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Advocacy group sues Boulder over ordinances that criminalize homelessness

According to the lawsuit, the Colorado city disproportionately enforces cover bans against the 1% of the population that is unhoused.

(CN) — A Boulder nonprofit sued the Colorado city on Thursday, claiming cover bans criminalize residents experiencing homelessness and disrupt the organization's ability to help underserved populations find housing.

“The city’s cover bans and criminalization of its unhoused residents perceptibly impair Feet Forward’s work, frustrate its mission, and cause it to divert resources that it would otherwise use to further its mission,” the 26-page lawsuit argued. “Enforcement of the tent and blanket bans causes Feet Forward’s clients to shuffle around the City, making them much more difficult to find and impeding Feet Forward’s ability to connect them with services and pathways to housing.”

Three people experiencing homelessness and two taxpayers joined the nonprofit organization Feet Forward Peer Supportive Services and Outreach in the lawsuit against Boulder.

Located 30 miles northwest of Denver, Boulder is home to 108,777 people. An estimated 1,400 to 4,100 are unhoused in the city where most home prices reach beyond $1.5 million and apartment rent averages $1,600 a month.

The city currently funds a single shelter with limited beds and inadequate storage space. There are no day shelters in Boulder.

The complaint characterizes two ordinances as “the blanket ban” and “the tent ban” which together criminalize unhoused people and block them from creating temporary shelter. Violators face fines up to $2,650 and possible jail sentences of 90-days.

“Together, the cover bans penalize Boulder’s unhoused residents’ right to exist in any of the city’s public spaces at any time of day or night by targeting the unavoidable trappings of extreme poverty,” the complaint said. “Officers enforcing these cover bans tell the unhoused residents they displace to get out of Boulder.”

Between 2020 and 2022, the complaint estimates, 970 people were cited by Boulder law enforcement for violating the ordinances. Even though the unhoused make up less than 1% of the city’s population, they make up more than 90% of cover ban violations.

“When the shelter turns people away into the cold, it offers them a blanket — the bare minimum they need to protect themselves outside. But the city of Boulder makes using that blanket a crime,” said ACLU attorney Annie Kurtz an Equal Justice Works Fellow in a statement.

The lawsuit claimed Boulder is inflicting cruel and unusual punishment onto the plaintiffs and asks the court to bar the city from enforcing the cover bans unless indoor shelter is available.

“Just as the war on drugs proved to be a disaster that did not reduce drug use but did wreck lives, Boulder’s war on homelessness is a disaster that has not reduced the number of people living outside but is wrecking lives for unhoused people in our city,” said the plaintiff’s attorney Dan Williams in a statement. Williams practices with the Boulder firm Hutchinson Black and Cook.

Reached for comment a city spokesperson said, "We have just received the lawsuit and are reviewing it. The city will comment at the appropriate time through its filings in the court process."

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