12 May 2011

Homeless City

Filed under: Culture, Reflections — ktismatics @ 6:09 pm

Another “invisible city”: the homeless. They don’t live anywhere in particular, and so it seems as though they live nowhere at all. But they live here, as much a part of our town as I am. Some of them stay for a few weeks before moving on; others have lived here for twenty years. They might sleep in the shelter or under a highway overpass or in the park; they might have a P.O. box and a cell phone and a notebook computer; they might even have a job. They are subject to, and protected by, the same laws as I am. They just don’t have a permanent residence.

But you already know this in a general sense. Here are some particulars about this invisible city in my town.

Boulder Colorado has a population of about 100 thousand. There is a homeless shelter on the north edge of town that can accommodate 120 people overnight. The shelter is open from October through April, an interval during which overnight temperatures typically fall below freezing. The shelter is closed during the daytime. No individual can stay more than 90 nights at the shelter during any one season. The shelter is closed during the daytime; everyone must leave for the day and return at night. (Wouldn’t want the homeless people to feel like the shelter is home, would we?) No one with substance problems can stay at the shelter. From May through September the shelter is closed.

The real estate crash and the jump in unemployment have resulted in an increase in homelessness. Consequently, the homeless shelter is no longer big enough to meet the need for shelter during the cold season. In response, some homeless people and some religious people have put together a network of churches/synagogues to serve as warming centers. A nonprofit organization called BOHO coordinates this network and its services. (My wife Anne is a board member, which is how I know about BOHO.) Each night one of the participating organizations opens its doors for overnight accommodation, providing floor space, blankets, heat, and sometimes food. A few homeless guys do the setup and take-down, clean up afterward, and provide low-level security overnight. The next night the warming center relocates to one of the other churches/synagogues — a homeless shelter that is itself homeless. Substance abusers are not prohibited. During the season that just ended this temporary shelter network was open for 150 nights and housed an average of more than 70 people per night, for a total of  11,000 total guest-nights. There was a handful of police interventions and one death (accidental overdose).

Now it’s May: the season is over; the shelter is closed. Presumably for the next few months the homeless can sleep outdoors without freezing to death. Problem is, there’s a law in Boulder that prohibits camping on public property. And of course unauthorized camping on someone else’s property is also illegal. That means that the homeless people of Boulder have nowhere to sleep legally. Violators of the no-camping law are given a ticket and a $100 fine. If the ticketed person fails to pay the fine he or she is jailed. Ordinarily the judge hands down a sentence of community service, but since the homeless person had no money to pay the fine he also can’t pay bail. That means staying in jail until the court date, which also means racking up costs for jail and court time amounting to at least $2,000 per case. It’s the criminalization of homelessness, at public expense. The ACLU has taken on the issue, and there has been some public outcry.

So here’s the proposal that BOHO is exploring: During the warm season, participating churches/synagogues make their parking lots or grounds available as campgrounds for the homeless people. Again, the campgrounds will rotate from site to site each night. Again, the work crew of homeless guys will do setup, take-down, and security. The city attorney is on board with this plan. However, the city managers don’t want to pay BOHO to run this program, which mostly means refusing to pay the work crew of homeless guys. So if this camping scheme is going to happen this year, either the crew will have to volunteer or private contributions will have to cover the costs.

In planning meetings the city bureaucrats seem more concerned about the neighbors’ reactions than about providing a place for the homeless people to sleep legally and safely. No one from the city seems to be exploring the possibility of keeping the homeless shelter open during the warm season, which would certainly help. The shelter is staffed by full-timers who get paid far more than do the cobbled-together BOHO crew. Interestingly, the shelter staff gets paid during the summer even when the shelter itself is closed. Makes you wonder whether the city is paying the shelter to limit access by its designated clientele…

Anne is busily writing BOHO’s proposal to the city, due midnight Sunday, to cover next year’s indoor cold season and outdoor warm season. The city also wants projections for the subsequent two years. I’d say Anne should budget with the assumption that homelessness will continue to be a growth industry for at least that long. In all likelihood the city will agree to pay only a fraction of BOHO’s costs, even though those costs are a fraction of the homeless shelter’s costs.


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