ban, which prohibits unhoused residents from sleeping outside while using a shelter beyond clothing, is unconstitutional. 

“(Boulder’s camping ban) makes something we don’t have an alternative for illegal,” Shurely said. “There is no choice.” 

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Sarah Huntley, a spokesperson for the city of Boulder, speaking on behalf of the police department and city administration, said the city received the lawsuit from the ACLU and will be filing its response through the court process. 

Two other plaintiffs say the same thing as Shurley — unhoused residents have no alternatives. Jennifer Livovich, the founder of Feet Forward, and Lisa Sweeney-Miran, the Boulder Valley School District board vice president and executive director of Mother House, a shelter for people who identify as women, transgender or nonbinary with children, are participating in the case as taxpayers. 

Livovich has lived in Boulder for the past decade. She was unhoused until she received assistance from the state in 2018. She says her time in Boulder has given her firsthand knowledge of what unhoused people experience in the city. 

When Livovich was unhoused, she suffered from frostbite, which partly inspired her to organize Feet Forward. The organization focuses on peer support, street outreach and distributing supplies such as food and clothing.

Shoes sit on a table for Boulder’s unhoused population during Feet Forward’s outreach on June 14, 2022. Jennifer Livovich referred to Feet Forward’s clothing distribution as a “homeless mall.” (Zoe Schacht/Colorado Newsline)

Livovich’s firsthand experiences with the city’s only shelter demonstrate how its operations can be dysfunctional. The shelter has only 160 beds, and she said it could not fit any more additions. However, the lottery system used to access the facility is abstruse. Livovich said that navigating the shelter’s system can be confusing without a cell phone, computer or the skills to use either. 

“People have no choice but to be outside, and then to ticket them is extremely cruel,” Livovich said about the lottery system. 

I don’t know that there’s anybody who could really witness an interaction between the police force and an unhoused person and look at that power imbalance and look at the dynamic of fear and feel like this was the best solution.

– Lisa Sweeney-Miran, a plaintiff in the ACLU lawsuit against Boulder

In 2017, when Livovich was still unhoused, her friend, Benjamin Harvey, had to leave the city’s shelter after an incident. That night, Livovich was not in Boulder. Harvey’s body was found Christmas morning after he froze to death. 

“There was nowhere else for him to go but outside,” Livovich said. “That’s the point I’m trying to make. We have one shelter, 160 beds and whether it’s 2017 or 2022, homelessness is increasing. And that’s inadequate. It’s inadequate.” 

Jeni Shurley (Courtesy of the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado)

Like Livovich, Sweeney-Miran, who is participating in the suit individually as a taxpayer, resides in Boulder and has for the majority of her life. While she remembers there always being an unhoused population in the city, Sweeny-Miran says demographic changes have led to increases in “vitriol and harassment” against it.

From encampments being torn down to disallowing unhoused residents to participate in Boulder’s farmers market, the police enforcement of the camping ban has juxtaposed Boulder’s supposed inclusivity with reality, according to Sweeney-Miran. 

“I don’t know that there’s anybody who could really witness an interaction between the police force and an unhoused person and look at that power imbalance and look at the dynamic of fear and feel like this was the best solution,” she said. 

Shurley has personally experienced this “power imbalance.” At the time of her second citation in December, Shurley was living in a converted bike trailer she built herself. She calls it a “gypsy wagon.” The officer who issued the ticket had interacted with Shurley twice before. First, the officer issued a warning on Dec. 23. Second, the officer issued a ticket to Shurley on Dec. 24 before finding her again on Christmas morning, when she was ticketed once more.

Shurley received her second ticket five days before the Marshall Fire erupted in Boulder County. She recalls the officer saying to her, “Go anywhere but Boulder,” leaving her to believe that had she listened to the officer and left the city, she would have been caught amid the flames. 

Daniel Williams sorts through clothes while volunteering with Feet Forward in Boulder, June 14, 2022. (Zoe Schacht/Colorado Newsline)

According to Shurley, each time the officer interacted with her, she had moved to a new spot around Scott Carpenter Park. She said many officers come to encampments early, between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m., when most unhoused residents are sleeping. 

Since being ticketed, Shurley has given away her “gypsy wagon” to another unhoused person. She has built 13 shelters like it and gifted them to others in Boulder. Boulder police have confiscated each one. 

“The lawsuit is specifically saying there aren’t enough places for people to go, so you can’t take them out of the only spaces they have,” Sweeney-Miran said. “It is not just about being in public spaces. It’s about not having any options.” 

Daniel Williams and Annie Kurtz, attorneys for the plaintiffs, said Boulder has until later this week to respond to the complaint. The city could respond in various ways, potentially prolonging the resolution process. According to Williams, residents are putting more pressure on Boulder City Council members to make improvements. The timing is right for the suit, he said. 

“This lawsuit raises a new question of law for Colorado,” Williams said.

Shurley’s experience with the city and receiving tickets has left her “furious.” 

“I’m not broken. I just don’t have a home,” she said. “I’m poor. It doesn’t mean that I am a broken person. That criminalization is just the cherry on top of that entirety of the way society looks at you when you’re homeless.”

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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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