A place to go – Boulder Weekly
There is a race to end homelessness.
Earlier this summer, Denver Mayor Mike Johnston announced his ambitious goal to house 1,000 people by the end of 2023 after declaring a state of emergency earlier this summer over the issue of homelessness and housing insecurity in Denver.
The Mile High City is building 11 new “micro-communities” — tiny homes with a healthy mix of supportive “wrap-around” services — to help achieve that goal. The first location (2302 S. Santa Fe Drive, Denver) is underway.
Temporary transitional housing is not a new solution to homelessness, but its popularity is growing among cities across the country as a bridge between unsheltered homelessness and permanent housing that moves people off the streets.
While the projects (also referred to as safe outdoor spaces or designated campsites) vary in scope and size from city to city, they are typically non-congregate settings linked to some level of resources, from mental health and addiction support to WiFi , washing and bathing. Tiny houses, platform shelters and ice fishing tents are also used.
In this scene, the city of Boulder is considering an alternative shelter program (the city’s umbrella term) as it searches for solutions to the problem of unsheltered homelessness.
Rachel Friend, whose term on the council ends next month, has long called for this type of project.
“People will be camping,” she says. “For me, there’s a question of where is the best place: Is it along the creek, or is it in a sanctioned place that has resources? I think a place with restrooms, restrooms and employment resources is better.”
The council has given direction to explore a pilot project, but Boulder is still in the early stages of conceptualizing the program. Although the process is further along than ever before, key details of the project — such as who will manage it, cost, type of structure and location — need to be worked out before it is put to a vote before the council.
But it raises an important question: what could What does an alternative housing community look like in Boulder?
Breadth of dignity
The Colorado Village Collaborative (CVC) is a Denver nonprofit that operates two small cottage villages and three safe outdoor spaces consisting mostly of insulated ice fishing tents and some platform shelters. CVC was recently selected to manage the largest micro-community in Mayor Johnston’s House1000 plan to date (2301 S. Santa Fe Drive), but it also runs separate programs.
Congregate shelters don’t work for all people experiencing homelessness for a number of reasons, says Kweka Montoya, director of CVC’s Safe Outer Space Program. Alternative shelter can “give dignity” to those people for whom it is not provided.
“Our primary goal is to make sure people have the basic resources they need to live, even if it’s temporarily in an alternative shelter program,” Montoya says. “No one deserves to not have access to a bathroom or shower.”
Montoya experienced homelessness in Denver before joining CVC. She was in her mid-30s and worked in commercial and residential real estate. When her romantic relationship ended, she dealt with depression through drinking and drug use that led to housing instability, and then homelessness.
“I experienced homelessness on the streets I grew up on,” she says.
While today Montoya believes congregate shelters play an essential role in addressing homelessness, when she was homeless from 2011 to 2014, she “didn’t hear great things” about larger congregate shelters. So she stayed out, sleeping in hotel rooms and sitting on the couch when she could.
During the last count when the city of Boulder asked people experiencing homelessness if they sometimes stayed in a shelter, more than 90% said no, citing reasons such as “they prefer to stay outside,” “they don’t feel safe,” “they prefer to stay outside,” or “They don’t feel safe.” “Hygiene concerns,” “shelter location,” and “lack of independence.”
“Nearly 80% of people experiencing homelessness in Boulder use some form of shelter,” according to the city’s website.
Boulder Shelter for the Homeless (BSH) is a nonprofit organization that owns most of the city’s shelter capacity, which includes 160 beds. It also provides comprehensive services such as meals, counseling and medical care.
BSH averaged eight unoccupied beds per night in 2023, according to Boulder’s Homelessness Dashboard, the lowest annual average since the city began tracking that data in 2017. (The highest was 31 unoccupied beds per night In 2019).
The shelter has also turned people away 10% more nights since 2020 because they ran out of beds. Because emergency beds are first-come first-served, refusing them could discourage people from seeking shelter in the future. The Boulder Shelter is also closed during the day, separates sleeping arrangements by gender and does not allow dogs.
The estimated shelter total in Boulder for this winter is 194 to 239, depending on hotel room capacity and overflow space. It’s difficult to track the total number of people experiencing homelessness, even with the city’s most recent PIT statistics, but Newton says “there has been an increase in apparent unsheltered homelessness.”
Alternative shelter options such as tents or platform shelters are quick and cheap ways to create shelter. Although Newton says there’s no guarantee people will use alternative shelter at a higher rate than congregate spaces, it’s clear they can remove some barriers.
For example, CVC’s safe outdoor spaces accept people, by referral from street outreach, with partners and pets, are open 24/7 and do not impose a time limit on how long residents can stay; The average stay is nine months.
“It’s not just a shelter, it’s a program,” says Didi De Bersin, CEO of CVC. “If you just build a shelter, and there aren’t services and supports, it’s not going to work long-term. Moving someone into stable housing takes time and effort to connect them to services and supports and navigate resources.
