Updates on the Enforcement of Homeless Codes In Boulder and the Rest of Colorado

In Boulder, CO, it is illegal to sleep outdoors with “shelter” (defined as anything other than clothing — so the use of blankets and sleeping bags turn sleeping outdoors into a criminal offense, regardless of temperature or availability of indoor shelter space). Boulder is not the only city in Colorado which has implemented such anti-homeless legislation (Denver itself passed a similar camping ban in 2012).

In February, law students at the University of Denver working on the Homeless Advocacy Policy Project (HAPP) published their report on the extent and expense of anti-homeless ordinances enforced by Colorado cities. The report, Too High a Price: What Criminalizing Homelessness Costs Colorado [PDF], is based on a survey of 76 Colorado cities which encompass 69% of Colorado’s population (almost 3.5 million people). It is the most comprehensive state-level survey of anti-homeless laws I’ve seen, and I hope projects in other states follow HAPP’s example. Highlights include:

  • The 76 cities surveyed have enacted 351 anti-homeless ordinances. “These ordinances typically include camping bans, prohibitions on sleeping, sitting, or lying in public, and limitations on begging or panhandling. It is difficult to imagine these laws being enforced against anyone who is not homeless.” (10)

  • “The cumulative effect of anti-homeless ordinances is clear: living without a home in Colorado nearly guarantees that a person will break some law.” (11)

  • People without fixed shelter are disproportionately targeted by police under all city ordinances: “Although homeless individuals represent less than one hundredth of one percent of Colorado’s population, they make up five percent of all citations issued under local municipal codes.” (15)

  • Boulder issues the most citations for camping than any other city in Colorado by far. Between 2010 and 2014, Boulder issued 1,767 citations for camping, which is about 2 citations for every homeless individual living in the city (at any given time). But Fort Collins is even more aggressive per-capita, issuing almost 3 tickets per homeless individual during the same period.

  • “We estimate that just six Colorado cities spent more than five million dollars ($5,000,000.00) enforcing fourteen anti-homeless ordinances.” (25)

  • The cost of enforcing Boulder’s camping ban for 2010-2014 is estimated as $946,457.20.[1]

The publication of Too High a Price coincided with the introduction of the Right to Rest Act in Colorado’s House of Representatives. Unfortunately that bill died in committee (for the second year in a row). But back in August 2015 the Department of Justice filed a statement of interest in a case involving the anti-camping ordinance of Boise, ID, in which it agreed with the homeless plaintiffs that the enforcement of the ordinance even with no shelter space available is a violation of the constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment as provided by the Eighth Amendment. That case was ultimately dismissed for lack of standing (as Martin v. City of Boise), but the issue remains: by the Department of Justice’s standards, Boulder’s aggressively enforced camping ban is clearly unconstitutional.

The possibility of being non-compliant with Federal standards has caused the Boulder City Council to return to discussions about the camping ban. The council asked the municipal court to compile statistics about the enforcement of the ordinance, and earlier this month the court published its findings. The Daily Camera provided a summary as “Report: Most Boulder camping violations are just for camping” (March 7, 2016). Highlights include:

  • 3,253 tickets for camping were issued between 2009 and 2015. 26% of those tickets resulted in jail time.

  • The average jail time for a camping ticket in Boulder is 1.81 days.

  • “The vast majority of people who get camping tickets in Boulder committed no other offense besides sleeping with shelter.”

See also:


1. All of the cost estimates in the report should be considered to be quite rough (and probably low). The methodology appendix doesn’t do much to instill confidence in the estimates, either. Despite having “excel spreadsheets with a list of every citation issued,” the authors chose not to use all of the data and instead based average costs on a sample of it (to save time?), they accidentally referred to the confidence level as the “confidence interval” (to keep the reader on their feet), and they intentionally did not perform a random sampling, instead preferring to choose “citations evenly throughout the 2014 calendar year” (with no reason offered or immediately obvious). But at least they consulted a non-lawyer who was kind enough to provide them with the formula for determining the sample size for a finite population (which they tried to typeset).

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