Boulder’s tenting ban leaves unhoused residents no alternate options, plaintiffs say

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On Christmas morning, Jeni Shurley was greeted by a Boulder police officer. This was the third interaction between the two, leading to Shurley’s second ticket to outdoor camping.

She can’t stay at an animal shelter because of her dogs, and Boulder’s high rental rates leave her with few options.

Shurley is one of the homeless plaintiffs represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado in a legal action against boulders. The lawsuit alleges that the city’s camping ban, which prohibits unaccommodated residents from sleeping outside while using an out-of-clothing shelter, is unconstitutional.

“[Boulder’s camping ban]is making something illegal for which we have no alternative,” Shurely said. “There is no choice.”

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Sarah Huntley, a spokeswoman for the city of Boulder, said on behalf of the police department and city government that the city received the lawsuit from the ACLU and will file its response in court.

Two other plaintiffs are saying the same thing as Shurley – homeless residents have no alternative. Jennifer Livovich, the founder of Feet Forward, and Lisa Sweeney-Miran, the vice president of the Boulder Valley school district and executive director of Mother House, a shelter for people who identify as women, transgender or non-binary with children, are at the Case involved as a taxpayer.

Livovich has lived in Boulder for ten years. She had no shelter until she received state aid in 2018. She says her time in Boulder has given her first-hand experience of what homeless people experience in the city.

Being homeless, Livovich suffered from frostbite, which in part inspired her to organize Feet Forward. The organization focuses on peer support, street work and the distribution of relief items such as food and clothing.

Shoes for the homeless in Boulder are on a table during Feet Forward’s outreach on June 14, 2022. Jennifer Livovich called Feet Forward’s clothing distribution a “mall for the homeless.” (Zoe Schacht/Colorado Newsline)

Livovich’s first-hand experience with the city’s only emergency shelter shows just how dysfunctional operations can be. The shelter only has 160 beds, and she said there could be no more additions. However, the lottery system used to access the facility is fanciful. Livovich said navigating the shelter’s system can be confusing without a cell phone, computer, or the skills to do so.

“People have no choice but to be outside, and then missing them a ticket is extremely cruel,” Livovich said of the lottery system.

I don’t know if there is anyone who could actually witness an interaction between the police and a person without shelter and look at this power imbalance and the dynamics of fear and feel like this is the best solution.

– Lisa Sweeney-Miran, a plaintiff in the ACLU lawsuit against Boulder

In 2017, when Livovich was homeless, her boyfriend Benjamin Harvey had to leave the city shelter after an incident. That night Livovich wasn’t in Boulder. Harvey’s body was Found Christmas morning after he freezes.

“He had nowhere to go but outside,” Livovich said. “That’s the point I’m trying to make. We have an emergency shelter, 160 beds, and whether it’s 2017 or 2022, homelessness is on the rise. And that is insufficient. It is insufficient.”

Jeni Shurley (Courtesy American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado)

Like Livovich, Sweeney-Miran, a taxpayer individually involved in the lawsuit, resides in Boulder and has lived most of her life there. While she recalls that the city always had a homeless population, Sweeny-Miran says changing demographics have led to an increase in “stinginess and harassment.”

From demolishing camps to banning homeless residents from attending Boulder’s farmers’ market, police enforcement of the camping ban has contrasted Boulder’s supposed inclusiveness with reality, according to Sweeney-Miran.

“I don’t know if there’s anyone who could really witness an interaction between the police and a person without a home and look at this power imbalance and the dynamics of fear and feel like this is the best solution,” she said.

Shurley has personally experienced this “power imbalance”. At the time of her second subpoena in December, Shurley was living in a converted bike trailer that she had built herself. She calls it a “gypsy wagon”. The officer who issued the ticket had previously interacted with Shurley twice. First, on December 23, the official issued a warning. Second, the officer ticketed Shurley on December 24 before finding her again on Christmas morning when she was re-ticketed.

Shurley received her second ticket five days before the Marshall Fire broke out in Boulder County. She recalls the officer telling her, “Go anywhere except Boulder,” leading her to believe that if she had listened to the officer and left town, she would have been caught in the flames.

Daniel Williams sorts clothes while volunteering with Feet Forward in Boulder, June 14, 2022. (Zoe Schacht/Colorado Newsline)

According to Shurley, every time the officer interacted with her, she had moved to a different location in Scott Carpenter Park. She said many officers come to the camps early, between 6 and 7 a.m., when most of the homeless residents are asleep.

Since being ticketed, Shurley has given away her “gypsy wagon” to someone else with no place to stay. She has built 13 shelters like this and given them to others in Boulder. The Boulder police impounded everyone.

“The lawsuit specifically states that there aren’t enough places for people to go, so you can’t get them out of the only rooms they have,” Sweeney-Miran said. “It’s not just about being in public space. It’s about having no options.”

Daniel Williams and Annie Kurtz, attorneys for the plaintiffs, said Boulder has until the end of this week to respond to the complaint. The city could react in different ways and possibly prolong the resolution process. Williams said residents are putting more pressure on Boulder City Council members to make improvements. The timing for the suit is right, he said.

“This lawsuit raises a new legal issue for Colorado,” Williams said.

Shurley’s experience of the city and getting tickets has made her “angry”.

“I’m not broken. I just don’t have a home,” she said. “I’m poor. That doesn’t mean I’m a broken person. This criminalization is just the icing on the whole way society looks at you when you’re homeless.”