CVC supplements its Safe Outer Space program, which is funded by private foundations and federal dollars from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), by providing meals, bathrooms, laundry and shower facilities, electricity and Wi-Fi. Drugs and alcohol are not allowed, but they have harm reduction policies that allow staff to work with people if they are still using drugs. The site also has controlled access – it is not a walk-in shelter – and residents are free to come in and out.
Most CVC staff, nearly 80%, also bring lived experiences — including recovery from homelessness, substance abuse and domestic violence — which staff say helps them connect with residents. Montoya calls this his “secret sauce.”
Newton says Boulder has received feedback from individuals experiencing unsheltered homelessness that one of the attractions of safe outdoor spaces is that people have their own space.
It all comes together to help people coming from “crisis” take the next step toward housing, says Andre DiCarlo, senior program director of Safe Outdoor Spaces for CVC.
“It’s really hard for someone to start thinking about higher-level targets when they’re being robbed or overrun” by police or city removal squads, DiCarlo says. “Giving people a stable place where they know their stuff is safe and they can go home, clean up and sleep (makes a difference).”
CVC safe outdoor spaces are not without challenges. Staffing, financing, and site selection are frequent organizational conflicts.
Some people are wary of the idea of having a safe outdoor space in their neighbourhood, with safety concerns and increased crime and disorder (one Colorado Sun The analysis found fewer reports of crime in areas with sites). Two lawsuits have been filed by residents of the Park Hill neighborhood challenging operating permits granted to CVC.
A recent Westword article cited criticism from residents and former employees about alleged dysfunction in the organization, and described tensions in the Overland Park neighborhood over the small community near the city that CVC would manage.
Measuring results and defining success is also difficult, De Bersin says. It is difficult to track the number of people accessing support services, because reporting is voluntary.
“Counting the number of people and nights is not enough,” she says.
Of CVC’s 469 exits from safe outdoor spaces from 2020 to 2023, 50.8% returned to homelessness and 40% went into permanent or stable housing, according to data from the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative published by Denverite.
So far this year, about 30% of people who have undergone coordinated entry checks in Boulder have exited homelessness.
Programs can measure transitions to permanent housing, but these data are affected by the amount of housing resources available, which may make site design less important than how the program fits into the larger housing plan.
“Regardless of whether (people) go to the shelter or to alternative shelter, if there is no housing, the results are not going to be great,” Newton says.
Where Boulder sits
Conversation about alternative shelter has been discussed by the city of Boulder since 2016. As of 2021, city staff had recommended against establishing an encampment, citing the high costs and challenges other cities face in managing similar sites.
In the same report, the city estimated that an approved pilot camping program with up to 25 tents would cost $42 per tent, per night, for security and operations. Funds for supportive services were estimated at $1,911.26 per tent per month. By comparison, Boulder’s permanent supportive housing costs an average of $1,666 per person per month.
While city staff wrote that “most communities have faced the challenge of successfully managing sanctioned camps,” they noted that successful camps “are well-resourced, small in size, have rules similar to shelters, include wraparound services and are operated by well-managed organizations.”
Matt Benjamin is one of the council members who supports the idea and says it’s time to move forward with it.
“This has been discussed so much that it is not a lack of information or analysis, but rather a lack of will to invest in these additional solutions that get people off the streets and into stable environments with services where they can develop their independence,” he wrote in a public email to Council: “And access to housing.” “Many communities across the country have done this. “We can easily choose what works and stay away from what doesn’t.”
The cities of Los Angeles, Sacramento, Austin, Salt Lake City, Portland, Seattle and Tacoma have pursued similar alternative shelter projects.
Boulder’s elected officials will inevitably decide whether the city pursues an alternative shelter project, but the substance of that project is still under discussion.
At the October meeting, a majority of council members gave direction to Housing and Human Services (HHS) staff to explore a one-year Safe Outer Space pilot project for up to 30 individuals who are unwilling or unable to live in congregate settings. HHS staff research a wide range of services and program options for the site to determine costs, impacts, and outcomes in different scenarios.
Six locations have been identified as potential sites within the city, including 63rd Street in Gunbarrel, Valmont and Foothills, Pearl Parkway and behind King Soopers in Arapahoe. Mostly owned by the city, it is about two acres in size and is currently zoned for industrial use.
City staff is working out cost estimates for the program, which will vary based on location, type of structure and supporting services provided.
Adding to the uncertainty are the four new city council members who will take office on December 7. Staff are expected to present the council with rough operating site timelines and an estimate of cost alternatives in the next few weeks, with a more formal proposal set for early 2024.
Friend, who will be out of the City Council by the time the project is voted on, insists it must go ahead.
“It’s something that’s needed and has been proven to work in some other cities. This is something we haven’t tried,” Friend says. “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”