Who is homelessness hurting?

March 10, 2011

By Cassandra Smith

Homelessness is often described as a “problem”, but who exactly is suffering?  Some Boulder residents claim current city policy regarding homelessness hurts both individuals and the city as a whole.

At last Tuesday’s city council meeting, several Boulder citizens spoke out against the ordinance that tickets people for sleeping outside with any type of shelter. They claimed it is creating unnecessary strain on city funds, risking peoples’ health, and unfairly criminalizing homelessness.

David B. Harrison, attorney in Boulder, addressed the council at the meeting. Harrison does pro bono work for the homeless in Boulder who are forced to go to court, because they are unable to pay the fine associated with the ordinance. He believes this ordinance “essentially outlaws homelessness, because it there is no alternative for them but to sleep outside.”

Jiah Kim, Boulder resident who works as an information technology professional, also spoke at the meeting and believes the ordinance needs amendment.  She said, “People shouldn’t be put in jail only because they don’t have a place to stay; that’s what the ordinance is doing to the homeless.”

Boulder has places for the homeless to go to sleep, but they have limitations and restrictions. The Boulder Homeless Shelter offers emergency housing, which Harrison estimates can accommodate approximately 130 people. However, it is only open between October 15 and April 30 and there is a limit to 90 nights per season per person.

There is also a program called Boulder Outreach for Homeless Overflow (BOHO), which allows people to sleep in different churches for the night. It is open when certain weather conditions are met; the temperature must be below 38 degrees with precipitation or below 32 degrees without precipitation. Harrison estimates it can accommodate about 100 people.

These programs provide places to sleep for potentially 230 people, however Harrison’s research shows there are roughly 500 homeless people in Boulder on any given night. This exposes the economic problem at hand; there are more people that need a place to sleep than there is available space.

Harrison explained, ““If BOHO isn’t open and/or if it’s after May 1, people have no where to go.” The city ordinance banning people from sleeping outside with even a sleeping bag is, therefore, targeting the homeless affected by the restrictions and limitations of shelter policy.

Kim believes this is an extreme social injustice.  She said: ““The message that Boulder sends out with this ordinance is that the city doesn’t want the homeless to stay and camp outside in the city area. The city doesn’t care whether the homeless are harmless or not.”

Kim believes Boulder perpetuates class-based discrimination by enforcing this ordinance.  She stated, “I think that a lot of people in Boulder are pretty well off, and they care more about their property and welfare for themselves than social justice or basic human rights for the poor.”

The issue is much more than where to sleep at night for Kim.  She said: “The homeless are prosecuted by the city and invisible to the most of its residents. It’s discrimination and complete alienation of the poor and the homeless; profits over human rights. It’s not just Boulder, I should say. It’s the real face of capitalism.”

Regardless of ideological risks we may be taking in enforcing this ordinance, there are real health risks involved.  Although people are allowed to sleep outside in just their clothing, the Colorado winter is often able to induce hypothermia, or worse, without proper protection.

In addition to the health concerns posed by this ordinance, it is costing the city a considerable amount of money to enforce. According to Harrison’s figures, the city issued 856 of these camping tickets during 2009 and 2010.

These tickets incur a fine; the homeless targeted by this ordinance often receive a court date because of their inability to pay the fine. Harrison explains that there is a strong tendency for these people to miss their court dates as they are often unaware of the day and time.

After missing their court date, a warrant is issued for their arrest. If by chance one of these people is ticketed with another minor offense, he or she is brought to jail because of the warrant.

Harrison stated these people “usually spend two or three nights in jail until the courts see them.” This not only requires efforts from the people involved with enforcement and correction, but it is “costing the city $70 a night to house these people in jail.” Harrison thinks these efforts and funds are better directed elsewhere.

Harrison’s opinion is that the city should “get rid of the camping ordinance and let them sleep with a sleeping bag at night .” He thinks people should assess whether sleeping outside presents a real threat and instead, “enforce the other ordinances that are really the things that are causing the problem.”

Kim shares a similar proposal and believes we need to look at the issue differently.  She stated, “It’s not about how to ‘deal’ with the problem; we need to see the people, aka the homeless, who are in very difficult situations right at this moment and need our help.”

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