The Limits of Boulder’s Homelessness Strategy

By Sepideh Miller

Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is familiar to most people who have taken an introductory psychology class. Physiological needs such as food, water, and shelter form the base of a pyramid, and must be met before people can feel loved, value themselves, and reach their full potential. Through this lens, housing is one of the most critical needs for members of our community.

As a participant in the Boulder County Leadership Fellows program, I had the opportunity to learn about our community’s shelter needs from representatives of Boulder’s Bridge House. They described how homelessness dramatically increases the risk of illness, injury, and death, and how the health impacts of extended bouts of homelessness continue even after people secure housing.

As reported by the Point-in-Time survey, some 600 homeless people lived in Boulder County in 2017. But for years, the city has struggled to articulate a humane strategy for supporting its share of this population. For the last two years, single homeless adults hoping to access one of Boulder’s 210 shelter beds (160 at the Boulder Shelter for the Homeless, and 50 through Bridge House’s Path to Home program) have been required to participate in the Coordinated Entry program. By targeting services to people at risk of becoming homeless, Coordinated Entry seeks to reduce the need for the more expensive and complicated services that are often required to shelter the long-term unhoused.

The preventative approach at the heart of Coordinated Entry might help some people avoid homelessness, but many others find it difficult to navigate. The program office at 30th St. and Valmont has limited hours, and is difficult to reach from local shelters and downtown. People with compounding issues such as mental illness, substance abuse disorders, physical disabilities, or chronic medical conditions may require more services than the preventative approach can provide. And even if Coordinated Entry were accessible to all, the shelter beds available for participants can only accommodate a third of the County’s homeless population.

So how is Boulder meeting the basic physiological needs of its remaining unhoused residents? People without access to shelter are stranded in public spaces where they are disproportionately policed for violations of municipal codes. According to one study, City of Boulder Police spent $1.8 million on homeless-related law enforcement in 2017. Daily acts of survival and comfort (camping, personal care, gathering, smoking) are met with harassment or the threat of arrest. A state law designed to protect these activities – the Colorado Right to Rest Act – failed to pass in 2017. So people using blankets or sleeping bags can be cited for camping illegally, even as severe weather shelters remain closed on all but the coldest nights.In the summer months, this treatment is already dehumanizing. But during severe weather events, the consequences can be life-threatening.

This spring, City Council members and County Commissioners reviewed the first five years of operation of Boulder Housing Partners’ Housing First Community at 1175 Lee Hill Drive. The project offers one-bedroom apartments and supportive services to 31 chronically-homeless adults who have lived in Boulder for at least a year. Elected officials praised the project, and the model of permanently supportive housing it represents. But this success and others reported by the Coordinated Entry program does not absolve our community of responsibility for our remaining homeless neighbors. And if we won’t commit to meeting their basic needs, we should at least respect their own efforts towards those ends.