Commentary: Boulder’s homeless still not being served

After one year and millions of dollars spent, the city of Boulder’s homelessness strategy is failing our homeless community. There is no longer any drop-in overnight shelter, so that people who, for valid reasons, are not candidates for the structured programs that the “coordinated entry” system encompasses can use overnight shelter options, even though they continue to be homeless.


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People should not have a harder time accessing life-sustaining overnight shelter after Boulder invested nearly $6 million to improve our homelessness strategy. City staff’s Aug. 3 Homelessness Strategy Update informs us that despite great investment, basic needs of our homeless community are being ignored.

Of particular note is the reported 18 percent decrease in homeless overnight services. Some council members and city staff assert that overnight services aren’t turning people away and then conclude that there is no shortage of beds. However, this report does not support such a conclusion, stating “(d)ata does not exist to draw conclusions about the reasons for decreased demand for adult emergency shelter.”

A decrease of 18 percent bed utilization represents a glaring failure to provide the most basic, necessary, life-saving support. It is now evident that the modified system is prohibiting extremely vulnerable people from even accessing overnight protection from the elements.

The report quantifies the high number of vulnerable people attempting access, revealing that “(t)hree out of five clients (of coordinated entry) had been homeless at least 12 months out of the past three years, and 71 percent reported a disabling condition.”

There can be little doubt that barriers to system access, including complicated rules that challenge even a high-functioning person, are preventing entry to basic shelter for extremely vulnerable people.

Our court navigator, who works directly to help homeless people navigate Boulder’s homeless services to improve their situation, shared in an interview I did with her for the University of Denver Law School’s report, “Too High a Price 2, Move On To Where?,” definitely appears to support this concern: “I am a reasonably well educated and mentally healthy person who is rested and housed and familiar with the system of social services, yet I struggle to understand it. I wonder how someone who has mental health issues, is addicted, is sleep-deprived and hungry can be expected to navigate this system.”

A homeless services system that confuses our professional court navigator surely confuses many people seeking basic overnight services. The conclusion of some council members and city staff that we have sufficient overnight services based on not turning people away is at the least a misrepresentation, at worst a falsehood.

People are in fact turned away at coordinated entry. Lack of any means to report such rebukes to those seeking aid does not mean people are not being turned away; but, rather, that staff and council members are accepting as true assertions that are readily invalidated.

The report asserts that, though it lacks data for comparison to recent “successes,” new strategies are twice as effective as the previous year. Since no data on the previous year exists, claiming such a victory seems beyond disingenuous. The success of one of the new strategies, giving people a one way ticket out of town, likely accounts for a solid half of the “planned exits” the city now claims in its reported data. It is a heartless standard that shipping people out of town without any tracking of their experience once they are gone is counted a success.

Another concern worthy of note is, after investing $2.2 million in the site for Path To Home — which will eventually become a housing development — we still don’t know how many affordable housing units will exist when all is said and done. The city has failed to provide even a target number of affordable units it would consider a success.

Lastly, city staff continues to neglect creating a meaningful mediation process for people kicked out of the Boulder shelter. The grievance process remains fatally flawed, as Benjamin Harvey’s death reminds us. Unless and until the grievance process includes an available independent review for someone kicked out, one which provides an opportunity to be heard, the efforts of city staff have not addressed this deadly shortcoming that people experiencing homelessness face.

Given the shortcomings, one year in to Boulder’s Homeless Strategy, the city must not stay the course, as the report advocates. Further investment in overnight services, with a goal of easing access and providing more beds is essential. Our majority-disabled homeless community deserves, and our community should demand, better.


Darren O’Connor has lived in Boulder since 1994. He is a Chancellor Scholar 3L law student at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law and a member of Boulder Rights Watch.


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