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Boulder must respond to lawsuit seeking to end its camping ban

 The ACLU of Colorado filed a lawsuit against the City of Boulder camping ban that forbids sleeping outside while using “any cover or protection from the elements other than clothing.”
The ACLU of Colorado filed a lawsuit against the City of Boulder camping ban that forbids sleeping outside while using “any cover or protection from the elements other than clothing.”

The City of Boulder has until the end of this week to respond to a lawsuit filed against it by the ACLU of Colorado.

The lawsuit alleges that the city's camping ban violates people's civil rights by ticketing them for sleeping outside with a blanket when they have nowhere else to go.

The case could set a legal precedent for similar camping bans across the state.

Alexis Kenyon spoke with Colorado ACLU attorney Annie Kurtz about the recent decision to hear the case.

Alexis Kenyon: Annie, so one of the central tenets that the ACLU's lawsuit addresses is something that, you know, I think that a lot of people who are pro-camping ban may believe that this idea that the reason that people are sleeping in public spaces, it's not so much that there aren't any other resources, it's that they choose to be sleeping there and that they want to be sleeping in these public spaces.

How does your lawsuit address this belief and what have you found?

Annie Kurtz: So the argument is that it violates the constitution's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment to punish someone for sleeping outside on essentially the false premise that they have any choice in the matter.

And so we have shown a lot of data that the city just doesn't have adequate space, but more than that, that even if there were theoretically an empty bed for someone to use, there are a whole bunch of barriers that might prevent a particular person from actually accessing that bed.

So, a ton of restrictions, right?

People have to get into a lottery at a particular time during the day, some people have pets, people with mental health conditions, trauma histories, for whom the shelter is inconsistent with their needs.

And so something I really appreciate about the ruling is the recognition that it's not just about putting an extra mat down on the floor for someone.

There needs to be shelter available that is realistic, and the city has rejected every opportunity to create alternatives for folks, safe camping, safe parking.

They have settled with ‘we are going to address this issue by punishing the people that we've provided no options for.’

And so there needs to be shelter available that is realistic and that is certainly something that doesn't exist in Boulder.

Alexis Kenyon: Well, what about on these days when it's really cold?

I'm always hearing about rec centers being opened up and extra shelters so that everyone has somewhere to go. Are people still being turned away even when it's dangerously cold outside?

Annie Kurtz: Yes, they are, and the city enforces these laws without regard to the weather.

You know, we allege in our complaint, people are getting ticketed for using a sleeping bag, for using a blanket when it's freezing and when it's below freezing out, when it's actively snowing, when there are inches of snow on the ground.

Alexis Kenyon: And just to clarify, the City of Boulder's camping ban specifically allows people to be ticketed for using a blanket while sleeping outside, which is, you know, somewhat ironic because when a person is turned away from the shelter, one of the only things that the shelter can offer is a blanket, correct?

Annie Kurtz: So it's absurd if you think about it, right?

The city is encouraging circumstances that expose people to risk of severe harm and death.

And folks ask the police, right, ‘where am I supposed to go?’

And the police don't have an answer for that.

Alexis Kenyon: They're still ticketing people?

Annie Kurtz: Yeah, absolutely.

Alexis Kenyon: What does getting the ticket do?

Annie Kurtz: I mean, it feels just incredibly shortsighted, right?

I mean, the way I perceive it, not knowing, or feeling maybe overwhelmed by what it actually takes to address this housing crisis ultimately is what we've got, and I think the policing route is a Band-Aid, right?

It's, ‘I don't know what to do about this problem and so I'm just gonna try to push it out of sight for now.’

And maybe that is politically expedient in the short term, I'm not sure, this is all conjecture on my part because I have a hard time understanding it in any other way.

Alexis Kenyon: So the ACLU originally filed this lawsuit in the summer, I think in May, and then Boulder since then has tried to get it dismissed.

Now it looks like finally it's moving forward, but since then, I mean in the most recent city council budget, they allocated more money to law enforcement enforcing the camping ban, and they're talking about shortening the wait period between when they notify someone that they're going to take all their stuff and when they actually do it, and it just seems like in spite of this lawsuit and all of the discussion, the only action that's been taken is that Boulder is continuing to enforce, even more so, the camping ban and this practice of policing homelessness.

I mean, then also there's the day shelter, we still don't have a day shelter or any plan for one.

Do you think that this judge's decision to not dismiss this lawsuit will affect any of that?

Annie Kurtz: I can only hope so. You know, it is amazing to see Boulder, and not just Boulder, throw so many resources at this one tool of policing that we know doesn't work, and is just cruel.

And, you know, you asked what is the impact of getting a ticket? And I gave a very lawyer response about, you know, 'will they go to court and x, y, z happens.'

The consequences are much broader than that, right? It erodes trust. It scatters people around.

It makes it harder for them to access their services when the police take their things.

You hear tons of stories of folks losing their most important documents, and without those, it makes it harder for them to do things like get into housing, get on food stamps, do all these things that would help add stability.

Policing as our number one mode of response just completely erodes that stability.

And so it's incredibly frustrating.

I can only hope that this order gets us further in the direction of actual, solutions.

Alexis Kenyon: Is there anything else that you would like to tell listeners before we let you go?

Annie Kurtz: I guess what I want to add is this issue is so unnecessarily divisive, It seems to me.

I think there is actually a ton of common ground, and if we can just be clear-eyed about the fact that I think all of us want to see fewer people needing to survive outside on the streets, then maybe we can start having some real conversations about how to move toward that world that we want to live in.

But it will require treating everyone in Boulder, all residents of Boulder, as city council's constituents.

Boulder belongs to Boulderites, and that includes its housed and its unhoused residents, and we need to figure out how to live together and in a way where everyone has their basic rights, basic dignity, respected.

This story from KGNU was shared with us via Rocky Mountain Community Radio, a network of public media stations including KDNK in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico.

Alexis Kenyon