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Ballot Initiative 302: A Tale of Two Boulders

Ballot Initiative 302: A Tale of Two Boulders


In an unprecedented election season, the spotlight has been seized by proposed legislation on safety risks related to homelessness, the polarizing Safe Zones 4 Kids ballot initiative that both the Daily Camera and the Boulder Weekly have come out against. 

I was excited to research this article comparing policy positions of Safe Zones 4 Kids (SZ4K) and No on 302, a group I support. [This has been added back in from the original draft to disclose the author’s position]

Boulder psychiatrist and SZ4K spokesperson Jennifer Rhodes described 302 as a simple, straightforward matter of protecting schoolchildren by strengthening existing policy: “302 is a one sentence addendum to an existing ordinance, BRC 8-3-21, that would compel the city to give higher priority to schools and the pathways kids use to get to school when the city does the work of removing prohibited items, as defined by 8-3-21.” 

SZ4K, whose endorsers include Safer Boulder and PLAN-Boulder County, denied that 302 targets the unhoused. However, the ballot measure refers specifically to the controversial camping ban (BRC 8-3-21) established in 2021, an enforcement-based response to homeless encampments, a long-standing conundrum in Boulder that has never before been voted on. Homelessness has come to the fore because, as Andy Sayler of No on 302 pointed out, “the homeless rates have increased substantially over the last few years in a very visible manner. None of us walk around Boulder and go, like, things are going great. There’s people camping along the creek path!”

The No on 302 campaign, endorsed by organizations such as Boulder County NAACP and Boulder Progressives, acknowledges the reality of safety risks near paths and schools due to the actions of a very small percentage of unhoused people, particularly in the downtown area near the Boulder Creek Path and Boulder High School. They argue that the initiative will not effectively address such risks and that there is much to unpack in that single sentence on the ballot.

Not Simple?

Katie Farnan of the No on 302 campaign pointed to the language specifying the removal of “prohibited items, such as tents, temporary structures, or propane tanks” — equipment associated with homeless encampments—“within five hundred feet of a school or fifty feet of any multi-use path or sidewalk.” 

Farnan shared with me the City of Boulder’s “threat matrix” by which encampments are ranked in priority for clearing. Currently, the only category that ranks higher in priority than proximity to waterways (“x4”) and schools (“x4”) is threats of violence (“x5”), and, importantly, not everything that qualifies for removal gets cleared. 

According to 302’s opponents, this means that the change in policy would punish encampments for location more than for dangerous behavior. Winning the vote would enshrine the policy in law so that it is more difficult to change. Opponents like No on 302 organizer Aidan Reed are “not sure if that measurably reduces public crime. It does in the moment, perhaps. But over the long term, you’ve moved it along,” and on this point opponents mention cities like Chico, CA. No on 302’s Sayler added, “when you’re taking away the place they’re currently living without giving them any other place to go, you’re not really solving any problem, you’re just shuffling the problem around. It’s ineffective, but it is, unfortunately, the strategy the City has been pursuing and the strategy that Safe Zones helps to put additional political force behind.”

Ballot initiative 302 is as much about city politics as visible homelessness. Sayler described how there’s a “high correlation” between positions on 302 and the current high-stakes face-off between conservative and progressive candidates in city elections: “we’re electing a mayor, we’re electing four Council seats. Those five new people are really going to be the ones that drive Council’s position going forward.” No on 302 is interested in “making sure we have folks in those seats that are really interested in addressing this issue via effective, data-driven practices and a willingness to experiment.”

Although Rhodes of SZ4K stated that “a person not being housed does not alone pose a threat to public safety,” No on 302 said the law would respond as if it did. “Safe Zones wants to say that it doesn’t matter what an encampment is doing, it matters where it is,” Farnan explained. 

Indeed, as Rhodes of SZ4K stated, “302 changes the when and where, not the work that is done.” For Farnan, “that is basically criminalizing an entire group of people for being homeless.” Douglas Hamilton of No on 302 described the ballot initiative as “dehumanizing,” adding that “when you start to dehumanize folks, then anything’s possible. ” 

Perhaps both groups can agree that SZ4K 302 is “simple and straightforward.” To the No on 302 campaign it’s simply “a referendum on homelessness.”

Not about Safety? 

In addition to the safety of schoolchildren, the stakes of 302 include the safety of unhoused people — the real victims of homelessness — and how their plight can destabilize safety in a community.

Particularly in extreme cold and heat, the harm of being unhoused, which usually means lacking adequate healthcare, is very great, not to mention the shocking rates of sexual violence experienced by homeless women

“The unhoused are, by far, disproportionately the primary victims of crimes by the unhoused,” explained Reed, adding that this is why many unhoused people avoid shelters and prefer to camp. It can be difficult to keep these facts in mind when a person suffering from homelessness is behaving in an odd or menacing way, Reed said. Rhodes of SZ4K explained, “vulnerable people experiencing substance use disorders, mental health crises as well as being unsheltered who openly use drugs and experience instability in our public spaces pose safety concerns to themselves and the general public.” 

On top of that, according to No on 302, clearing encampments further disrupts the daily lives of homeless people, rendering them even more vulnerable, because they often have nowhere else to go. In the perspective of No no 302’s Hamilton, “this type of legislation is immoral” and would make Boulder “actually less safe,” as with other cities like Portland, OR.

As No on 302’s Reed pointed out, “leading with enforcement, leading with encampment clearings has a disproportionate impact on people of color.” African Americans are particularly overrepresented among the unhoused by comparison with numbers in the population.

