[BoulderCouncilHotline] Human Relations Commission Resolution on Homeless Policy

Wallach, Mark WallachM at bouldercolorado.gov
Tue Nov 24 14:18:14 MST 2020

I have just reviewed a resolution passed by Boulder’s Human Relations Commission taking the City to task for its policies relating to our homeless population. I find this resolution to be problematic in a number of ways, and this Hotline post is intended to set out my objections to the content of their statement, as I believe that HRC’s resolution adds little to the conversation regarding this important and sensitive issue.

HRC first criticizes the City for applying inadequate resources to solve the problem of our unhoused population, and because the City does not permit the homeless to shelter on our Open Space.  In this, and perhaps only this, HRC is correct. We do not provide sufficient resources to solve the problem of homelessness. No city can, or has. What they fail to discuss is the following: How much is required? What amount would be sufficient? How would this be funded and what City programs would be terminated if we provided such resources? The members of the HRC appear to live in a parallel universe where good thoughts are not constrained by reference to actual resources and their limitations. Need I remind anyone that we are in the midst of a pandemic and both financial and staff resources are short?

And with respect to sheltering on Open Space, it is my belief that, for the vast majority of Boulder residents, camping on Open Space is simply a non-starter. Many – perhaps most - residents of Boulder moved here in large part because of its unique Open Space, and do not want to see it become a campground with the attendant environmental consequences. I believe this is a view shared by the vast majority of Boulder residents. We have received hundreds of emails complaining about the current state of the Boulder Creek Trail, the discovery of used needles on Open Space, and the presence of refuse and waste on lands that are intended to be protected. I doubt that more than a sliver of Boulder residents would favor unrestricted camping on Open Space, and I suggest that HRC attempt some community outreach to determine the extent to which that policy has traction in Boulder.

Finding fault with the adequacy of the options Boulder provides to its homeless population is easy, but not substantive.  And before excoriating Boulder’s performance on this issue, would it be out of line to expect some supporting data? For instance,  how does Boulder compare in the amounts of money it provides to serve the homeless with other cities in Boulder County? To other cities in Colorado? To similarly sized cities throughout the U.S.? In light of the panoply of programs Boulder funds to care for the homeless, are we really so uncaring and callous, or are we actually doing the best we can, and doing pretty well at that? The HRC resolution provides no illumination.

HRC also takes umbrage that we provide insufficient services to those who have little or no connection to Boulder. In an ideal world, I like to think that we would. But in the actual world, how would this work? Should every unhoused individual who travels to Boulder enjoy the immediate right to an affordable housing unit, when we struggle to provide those resources to community members who have lost their homes? Are we required to expand shelter capacity to accommodate all, no matter how many unhoused individuals come to Boulder? If the answer is no, what is HRC’s  basis for serving some, but not all? If the answer is yes, exactly how would this be done and with what resources?

Next comes the claim that we have not adequately analyzed the possibilities for sanctioned camp grounds, safe parking sites and tiny home villages. The problem with this contention is that these alternatives have indeed been analyzed by staff (more than once) and reviewed by Council. It is just that the members of HRC do not like the answers. There are very substantial issues with both sanctioned camping sites and tiny home villages that HRC seems to simply wish away. Council has expressed a more positive view of safe parking locations, and HRC’s time would have been more productively spent attempting to provide Council with the basis to approve the initiation of such a program. And if the members of HRC disagree with previous staff analyses of these issues, by all means provide a better one. The claim that these possibilities have not been seriously looked at by staff or considered by Council is not factually correct. Council is certainly not unanimous on these issues, but they have been extensively reviewed and discussed.

Most disturbing is the HRC suggestion (and it is carefully couched as a “possibility”) that the City (and therefor staff) may be committing human rights violations, presumably in the execution of  policies with which the HRC disagrees. I point out that accusations of human rights abuses are a very serious matter, and if the HRC believes these have occurred I suggest that they forward their complaints to the proper prosecutorial authorities so that legal action may be taken. But what human rights violations are alleged? Without supporting evidence, this claim resembles nothing so much as the claims of rampant voter fraud in Pennsylvania. Until HRC provides more specificity, I am left wondering if there is any there, there. But why not make the allegation and see if it sticks? It seems to work elsewhere.

And then HRC asserts that the necessary remedy to combat these unspecified human rights violations by the City is to establish an oversight committee to root out abuses. This could possibly be one of the worst ideas in recent - and perhaps distant - memory.  The very notion is disturbing: a committee to enforce conformity to a specific vision of social policy under the threat of potential charges. Suffice it to say that our dedicated staff is doing good and difficult work in an almost impossible environment, and they deserve our gratitude, not a committee to criticize, regulate and potentially punish their actions. On the other hand, if HRC believes that violations are being committed by the Council or its members, then have at it. Criticism is what we signed up for and, given the current state of public discourse in this country, accusations of human rights violations are pretty much par for the course.

Almost any policy enacted by Council comes with a good deal of opposition: see the debates over CU South, the Muni, and the budget. But that opposition is almost always characterized by substantial analysis and argument. The HRC  has simply delivered a set of conclusions, provided no support or explanation for those positions, or provided us with any kind of road map to guide us towards their implementation. As a member of the Council, my greatest need is for specific, well-considered advice on how to achieve better outcomes. Instead, HRC has indulged itself to produce a statement of its values, and while they are certainly entitled to do so, it has missed the opportunity to provide useful guidance on how to approach this difficult issue. The publication of this resolution may have been gratifying to the members of the Human Relations Commission, but Boulder would have been better served by a more constructive approach.
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