Sleep Out For Homeless Youth Gives Boulder a Feel for Life on the Streets

Tonight, more than a hundred people will sleep on the lawn of the First United Methodist Church of Boulder in temperatures that could dip below zero again. The Sleep Out for Homeless Youth fundraiser, now in its third year, is expected to raise $100,000 for Attention Homes, a homeless youth shelter.

See also: Denver Set Out to End Homelessness Ten Years Ago -- Is the Finish Line in Sight?

Each participant has pledged to raise at least $1,000; they're also responsible for providing their own blankets and sleeping bags and, no matter how low the temperature drops, they are expected to stay outside (although they'll have access to the church's bathrooms). "The whole point of Sleep Out is to give people a hint of what it is like to not have a roof over their head at night and be forced to sleep on the streets," says Claire Clurman, director of Attention Homes. "The event is intentionally meant to be uncomfortable, but we obviously don't want anyone to get hurt or sick due to severe weather."

According to the Point-in-Time survey conducted by the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative last January, 77 youth (ages 12 to 25) in Boulder and 91 in Boulder County were counted as homeless or at risk of being homeless.

Boulder County implemented a Ten Year Plan to Address Homelessness in 2010; it's one of more than 240 municipal entities across the country that have adopted such a plan. Like Denver's ten-year plan that created Denver's Road Home, the Boulder program was based on federal guidelines and focuses on housing the chronically homeless.

Five years in, Boulder's ten-year plan has helped the county's service providers work more closely together and added 31 new permanent supportive housing units via a development called 1175 Lee Hill.

But while the annual surveys show an overall decrease in Boulder's homeless and at-risk population -- from 914 reported in 2011 to 561 in 2014 -- Robin Bohannan, director of the county's Community Services Department, says that service providers have actually seen an increase in the homeless population due to high rents in Boulder and people displaced by the floods in September 2013.

"We recognize the shortcomings of a 'point-in-time' count and believe the variance is more related to how people are counted, rather than tracking numbers of homeless populations over the years," says Bohannon. "Most service providers are reporting increased numbers in homeless individuals and families -- while the overall economy has begun to recover, it has not recovered for this portion of the population."

Boulder County's plan is managed by a board that includes representatives from the government, the service sector, the faith community and businesses, as well as knowledgeable community members. But unlike Denver's Road Home, it has no dedicated funding stream.

And homeless advocate Joy Redstone, director of a day shelter in Boulder who helped create the county's ten-year approach, says that while the plan was great in concept, it lacked the leadership to move form concept to action. It "was a bunch of very decent ideas with decent reasons for suggesting them, but no infrastructure in place to fund and support it and make it happen," says Redstone. "My experience is that...we start to make progress on homeless issues and then it sort of gets held up because [the city] holds up the ten-year plan and says, 'How does this fit into the ten-year plan?'"

Wendy Schwartz, planning manager for Boulder's Human Services Department, disagrees; she says real progress has been made because of the ten year plan. The City of Boulder is now in the process of adding its own action plan and will be "ramping up efforts that were already there," she adds.

"With the Homeless Action Plan, we're trying to better clarify what the city wants to focus on in the near future, and what's the best use of city's resources and energy," she adds.

There's no timeline for when the city's completed action plan is expected. Conceptual strategies were introduced at Boulder City Council and will be discussed in April at a meeting rescheduled from December, Schwartz says.

In the meantime, it's cold out there. And while Boulder's homeless population will be bundling up against the freezing temperatures or looking for beds at the Boulder Homeless Shelter or one of the city's overflow shelter options, at least a hundred people will be truly feeling their pain tonight.

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Kristin Pazulski has been a renaissance faire wench, a reporter, an espresso-shot slinger, an editor of a newspaper for the homeless and a grant writer. She's now a freelance writer covering Denver's restaurant scene.
Contact: Kristin Pazulski