The cold snap in mid-February revealed the gaping holes in Boulder’s homeless services safety net, and the death of Ryan Stoops made the consequences of such gaps very clear. City Council Member Rachel Friend pushed very quickly, via an email to the Hotline, asking that the 30 day limit on Severe Weather Shelter be addressed so that people who had already maxed out would “have the option to come inside from potentially lethal cold.”
After hearing from several concerned friends, I began a petition on the issue, with each person that signed generating an email to Council, and signers of the petition asked to call six of the council members.
Between the community members signing and acting rapidly, and the actions of Council Member Friend, the policy was loosened the same day to increase the maximum limit from 30 to 60, setting the City up for a foreseeable emergency in the near future.
This all followed a January 19th city council meeting at which topics such as “mandatory minimum sentences for homeless campers” were considered. Though this proposal found fertile ground only in the barren wasteland that is Council Member Wallach’s position on all things homeless, Council decided that it was a great idea to tell Boulder Police Chief Maris Herold to continue camping ban enforcement—despite no chance those who receive tickets will go to jail because the Boulder County Jail will not take anyone arrested on non-violent municipal violations.
A memo in the agenda packet, authored by the prosecution division of the city attorney, had also pointed to “formidable barriers to using Boulder’s camping law to reduce street homelessness.” The memo warranted praise from the NAACP Boulder County Branch, which wrote a ten page letter to Council on the issue, and stated that, “[w]e commend the authors for a very neutral presentation of a wealth of information clearly informed through a great deal of compassion in addressing this issue.”
City attorney Chris Reynolds, who is charged with prosecuting camping ban citations, had the additional task of presenting the benefit of mandatory minimum sentences in jail: access to mental health and addiction programming. Council members, perhaps shocked at the idea of having to force people into jail to access such programming, also shocked me in that they discussed the idea of providing such services without going to jail.
For now, camping citations are hardly worth the paper they are written on, yet that was Boulder’s best, if most stale and useless, idea moving forward to address concerns about people camping outside in the winter during a pandemic—and perhaps hiring more cops and increasing the bloated policing budget.
Yet, it was nice to see a council shocked by staff’s recommendation of mandatory jail minimums of 45 days or more for camping violations step back from the precipice and think about alternatives to jail.