The City of Boulder, like many communities throughout the country, struggles with homelessness. We work in partnership with Boulder County and area agencies to diligently provide services for individuals and families experiencing homelessness or trying to avert becoming unhoused.
It is important for us to be clear that individuals experiencing homelessness in public places is not the issue. However, the day-to-day living and belongings – tents, clothing, bicycles, shopping carts, etc, -- that some individuals are storing in the floodplain, public areas or rights of way pose a significant hazard and in many cases impede access for all the public to enjoy. These items are not permitted and are subject to immediate removal by the city. The city wants and needs to continue to address these instances.
Removal of an unsanctioned campground is done as a last resort when the occupants are resistant to services and refuse to vacate. Committed to compassion, we issue multiple soft notices in advance of a formal notice. With each round of notice, we attempt to engage people in resources. The cleanup day is the last step of a long process. Vacated residents may take their belongings with them, and city crews address any remaining items.
It is the policy of the City of Boulder to legally and compassionately prevent and disband unsanctioned campsites as quickly as possible to avoid harm to inhabitants, the broader community, as well as public spaces and natural resources. We hope the information on this page is helpful. This is a complex topic, and the city is spending considerable time and energy addressing it.
Safe and Welcoming Spaces
The City of Boulder leverages a multi-department cleanup team that focuses on the creek corridors and park area downtown.
We have a formula for prioritizing which areas get cleaned up and we follow strict notification protocols and procedures. The unsanctioned camping does reoccur, and we continuously respond to inquiries and prioritize the work.
Directed patrols are conducted as staffing allows in an effort to keep spaces open and safe for public use.
This work is supported by outreach to individuals experiencing homelessness to engage them with services, shelter and housing.
Safe Management of Public Spaces Data Dashboard
The data provided on this dashboard visually depicts locations of confirmed unsanctioned campsites and the related city staff response.
Safe Management of Public Spaces Data Dashboard
A Complex Topic
While it can be challenging to keep up with new unsanctioned campsites, we understand the importance of staying focused.
As we continue to leverage a team comprised of multiple city departments, nonprofit agencies, and a private contractor, we are also building additional internal capacity to better address unsanctioned campsite clean-ups and public space management. Our ability to leverage additional resources was made possible through a funding approval made by City Council last summer. This funding is supporting the creation of an internal clean-up team, as well as an increased presence that will involve a variety of personnel.
In July 2021, an emergency ordinance related to tents in parks and other city property, and the possession of propane tanks on public property was passed in an effort to address safety issues. This ordinance is a modification of the existing ordinance BRC 8-3-21. A period of education and warnings was conducted before enforcement began in mid-August. These additional tools were requested and designed by City Council to increase the effectiveness of the city’s efforts to promote safe and welcoming public spaces and disallow camping in public spaces.
Working Toward Meaningful Solutions
In addition to unsanctioned campsite removals, we do issue tickets to people for violating the city’s camping ordinance. The citations that bring them to court serve as an opportunity to get participants engaged. Sanctions are aimed at resolving a person’s unhoused status and are tailored to each individual’s needs. Sometimes the person needs something simple like help replacing a state identification card, and sometimes it can be something complex like getting a person ready for housing. Often, their actions result in dismissal of the charge(s).
Our data shows that the community court model is working. From Oct. 1, 2020 – Dec. 31, 2021, 144 people with 504 cases were seen in community court. Over 525 tasks or sanctions were ordered, and 454 of those were completed, which amounts to a completion rate in excess of 86%. In some cases, these assignments are completed at court. BUT prior to community court, sanctions such as traditional community service were completed less than 10% of the time and often landed individuals in jail, which did not address the root cause of the original crime.
For the unhoused community as a whole, success means the criminal and human services systems are working together in a seamless way. When we can address the underlying issues causing homelessness, then we are going to have a safer community.
