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Boulder Underbelly


Words by Brett Callwood and Ryan Howe
Photos provided by Greg Harms

The moment was telling, and more than a little poignant. Yellow Scene’s two editors were driving around Boulder’s trailer parks (which we were told were the “bad parts” of Boulder) desperately looking for something resembling seediness and squalor. We zig-zagged through every street, marveling at the immaculate lawns and complete lack of garbage in the streets, when we happened upon two deer, gently munching on leaves from an overhanging tree. The whole thing, quite frankly, was like a scene from a Disney cartoon.T

That became a general theme for us as our search for Boulder’s underbelly continued – and believe us, we dug. Every lead that we were given resulted in a dead end and visions of beauty. Now, this shouldn’t be a surprise. Just because people are lower income and living in section 8 housing, for example, doesn’t mean that they don’t know how to take care of their lawn. But, it’s interesting how myths and legends develop around those places. “Don’t walk along the creek by yourself,” we’ve been informed. “That’s where the junkies hide.” As if junkies are trolls under the bridge, and we are the littlest billie goat.

Not that we want to play down for one second the desperation and general awfulness that surrounds being homeless in Boulder County. We all know how harsh the winters here can be, so the very concept of being without heat during that time is horrifying. We should all be grateful that organizations like the Boulder Shelter for the Homeless exist.

Greg Harms is the executive director, a softly spoken man who gives us a tour before the 5 p.m. check-in time. We were stunned by just how nice the place is, closely resembling a college dorm (with a few more beds squeezed in, obviously). Local hotels like St. Julien donate discarded shampoo, soap and conditioner, there are TV rooms, the staff are friendly – it’s a real eye-opener. Sure, a shelter like this doesn’t make up for the fact that people don’t have a home of their own, but it sure-as-hell beats sleeping in the streets.

There’s a lot of money in Boulder County, and that has led to an enviable facility. The average income for a household in Boulder County is more than $93,000. That number jumps up another $40,000 for married couples households. Thirty-two percent of Boulderites make more than $100,000 a year, according to census.gov.

But in Boulder County, more than 14 percent of the population are living under the poverty line. That’s more than 14,000 people. This is an issue.

Could it be the case, though, that the people of Boulder attempt to sweep the issues under the rug? No, says Harms. “I think there’s a conscious effort to keep some public spaces public for everybody, and so I think the city’s trying to do that in some areas,” he says. “But I think most people are just concerned about their safety, if there’s a concern or a complaint.”

Ah, we’re back to those fears. The general population can be guilty of seeing a homeless person and running in the other direction. Are those fears valid? Kinda.

“I think statistically, the homeless population has a lot more contact with law enforcement, no doubt about it,” Harms says, “But usually, the contact is for lifestyle infringements. They’re usually misdemeanor things, like open containers, trespassing, those kind of things. Whether it’s statistically true or not that people are afraid of homeless people, if they are they are. Perception is greater than reality, or it is reality sometimes, so I think that’s a concern. And then just a desire to keep public spaces inviting for everybody – that’s the challenge. To make sure that the homeless are not unnecessarily or unduly targeted, but also to make spaces enjoyable and available to families with children and that kind of stuff. I think that’s great. Sometimes it’s a hard balance.”

“I have to say, the Boulder Police Department is really good at working with clients before they start issuing citations or taking people to jail.”

Greg Harms
Boulder Homeless Shelter

But even with the fears, and the concern of sharing public spaces, the police aren’t playing hardball with the homeless. There are certain laws that could make it a bit difficult to be homeless in Boulder, such as the no camping ordinance that restricts people from setting up make shifts homes in parks or along the creek. There are also restrictions on where people can panhandle, like certain places at the Pearl Street Mall or on highway medians. And on occasion people will get ticketed for this.

“I have to say, the Boulder Police Department is really good at working with clients before they start issuing citations or taking people to jail,” Harms says. “Usually that only happens after multiple offenses or if something escalates. There are some cops that are really great, and some that are not so lenient. But in general, our relationship with the Boulder PD is great, and I think they do a great job of working with the population in a compassionate way.”

The police aren’t the only ones reaching out to help the homeless. There are multiple organizations that offer help alongside the Boulder Shelter for the Homeless, which opens its doors around 5 p.m. and closes during the day at 8 a.m. The Bridge House is a day shelter, so people can have somewhere to go during the day. There are also services for addiction at the Addiction Recovery Center, Clinica is a local clinic for physical health needs, and Mental Health Partners offers services. Then there are the some soup kitchens for people to get hot meals. Some people move between services, some work day jobs but can’t afford the cost of living just yet, which is 55 percent more expensive than the national average.

We took up the offer to walk alongside the creek to try and find some people to speak with about addiction. What we found wasn’t people hiding under bridges or in the bushes, but rashes of college students enjoying a nice day by the creek. Some were hidden in the bushes hitting a bowl, but we assume that was a 4/20 celebration. It’s not like in East Harlem, where addicts could be found on every corner and bench. So what was everyone talking about?

