Unhoused Boulder residents sue city over its camping and tent bans

Unhoused Boulder residents sue city over its camping and tent bans

Three unhoused Boulder residents represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado are suing the city of Boulder over its camping and tent bans. Multiple letters sent from the ACLU requesting the city stop enforcing the laws were met with no changes, which prompted the organization to sue the city Thursday.

“The city has shown us that we won’t be able to stop this without a lawsuit,” said Annie Kurtz, ACLU attorney and Equal Justice Works fellow.

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The lawsuit is based on three alleged constitutional violations: cruel and unusual punishment, prohibition on state-created danger and freedom to use public streets, freedom to travel and freedom to remain. The plaintiffs include the nonprofit Feet Forward, a homelessness advocacy nonprofit, Feet Forward Executive Director Jennifer Livovich, and Lisa Sweeney-Miran, the Boulder Valley School District board vice president. Plaintiffs also include three unhoused residents, Jennifer Shurley, Jordan Whitten and Shawn Rhoades.

Camping bans have been in place in the city of Boulder for years. But, in the summer of 2021, the city expanded the tent ban disallowing unhoused residents from sheltering with anything but the clothing they wear. The ban includes tents, blankets and cars. Simultaneously, the number of shelter beds has drastically decreased, and more unhoused people are being turned away from shelters, according to the suit.

Since August 2021, 250 unhoused residents were turned away from Boulder’s shelter. In nearly a third of these cases the shelter had reached capacity. In 2020, five people died from hypothermia, Kurtz said. Last Friday, when a winter storm warning was in place, seven people were turned away from Boulder’s shelter because it was at capacity.

In August 2021, when the city expanded its tent ban, it included a six-month residency requirement for use of the Boulder shelter. Following the requirement, data on the city’s website shows more people were turned away. The residency requirement has since been rescinded.

“The goal of the lawsuit is to get the city to stop enforcing these laws in circumstances when all they’re doing is punishing people for their homelessness and endangering their lives,” Kurtz said.

In the past year, the city of Boulder has allocated $2.7 million to enforce these bans, according to Kurtz. But, the city has rejected using the funds to create additional options for unhoused people, such as sanctioned encampments, safe parking lots and additional shelter beds. The current shelter can fill 160 beds, but used to hold twice as many, Kurtz said.

“The city has basically taken every opportunity over the last few years to reduce people’s chance for survival but increased punishment for survival outdoors,” she said.

The city has until June 16 to respond to the lawsuit. There is no hearing date yet.

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