Boulder is the 17th wealthiest city in the 57th wealthiest county in the 10th wealthiest country in the world. One would expect such wealth would relieve Boulder residents from the horrors of the Third World. However, no amount of CrossFit gyms or organic bone broth can provide one of the bare necessities for human survival: shelter. While most Boulder residents have never once had to experience the anxiety of not knowing where they will sleep on any given night, hundreds of Boulder residents live this reality every day; they have nowhere to rest, socialize, cook, sleep, and most importantly, escape the harsh cold.
Benjamin Harvey was one such Boulder resident experiencing homelessness. He couldn’t afford the city’s skyrocketing rent and found himself staying at the shelter. One fateful day, Benjamin had the audacity to pick up his mail a few minutes past the arbitrary 6-8 a.m. mail pickup window, and with the same frustration you and I experience when facing the frivolous bureaucracy of the DMV, tapped his hand on the shelter window. The punishment you or I would face for such an egregious outburst would be a side-eyed glance at best, but for Benji, this understandable display of emotion was quite literally a death sentence. Our neighbor froze to death on Christmas Day because he was turned away from the shelter for his violation, despite being recommended to the shelter by the city’s emergency relief service, Coordinated Entry.
Surely the shelter has made changes to avert more tragic and entirely preventable deaths like Benji’s, right? This is unfortunately not the case. The shelter has refused to enact most of the changes recommended by City Council, and as such our neighbors experiencing homelessness face the same risk of expulsion that killed Mr. Harvey. To add insult to (fatal) injury, after Benji’s death, the shelter’s executive director, Greg Harms, wrote an op-ed in the Boulder Daily Camera (Jan. 13, 2018), blaming Benji for his death and claiming that the Camera spread misinformation in its reporting of Benji’s death without providing any relevant examples of error, despite follow up from the paper for clarification. In other words, the man most responsible for Benji’s expulsion from the shelter is saying the Camera is fake news.
While there are many barriers facing Boulder residents who experience homelessness, from the urban camping ban to the inaccessibility of the severe weather shelter to the city’s housing crisis, the very institution built to provide immediate shelter to any and all of us when we need it most should not be a part of the problem. There are three changes that need to be made to the shelter in order for it to keep its residents safe and to fulfill its purpose for all of us in the Boulder community:
- Third-party binding arbitration for resident grievances needs to be put in place immediately to ensure that there is a process for residents like Benji who have been wronged to seek justice. Arbitration was recommended by the City Council but the shelter rejected it in favor of mediation, which cannot make the shelter do anything and which residents rarely use because they fear being punished for making their voices heard.
- All active suspensions need to be reevaluated and all suspended individuals referred through the coordinated entry program be allowed back. Only those with the highest need are referred to the Boulder Homeless Shelter under Coordinated Entry, but those facing prior bans are blocked from receiving the care they need.
- People who have experienced homelessness, or who are currently experiencing homelessness, need a place on the shelter’s board of directors. No one better understands the needs of people experiencing poverty and homelessness than those who have dealt with it first-hand. It is necessary that those individuals are given a say in how the shelter is run.
The City of Boulder has an ethical obligation to provide shelter to residents who need it. However, people continue to be kicked out of the shelter for arbitrary and capricious reasons. We live in one of the richest cities in the world. Being poor should not be a death sentence.
Boulder, we can do better.
The Colorado Independent occasionally runs guest posts from government officials, local experts and concerned citizens on a variety of topics. These posts are meant to provide diverse perspectives and do not represent the views of The Independent. To pitch a guest post, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org or visit our submission page.