Mike Ferrel, executive director of North Star Transitions, knows that there is a problem with addiction in any community. “It’s about 10 percent of the population who battle with addiction,” he said. “In a place like Boulder, which has a significant population that only continues to grow, there are thousands of addicts. That’s why a place like North Star is a necessity.”

North Star is an extended care substance abuse program in Boulder. In fact, it’s one of the only programs in the Boulder of its kind. Opening it’s doors in February 2012, the program is relatively new in the area, and yet is still one of the only substance abuse programs in the County. But why? Boulder may have a reputation of being overtly healthy, but it doesn’t mean we cant help those that are battling a different kind of demon.

When asked why there are so few places in Boulder to go for treatment, Ferrel noted that addiction is a hard business to get into. “It’s not easy work in the slightest. A lot of people may have reservations because of this. We saw the need for something like North Star, and we’ve been around for over three years.”

North Star does more than just helping young adults 18 to 35 get clean, it helps them get their life back on track. Those going through treatment stay at the facility for the first three months, then continue to use the program afterwards. They get drug tested every week, as well as attend mandatory therapy sessions. Because it is catered to the younger generation, it often gets college students who are struggling, and the organization does whatever they can to help these young adults get their life back on track. It’s a hard road to overcome addiction.

“A lot of people are very high functioning addicts, and they come to us once they lose everything.”

Mike Ferrel
North Star Transitions

“A lot of people are very high functioning addicts, and they come to us once they lose everything,” Ferrel said. “If they are in college, many of them come here after they drop out. If they are a bit older they come when they lose their job, their wife or their family.”

The idea that addicts are hurdled in packs along Boulder Creek just isn’t a reality. Like folklore, people have a tendency to repeat what they hear.

We attempted to reach out to Boulder-based sex workers online after failing to find any along the creek (again, we looked really hard). The first person that we could get to talk to us, going by the name Destiny, describes her work as, “in the realm of subtle energy healing. I’m able to see and sense and track energy in the body and in the energy field around people. During a session, I may guide them on a process to transform any blocked vibrational energy into something that works a little bit better for them. On a basic level, I help transform pain into power.”

It’s tempting to believe that this is the closest Boulder County gets to having prostitutes, but the internet says different – we just couldn’t get them to speak with us. Destiny does work nude though. “What that involves is more intimacy work,” she says. “A lot of people who come into my office are dealing with intimacy issues, like premature ejaculation, can’t ejaculate, don’t have relationships, all sorts of thing. I was finding a trend with my clients where they were coming in and either becoming very attracted to me or just having some sort of sexual issue, so I developed the Sensual Intimacy Program so that we could get back down to the natural basics. So I would do the session nude, and I don’t lay on them or anything like that. I will do some sensual massage and touch, but it’s not really sexual on my end. It’s more having an experience with another human on a primal level, and what that can bring up and elicit.

So if we’re naked and somebody goes into a sexual reaction, then we can work on that energy. I don’t offer that to everyone, obviously. But there are some people who prefer to pay for sex, so I wanted to offer an intimate, sensual experience without it having to be sexual.”

Destiny insists that her job doesn’t involve penetration, though that is a common misconception. The clients, she says, vary. “I would say in the back page realm it’s people who are looking for a sensual or sexual experience. I’m very clear with people about what it is that I offer before they get in, but some of them are still looking for a sexual release of some kind. Most of them are 35-55. I do work with a lot of women, but more on the spirituality and psychic communication realm.”

“My work is energy work and tantra work, and westerners often have a misconstrued perception of what tantra is,” she adds. “A lot of them believe that’s sex work, and that can be true but on a basic level it’s ancient energy work, working to release blockages in the energy field so that the body can respond to it’s fullest expression of itself. Often times, that includes removing sexual blocks that can affect sexuality and make it a very powerful experience. But tantra is not sex at it’s core – it’s energy work.”

While digging away, it became apparent that, while Boulder certainly does have a less-wealthy side, everything is in it’s own places. That the many tourists and the wealthy don’t have to look at. We have an ostrich head mentality to it all, which is a shame. Surely we should be embracing all of the members of our community. That can be hard.

Harms says that there are many reasons that see people end up homeless. “We often put them in categories to try to make sense of it a little bit,” he says. “There’s a fairly high number of folks who have some kind of mental health issue, there’s a pretty high incidence of addiction, and often those two go together – people who have mental health issues who self-medicate, primarily with alcohol. And then I think there’s a third category – those who are unlucky. They were on the street at 15 or they had a bad break-up and somebody got to keep the apartment while somebody didn’t. Maybe they had a falling out with their family, a healthcare crisis – any and every story you can think of. But some kind of situation that put them in a bad place and they don’t have the relationships or the resources to not be here. So they end up here.”

This can be said about anyone, homeless or not. It comes down to circumstance and the cards dealt. No matter if you sleep in a multimillion dollar house at the bottom of the Foothills or in a bunk at the homeless shelter, you just started your very successful start up company or turned to sex work to pay the bills, or you’re getting straight A’s at CU Boulder or had to drop out due to addiction, we are all a part of this community. Even the two deer eating from the trees in the trailer park.

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