(Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)
Across the state of Colorado — and much of the country — homelessness is on the rise.
At the last point-in-time count, Boulder County had over 800 homeless or housing-insecure residents, with around 450 in the city of Boulder itself. By comparison, July’s point-in-time count recorded over 9,000 people experiencing homelessness in Denver, a 31% increase from the prior year. Across the country, tens of thousands of people are homeless in larger cities like New York, San Diego and Chicago.
At the same time, calls for more enforcement to enhance public safety are growing, with homelessness and public safety often talked about interchangeably. In truth, the number of unhoused individuals in a given city does not correlate with an increase in crime. Crime across Colorado’s cities increased during the pandemic, when shops were shut down, public spaces were vacated, and many people retreated indoors. But what seems to often happen in the collective mind of the general public is that the more people who are visibly living outside, violating various camping bans and ordinances — and receiving tickets for those violations — the higher the perception is that public safety is at risk.
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Homelessness is a public safety issue, to be sure, because living unhoused is dangerous. People living outside often die in extreme cold and heat conditions, and are far more likely to be victims of crime than their housed neighbors. Homeless people battling addiction or mental health issues do not — unlike many of their housed counterparts — have access to the same resources to help them recover, and that presents safety issues for the entire community, regardless of housing status.
By and large, homelessness appears to many people to be an entrenched, unsolvable problem. But we have some idea as to what contributing factors increase it.
Rising rents and vacancy rates have a huge impact on a given region’s number of homeless residents. In Boulder, for example, the numbers of homeless or housing-insecure people are at their highest point since 2017, at a time when Boulder’s notoriously inaccessible housing market has reached new levels of unaffordability. This is also why cities with far more housing availability — like Detroit, Michigan — have far fewer homeless residents than places like San Francisco, Boulder and Denver, where home prices and rents are exceedingly high.
Homelessness is not a moral failing. It’s not a criminal activity. It is fundamentally a housing problem.
So, we have some idea of the causes of homelessness. And we do have some clues as to what works in reducing it. We can look at homelessness in three stages: People who are entering it, people who are in it, and people who are trying to exit. In Boulder, we spend a lot of our resources and discussion in the middle stage. But it’s the first and last stages that need comprehensive, multi-pronged and immediate policy attention.
While programs that work in reducing homelessness vary slightly, they have some things in common:
- They made ending homelessness a top priority and aligned all agencies with measurable goals of reducing unhoused populations.
- They rapidly expanded services to people who are homeless or about to be homeless — like food assistance, rental assistance, residential mental health and addiction treatment, sober living, and collective communities.
- They kept an aggressive and tireless focus on providing housing.
So, why aren’t more cities across the state and country enacting these policies?
In Boulder, rather than urging the city to focus on immediate service-based solutions and increased housing development, a group of parents has taken up the cause of public safety by placing a measure on the November ballot called “Safe Zones 4 Kids.” They would like Boulder voters to approve a permanent “safe zone” within 500 feet of all schools across the city, and within 50 feet of every multi-use path and sidewalk, essentially creating a “safe zone” across the entire city.
The city of Boulder already enforces a camping ban on public property, already prohibits dangerous items such as propane tanks, and already does not have to wait for any length of time before removing items deemed dangerous. The problem is, existing enforcement measures can’t keep up with growing encampments in public spaces because the number of people falling into homelessness is simply too great to manage via enforcement-only measures.
We can’t continue sweeping away people who have nowhere to go, it’s really that simple. Boulder — but really any Colorado city you can think of — needs solutions to homelessness, not safe zones.
Because homelessness is not a moral failing. It’s not a criminal activity. It is fundamentally a housing problem. Providing long-term, stable housing — through public options and policy support for affordable private housing — is the only approach that has been proven to reduce homelessness.
On the flip side, in cities that have enacted “safe zones,” like the one being proposed for Boulder, campers simply return or relocate their camps when alternative infrastructure is not in place. Los Angeles enforces a 500-foot safe zone, but according to reports from local news, the encampments remain. Why? In May of last year, the LA Times reported that “an insufficient number of outreach workers and a lack of interim housing options have hindered the implementation of the law, according to homeless services providers, and city and county officials. Simply put, there are not enough shelters, tiny homes or hotel rooms for people on the streets to go to and not enough people to help coordinate getting them there.”
We already have evidence that tells us that enforcement-only approaches to homelessness do not reduce homelessness, much less make our communities safer. In fact, they make addressing the issue harder. The United States Interagency Coalition on Homelessness states that policies that criminalize public camping “are ineffective, expensive, and actually worsen the tragedy of homelessness.” A skyrocketing housing market, extreme wealth inequality due to decades of economic policy choices, and the end of COVID-era benefits are all contributing to the increasing numbers of homeless encampments we see in Boulder and throughout the state today.
This is an urgent crisis we must address directly, swiftly, and with evidence-based solutions. We all deserve safe cities rather than “safe zones.”
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