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ACLU pushes Boulder to abandon ‘unconstitutional’ homeless policies

Civil rights group takes aim at two policies targeting unhoused residents
A man who said he has been waiting on a housing list and is ready to work is seen April 28 at an encampment on the Boulder Creek path. (Derek Miles for Colorado Newsline file)

The American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado sent a letter to Boulder officials this week regarding what it sees as the city’s “unconstitutional and inhumane” treatment of unhoused residents.

The letter took aim at two policies impacting unhoused residents: a requirement that a person must live in Boulder for more than six months before being eligible to stay at a homeless shelter, and the city’s enforcement of the urban camping ban for people who have no adequate alternatives. The residency requirement goes a step further by banning anyone who tries to access most homeless services before the six-month mark for the following two years.

“Records examined by the ACLU evidence a system that, with one hand, makes shelter available to only a limited few, and with the other, criminalizes those forced to sleep outdoors under the false narrative that they are resistant to services,” Annie Kurtz, an attorney with the ACLU, wrote in the letter.

“The scheme betrays a governmental aspiration ultimately to drive unhoused residents out of Boulder,” she said. “This approach to homelessness violates the Constitution, and we urge the City and (Homeless Solutions for Boulder County) to change course.”

The letter highlighted numerous U.S. Supreme Court rulings that have struck down attempts to implement residency requirements for homeless services and enforce an urban camping ban for people who have no other options.

Earlier this year, a Colorado district judge ruled that the city of Fort Collins violated the U.S. Constitution when it prosecuted a man for sleeping in his vehicle when he was not able to stay in a homeless shelter because it was at capacity. The city has had a “camping on public property” ordinance in place since 2018.

Similar to Fort Collins’ ordinance, Boulder’s camping ban makes it a crime to sleep overnight in public spaces. At the same time, the ACLU contests, inadequate shelter capacity, policies such as the six-month residency requirement, and other barriers to shelter make it difficult, if somewhat impossible, for many unhoused Boulder residents to seek shelter.

The civil rights group also took aim at recent policies and strategies implemented in Boulder, including the approval of $2.7 million in April to fund four proposals that increase the policing of people experiencing homelessness and the enforcement of the city’s camping ban.

More recently, Boulder City Council approved an emergency rule that allows law enforcement to remove tents and issue tickets or citations as soon as a tent or structure is erected. Before the new ordinance was enacted, law enforcement was required to give people living outdoors 72 hours notice.

A tent is pitched near the Glen Huntington Bandshell in downtown Boulder on April 28. (Derek Miles for Colorado Newsline file)

Council members also approved an ordinance making it illegal for propane tanks to be in public spaces without a permit. The tanks are often used by unhoused people for warmth during Colorado’s harsh winter months and to cook food.

In response to a council member’s question during a meeting on July 20, Sandra Llanes, Boulder’s interim city attorney, said she is not worried about potential lawsuits related to the new ordinances.

A federal judge issued a ruling in January that requires Denver city officials to give a written seven days notice before clearing most homeless encampments, or two days notice if the area is deemed dangerous to public health and safety.

“The ACLU calls on HSBC and the City of Boulder to abandon these practices, which not only are counterproductive and morally untenable, but, as detailed herein, plainly violate the Constitution,” Kurtz wrote in the letter.

The demands were sent to the executive board for Homeless Solutions for Boulder County – the intergovernmental entity that coordinates services for people experiencing homelessness in Boulder County – Boulder’s city manager Nuria Rivera-Vandermyde; chief of police Maris Herold; Boulder City Council members; Boulder County commissioners; and the CEO for Boulder Shelter for the Homeless, Greg Harms.

The ACLU asked city officials to respond by Aug. 12.

“At this point, we are hoping they will read our letter, engage with the case law we cite, which is pretty straight forward, and change the laws,” said Kurtz, who is an equal justice works fellow at the ACLU, a fellowship sponsored by Greenberg Traurig, LLP. “It’s a little premature to say whether or not we will take additional action. We just hope they do the right thing.”

To read more stories from Colorado Newsline, visit www.coloradonewsline.com.

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