Homelessness more than perhaps any other issue forces us to make a very clear philosophical, moral and ethical choice about the values we cherish in our progressive community. How much responsibility do we take in support of these impoverished and vulnerable members of our community? Some just need a break in life, others don’t want any help whatsoever and some are just passing through. It is worth pointing out that more than half of Boulder’s homeless population are families. These are generally not the homeless we see on Boulder Creek or at the corners of intersections. Boulder Valley School District reported that over 300 families registered students as homeless this last year. It would be immoral for us to abandon these children who are homeless through no fault of their own.
I know there are concerns about safety and the overall numbers of homeless in our community. And rightfully so. It is important for us not to give into the fear that arises from the actions of a few that taints the reputation of the majority of homeless in our community. We must resist the temptation to react to fear and we must move to being a “right to shelter” community. Right to shelter offers housing to all people who are homeless by reason of physical, mental or social dysfunction. Boulder has committed itself to being a sanctuary city for Dreamers and we therefore must also commit ourselves to be a “right to shelter” community for the homeless.
We must not focus on a one size fits all approach because there is a wide spectrum of needs. It is important for us to realize that Boulder can’t do this alone. Homelessness is not a problem unique to Boulder. This is a regional issue and it will take a comprehensive strategy involving our county and sister cities to address homelessness the right way. This is the only way Boulder can offer 24-7 services. The seasonal approach was never a long term solution for Boulder or its homeless population. We must never allow anyone to die on the streets because they couldn’t get a warm place to sleep. Boulder’s new “Coordinated Entry” system has some lofty goals, but in general aims to improve the services available to our homeless. We need to increase services that treat addiction and mental illness. Transitional housing is another avenue that allows individuals and/or families a chance to get back on their feet. As a member of City Council I will be carefully evaluating whether the new system is turning people away from services and/or closing doors on some of our most vulnerable. The City and County must be committed to investing in this program long term and be willing to make changes as recommended by those groups working directly with the homeless. Make no mistake that the long term solution requires that the state of Colorado must also be involved. Aside from pledging financial resources and incentives to combat homelessness, the state will also have to end its prohibition on rent control.
Even though Boulder is moving to a new system, this will take some time to be fully implemented and to measure if we are having a positive effect on the homeless community. In the meantime there are concrete steps we can take now that will help limit the negative impacts homelessness is having in downtown Boulder. Boulder Creek is arguably the most heavily impacted area in the City. With new services and shelters, we should be enforcing our camping ban along the creek. We need to be careful not to put this burden entirely on law enforcement. They do not have the resources nor the training to acutely assess the needs of such a diverse homeless population. We should do whatever it takes to make sure that we are diverting homeless from ending up in incarcerated. The City of Boulder and Longmont’s EDGE Program (Early Diversion Get Engaged) dispatch mental health professionals with police officers to better assess the needs of individuals with the goal of diverting from the legal system. Our local police will continue to be one of the main points of contact with our homeless population. We should thus make sure they have the resources they need to ensure the success of our new Coordinated Entry program.
We also need to continue to improve the safety for all our residents. By providing full-time sheltering this will inherently minimize the flood of homeless into the streets and neighborhoods. We will still need to address the areas along Boulder Creek that attract homeless and transients to congregate during the day. Boulder Creek Path is an attraction for outdoor enthusiasts, families, and tourists. Increasing patrols along the path and strongly enforcing the camping ban will provide a visceral improvement to the safety of this area.The sanitation along Boulder Creek will also need to be addressed. We should build more bathrooms along the creek to improve sanitation in our critical waterway. Poor sanitation around a heavily used waterway can spread any number of diseases. This kind of infrastructure will also improve the enjoyment of residents and tourists alike along Boulder Creek.
As emotions run deep on this issue I will listen to our local professionals from the Boulder Shelter to the Boulder Police Department to our faith groups in search of the solutions that best meet the needs of our homeless community. I will be compassionate and leverage my scientific expertise to focus on evidence-based decision making to navigate a balanced approach that puts our Future First.