Commentary: Boulderite Speaks to City Council of His Experiences Living Without Sleep and on the Streets

homeless bill of rightsEditor’s Note:  A letter addressed to Boulder City Council was obtained by The Nation Report today.  The author wishes to remain anonymous but his identification and authenticity have been confirmed by our staff.  We are confident that the information contained in this letter will be of interest to our readers.

Dear Boulder City Council,
You don’t know me, but I imagine our life histories vary only by a few degrees.
I’m a veteran with a college education. I’ve done the corporate America thing, driven the Lexus, driven the Mercedes, done a ton of volunteer work for the communities I’ve lived in… been there, done all that.

But here’s where our stories most certainly split—I’ve also been homeless.
It’s a dark secret that I’ve never shared publicly.
I’m only now dragging this fact into the light because I’m outraged by what I and many others believe to be a war on the homeless perpetrated by your council.

The privileged part of me understands your revulsion towards the homeless. The transients, the hobos, the tramps, the leeches, the drifters—or whatever the derogatory word of our times for them is. You see them hanging outside the library with their tell-tale overstuffed backpacks and filthy clothes and beards and unkempt hair, with body odors so foul you smell them before you see them. They smoke where they’re not supposed to, drink liquor from tiny bottles that they toss on the ground, and they spit and curse right in front of your Skylers and Tylers and Morgans and Meghans – and could care less what you think about them.

Yes, the privileged part of me understands you.
But the softer side of me that is prone to fits of empathy for my fellow human, does not.
That side of me, indeed, does not understand your methods at all.

Make no mistake— Boulder’s homeless suffer a sort of blanket-discrimination that is very even-handed. Your homelessness “origin story” is irrelevant. The fallen software engineer is the same as the prison parolee who is the same as the bag lady that screams at cans who is the same as the teenage junkie who shoots heroin in the RTD bathroom. They are all equally hideous warts on the face of Boulder’s precious, picturesque landscapes.

Sure, I could give you plenty of homelessness “war stories” that would turn your stomach or stir anger or sadness within you. But since my interest in your council arose around the “camping ban” controversy, I feel like I should spend most of my time focusing on sleep.

First—I know that you’re aware of Boulder’s shelter being seasonal, operating primarily between October and April. I also know that you’re aware of there not being enough beds in the shelter to accommodate Boulder’s cold, huddled masses in the winter. And furthermore—I’m sure you’re aware of the “Transition” program- a program exclusively for the homeless who currently have jobs and are trying like hell to claw their way out of the shelter—and that this is the only way to reside within the shelter outside of the winter season.

What I don’t think you know, is what it’s like to sleep in one.

Now—don’t get me wrong.
I’ve slept in some very difficult situations in my life, whether it was during my time in the military or during the days when I was caring for my underweight infant son that I had to bottle-feed every two hours.

But nothing can prepare you for sleeping in a homeless shelter.

First off- the overhead fluorescents are on until 10pm.
And when they go off, a chorus of dozens of loudly-snoring men begins. So heavy and so loud that it’s almost cartoonish. 

The groaning and the moaning of the agonized men comes next. Maybe they’re moaning for the loss of the lives they once lead or maybe they’re suffering terrors from the wars they’ve fought or the wars they’re still fighting in their minds. Maybe they have a bad tooth or a bad back that’s going untreated and is slowly killing them. Or maybe they’re experiencing withdrawls from alcohol or a hard drug like heroin. And often, this is the only place where they get to cry. The only part of the day where they don’t have to be on the move for fear of being harassed by cops or having the cops called on them. Right there, where no one can see their weakness or their tears, they let it flow-  In the dark with strangers.

I recall one dark night when a man on the bottom bunk to my right was sitting up in a tangle of misfitted sheets, puking into his own lap with the acrid smell of curdled milk and vodka filling the dormitory while a man in the bunk to my left was groaning as he came off heroin. How much sleep do you think I got that night? How rested do you think I was the next day?

In addition to the sounds of suffering, you also have to sleep with one eye open.
There are only a handful of lockers in the shelter, and most of them are permanently assigned.
So if you don’t have one, you get to sleep with your backpack and your clothes.
Which means you sleep with one eye open or else risk losing it. A dark room filled with men of varying degrees of desperation is a breeding ground for theft.

If you’re lucky enough to have a bottom bunk, you can risk putting your backpack beneath your bunk and having someone steal it. They’ll take it to the bathroom, empty it of anything useful, and leave the empty fabric shell in a stall to be found in the morning.

If you have a top bunk, you have no choice but to sleep with it, and all your clothes.
When you only own a few precious items, theft is a constant fear. I spent many, many nights sleeping fully clothed, using my lumpy donated backpack as a pillow. How well rested do you think I was?

The fluorescent lights flip back on at 6am, and you have to be out of the shelter by 8am—regardless of the quality of your night of rest.

Then, it’s out into Boulder for the day.
You can’t get back into the shelter until the evening, so you’ve got to kill time somewhere.