Not about Kids?

Camping is already illegal in public space, propane tanks are already prohibited, and dangerous items are removed immediately if reported. So, opponents argue, in what way will kids be more protected? “I don’t really see how it actually measurably improves public health or safety,” said Reed.  For opponents, if 302 would merely push encampments to other areas, such as the Pearl Street pedestrian mall, the foothills, and neighborhoods like Goss-Grove and University Hill, heightening the risk of fire and sanitation issues affecting everyone, including kids.

SZ4K’s rhetoric about saving the children, explained Sayler, is an age-old tactic: “From a political standpoint, no one wants to take the position of doing something that’s bad for kids. Homeless or unhoused individuals in Boulder County are not even in the top ten set of risks to children right now. Similarly, on the trans front, trans individuals are not a risk to children. It’s a false political narrative that’s being deployed.”

What’s more, 302’s opponents said, 302 is clearly not limited to an effort to protect school kids. They add that, by including sidewalks and multi-use paths within safe zones, 302 covers around 80% of the city. As Sayler put it: “you’ve suddenly rolled up a huge amount of the city into this measure, the vast majority of which has nothing to do with schools.”

To these criticisms SZ4K responded, “the language of the ballot item includes the words ‘subject to’ prioritized removal. These words give the city the necessary latitude to use best practices based on real time risk assessments. In other words, not all sidewalks at all times all at once will be prioritized – like the opposition is disingenuously contending. Also the language says ‘multi-use pathways OR sidewalks’ not AND sidewalks. Even if the ordinance included only the words, ‘multi-use pathways,’ sidewalks would still be included according to the City attorney.” The City Attorney stated in an email, they will not comment on “a legal interpretation of a pending ballot item.”

Perhaps the most important criticism of 302 rests on the understanding that many unhoused people are children, and they are the kids harmed most by homelessness. Thus, according to opponents, the ballot initiative fails in its most central claim: protecting kids from harm. On average, there are just under 400 homeless kids in Boulder, and the number rises sharply following public emergencies like the Marshall Fire.

Children who are housed can also be negatively impacted by enforcement-based responses to homelessness. No on 302’s Farnan, who has spent many hours with her kids volunteering for local homeless aid organizations, sees 302’s approach as not just harmful to homeless people but a poor example for children, teaching them to dehumanize the unhoused. Kids, she says, learn what to think, feel, and do — and how to solve problems — from watching what adults are doing. Farnon said that 302, in effect, “is pitting groups against each other, pitting students against homeless people, and then asking voters to choose. I think it’s bad policy.”

A Question of Capacity

No on 302 recognizes that voters are frustrated with the amount of visible homelessness in Boulder despite the camping ban. Reed argued — paraphrasing Police Chief Maris Herold’s remarks at the September 7, 2023, City Council meeting — that the real problem is capacity: “right now our jail is full. They’re still dealing with COVID-era backlogs.” There is also a severe shortage of mental health professionals to provide services in the jail. 

Rhodes of SZ4K focuses on the resources already mobilized, claiming that Boulder taxpayers spend “more per capita than any other municipality in the county for sheltering and other supportive services like Boulder Shelter for the Homeless.” Rhodes argued that 302 would utilize existing resources without diverting funds from other programs or increasing spending. For the No on 302 campaign, avoiding budget increases is not the point. Reed sees a need for clarity about the resources and services available by comparison with the demand.

With respect to the issue of capacity, some might argue that Ballot Initiative 302 is overly simple. Rhodes may be correct in claiming that 302 “has no budget implications of any kind and really is little different from current enforcement practices, other than in the timing of removal of prohibited items.” However, according to No on 302, reprioritizing the use of enforcement funds and Boulder’s limited services would have serious material impacts, with unhoused people suffering more, even those who are not hurting anyone. 

“We Want the Same Thing”

“We both want solutions. We welcome the engagement about solutions,” Rhodes of SZ4K said. Hamilton of No on 302 summarizes how every parent feels, across the political spectrum: “I have two children in middle school, one is going to be in the high school next year. I care about their safety, and I don’t want them to be in dangerous places.” As Rhodes puts it, “One would think this is something we, as a community, would care to address.”

In Hamilton’s opinion, the yes-or-no decision-making of electoral politics may not lead to an answer: “The way electoral politics is set up is an us-versus-them mentality. And I truly don’t see the proponents of this measure as anything but human beings trying to do what they think is best for the community. How do we have a full community conversation? Homeless people need to be in this. Everyone needs to be in this conversation, as a community.” Similarly, No on 302’s Sayler said, “What I would like to see done isn’t actually on the ballot. The only way we’re going to make progress on this front is to be willing to try things and then look at whether or not they’re working and try something different.” 

Organizers of No on 302 emphasized that regardless of the outcome of the vote, they have ideas for how community conversations might move forward, and they know it won’t be easy. As Farnan summarized: “people are frustrated. People don’t want to have visible public camping in their spaces, where they believe everybody should have the freedom to use those spaces. But 302 is nothing more than a frustration channel. It’s not going to reduce homelessness. It’s not going to enhance our safety.”

When it comes to solving the problem of homelessness, said Farnan, “We could have started somewhere else, we should have started somewhere else.”


Carolyn Elerding
Carolyn Elerding (she/they), PhD, is a writer, editor, activist, and former professor based in Boulder. Elerding’s writing on cultural and social issues like diversity, equality, and the climate can also be found in such venues as Ms. magazine and The Real News network. Find them online at @celerding @[email protected] https://carolynelerding.com/

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