We believe the single best solution to homelessness is providing housing. The City of Boulder’s Homelessness Strategy was developed as part of a larger countywide partnership involving Homeless Solutions for Boulder County (HSBC), a collaboration between the City of Boulder, City of Longmont, and Boulder County. The collaborative takes an approach from national best practices, which have demonstrated that housing is the most effective intervention. Options for people experiencing homelessness vary based on their level of need.
Frequently Asked Questions
Our Safe and Welcoming Spaces (SAMPS) team – comprised of leadership in Utilities, Parks & Recreation, Police, and Housing & Human Services, as well as the City Attorney’s Office – have developed a prioritization protocol that guides our efforts. The protocol strives to balance the need for safe and clean public spaces with efforts to connect individuals experiencing homelessness with a coordinated system of services. Particular prioritization and attention are given to public spaces near schools, near parks with playground equipment, and in floodways. Such cleanup efforts also have legal and resource constraints that impact frequency of abatement as well as guide us on the legal requirements of prior notice.
We conduct multiple clean-up operations, provide outreach and support for unhoused community members on a weekly basis, but clearly there is a greater need than we currently have capacity for. Work is currently underway to hire and train a second public spaces reclamation team. We believe the additional capacity will result in more positive outcomes.
The city currently removes propane tanks immediately from unsanctioned campsites as part of its ongoing clean-up efforts and also in direct response to 911 or non-emergency calls (303-441-3333) outside of the Safe and Managed Spaces (SAMPS) work. Between January 2022 and February 2023, city staff have confiscated 352 propane tanks. Despite these efforts, the majority of the time, propane tanks are located inside tents and concealed from view and don’t become apparent until a full-scale campsite clean-up occurs.
We provide outreach to all individuals camping in an area before an official 72-hour notice to vacate is posted. Our Homeless Outreach Team, BTHERE, and resource navigators work hard to ensure that individuals in these areas are aware of, and are connected to, available resources. These resources continue to be available and will be offered during clean-up as alternatives to unsanctioned camping. While some individuals may be resistant to services for a wide variety of reasons, we will continue to ensure services remain available and offered.
Currently, the city provides individuals participating in unsanctioned camping 72-hour notice to collect their personal belonging and vacate the area prior to the cleanup of any given encampment. This timing is based on a review of best practices across the nation and informed by numerous court decisions. This includes a recent ruling that required our neighboring Denver community to provide seven days prior notice for large encampment cleanups. Other cities provide up to 14 days' notice. Very few provide less than 72 hours. There are, of course, exceptions to this notification, but those exceptions have traditionally been very narrowly focused.
Exceptions to the 72-hour notice rule have to be narrowly tailored in order to comply with legal requirements. Our SAMPS team is currently drafting exceptions to the 72-hour notice protocol for example, an exception that addresses dangerous obstructions on multiuse paths and in underpasses. Community members have told us - and we concur - that these obstructions pose a risk both to those camping and commuters such as cyclists who may not be able to react in time to avoid harm on these shared multiuse paths.
The issue of school zones is more challenging. While there are other cities, such as Portland, that have designated safety zones around schools, these cities tend to allow camping in other locations. Boulder’s policy, in contrast, is to prohibit camping and strive for enforcement in all locations. Designating a safety zone around schools would not add to Boulder’s enforcement toolkit because camping is already banned near schools and in all other public places. Similarly, while schools are part of Portland’s high priority designation, they too provide 72-hour notice prior to addressing these encampments.
We do our best to have an increased presence in the area to discourage re-occupation. If we continue to see unsanctioned campsites in the immediate clean up area, we will continue to send crews to address on an as-needed basis and as resources permit. Our outreach efforts are ongoing to connect people to housing and other support services.
In some, but not all cases, we erect temporary fencing while we mitigate and address unsanitary conditions that potentially present a health hazard to visitors and city workers.
City, County and Community Partner Resources
Police Homeless Outreach Team
Boulder Shelter for the Homeless
Mental Health Partners
Boulder County Public Health
Homeless Solutions for Boulder County
Boulder Targeted Homelessness Engagement and Referral Effort
TGTHR To End Youth Homelessness
Clinica Family Health