A lot of the homeless people are able to get bus passes from the Bridge House—but those are limited in number. So if you don’t get one, your walk to a spot like the Pearl Street mall, is 3.2 miles there and 3.2 miles back in the evening (forget about all the walking in between). Which is fine if you’re younger or relatively healthy. Many of the homeless, however, are not so fortunate.

So there you are—a member of the walking dead because you slept horribly.
Where do you go? Do you want to go apply for a job somewhere, looking half dead?  If you managed to get an interview, how well do you think it would go with your brain all foggy from weeks of sleep deprivation? And where do you stash your backback and other meager belongings while you apply for the job? Should you take them into interviews?

If you go to a park, you can’t sleep for fear of being ticketed by the cops.
You can go to the library, but you’ll eventually be harassed there too.
In fact, they loathe the homeless so much there, that they’ve created special punishments and restrictions for them.

I recall a time when I lost my library card and had to get a new one.
During the process, the clerk asked me for an update to my home address.
When I gave her the dreaded address to the homeless shelter, she immediately informed me that restrictions would be put on my account and the number of items I could check out would now be seriously restricted. Honestly, this seems backwards to me. You would think a library would want to encourage the homeless to read. To make the furtherance of education possible for those with enough willpower remaining to pursue it. Instead, their policy is to restrict and punish. Is this empathy? Is this basic human decency?

Little discriminatory practices here and there are what ultimately undermines basic human decency and compassion. Discriminatory practices like criminalizing sleep – particularly for the people who “look” homeless.

I think we can all agree that sleep is a basic human necessity— no different than breathing.
Without it, you die. Would the council criminalize breathing? Because there’s literally no difference, in terms of human necessity.

That, of course, is my plea to your compassion.

Next, is my plea to your logic.

Consider, if you will, the futility (dare I say idiocy) of writing a ticket to a homeless person.
A person with no job and no real incentive to pay the ticket.
The writing of this ticket is little more than a symbol or a warning that their kind aren’t welcome here.
And what happens when they can’t (or don’t) pay the tickets?
When they accumulate and the person ends up getting arrested for unpaid fines?

Well, despite the fact that our country outlawed debtors prisons over 200 years ago… and despite the fact that over thirty years ago the Supreme Court made it clear that judges cannot send people to jail just because they are too poor to pay their fines… Boulder is doing it anyway.

I’m sure that, since this is a city filled with highly intelligent people, someone in a nicely pressed suit found a loophole that could be exploited and the city took it and ran with it.

But does that mean it’s ethical? Moral?
I would argue that it’s soulless and the exact opposite of empathetic. And certainly, I’m not alone in my beliefs.

Aside from this practice being calloused and immoral, what about the resources being used to fight the crime of sleeping? Are there not other matters these cops could be tending to? Is this the training they got in police academy? To harass the poor? Or is this simply “busy work” for police? Given that I routinely see traffic stops that seem to require two or even three police cruisers, it might not be so crazy to assume that perhaps we have an overabundance of cops and not enough “work” to keep them busy.

The Boulder City Council, I have read, are merely responding to the hordes of people that have complained about homeless folks camping by the creek. Your response was to ramp up the criminalization of sleeping. Which, should be obvious, is a severely short-sighted and ultimately self-defeating response. You shouldn’t be listening to the people who are complaining and have no solutions to offer. Instead—now is the time to be listening to those who are actively offering you solutions—namely, the activists who are working hard to defend the basic human rights of the homeless. THOSE are the people who can point the way. THOSE are the people who are interested in solutions. THOSE are the people who want to keep Boulder beautiful AND protect human rights.

I have read about the idea for a day shelter in Boulder that has been discussed. And in an August 30th, 2016 article in the Daily Camera, councilwoman Lisa Morzel is reported as having said “it would be a benefit to the community at large, but would also help satisfy the council’s growing interest in understanding which homeless people have ties to Boulder, and which do not.” And that “with better intake and data from a one-stop shop, the city could finally begin to isolate the undesirables.”

In reading that passage, it is clear that Morzel doesn’t understand the purpose of a day shelter. What she described, sounds more like the booking room at a county jail or something akin to nazi Germany. Maybe we should make them all wear yellow stars on their chests too? I find her words profoundly uninformed, and my mind is blown that this woman is a city “leader.”

Even if you did create a shelter where compassion takes a back seat to intel-gathering, you have to remember that many of the homeless are hardened to the people they perceive to be authority figures. Your information will be flawed at best, and ultimately your day shelter experiment will collapse on itself and you will, once again, feel the wrath of the Boulder community for not adequately dealing with the infestation of “undesirables.”

The only way to a solution, at this point, is to recognize that the people complaining about the homeless, are promoting the idea of a glossy-surfaced Boulder at all costs. While the advocates for the homeless are calling for something deeper, something that is ultimately more meaningful—and that is the compassionate care of fellow human beings.

I understand that, as a city council, part of your job is to find a delicate balance between logic, reason, law, resources, citizen concerns, and matters of the heart.

My argument is that the “heart” element of this equation is grossly out of whack and needs to be reevaluated.

Again—the advocates have the answers.
Please listen to them. Please work with them.

Thank you.

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