Colorado Rights Blog

Guest blogger By: Guest blogger 6.14.2016

Boulder’s Reputation Tainted by Aggressive Enforcement of Anti-Homeless Camping Ban

This commentary from ACLU of Colorado speaker and volunteer Darren O’Connor first appeared in the Boulder Weekly on June 9, 2016.

The beauty of Boulder, nestled in the Foothills and dominated by the Flatirons, is a metro area gem that attracts a great number of visitors and would be residents wishing to enjoy its charms. Its reputation as an idyllic, liberal city, however, was recently tainted by University of Denver Law School’s report, Too High A Price: What Criminalizing Homelessness Costs Colorado.

Boulder was found to issue citations for camping at more than twice the rate of Fort Collins, and 19 times that of Colorado Springs — the cities that issue the greatest number of camping citations after Boulder. Eighty-seven percent of those receiving such citations in Boulder identified as homeless, and 84 percent of the citations were only for camping.

While City Councilmembers would be at legal risk if they admitted camping and other laws primarily target unhoused people, one is reminded of Anatole France’s quote, “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”

Ironically, Boulder laws require pet owners provide, “enclosed structure sufficient to protect the animal from wind, rain, snow, or sun,” yet camping is against the law and prohibits in part using shelter. In the ordinance, shelter is defined such that it “includes, without limitation, any cover or protection from the elements other than clothing.” Thus, a homeless person with a pet must both provide it shelter against the elements and avoid use for themselves of any such protection, lest they be ticketed.

In contrast to the camping ordinance language, City Attorney Tom Carr recently stated, “Our camping ordinance doesn’t ban shelter, it doesn’t ban blankets. It is a reasonable and moderate response to prohibit camping on public property.” As a member of the homeless advocacy group Boulder Rights Watch, I requested a clarification from Carr on the disparity between his statement and the ordinance, but my request went unanswered.

Boulder officials and members of the community recently traveled to Portland, Oregon, where Mayor Hales spoke to them decrying as inhumane having the police tell people, “You can’t pitch a tent here.” Returning from the trip, where they visited Eugene Oregon’s Opportunity Village, Council Member Aaron Brockett stated, “I saw new ways to work on problems that we haven’t been pursuing so far.”

Others on the trip, notably Councilmembers Shoemaker and Appelbaum (who did not visit Opportunity Village), referred to Boulder’s response to homelessness (shelters and overflow shelters that address a fraction of the unhoused that executive director of the Boulder Shelter for the Homeless estimated at 1,500 people), as “a much better product.” Those on Council who appear supportive of not criminalizing homelessness through its camping law have received recent support for such a move, with ACLU of Colorado’s Denise Maes and Mark Silverstein speaking at city council meetings.

I have also challenged the City with videos showing Officer Lord, questioning a man near the library where unhoused people congregate, for holding an unlit cigarette, stating on camera that, “It’s not us that just comes down here willy-nilly, we come down here because the City Manager has asked us,” going on to say, “They can leave the city of Boulder, they can leave the state of Colorado, they can leave the country if they want to.”

Boulder must work on both their laws and how police enforce them; otherwise they must admit that its beauty, its open space, and even its streets are only open to the wealthy.

Darren O’Connor has lived in Boulder since 1994, where he received his masters degree in electrical engineering and is a social justice advocate with groups including Boulder Rights Watch, Denver Homeless Out Loud and Boulder Coalition and Alliance on Race.

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