Commentary: Solving Homelessness is Not Complex

Prior to President Reagan gutting billions of dollars from the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) public housing assistance and mental health residential facility support, the number of homeless people in the country was about 100,000. Currently, that number hovers around 550,000. Many are students and roughly half are families with children.

The causes of homelessness are complex. Far too many of us believe the narrative that homelessness is the result of personal choices and bad decisions (drug abuse/addiction, laziness, lifestyle choice). In reality, these are only a fraction of the causes of homelessness. More broadly, homeless in 2017 is caused by the disconnect between average house/rent prices and livable wage opportunities, maximum profit-driven development, and gentrification. Taken together, these are symptoms of our refined version of capitalism where the top 1% of income earners earn 38 times what the bottom 90% does and the top .01% earns a staggering 184 times that of the bottom 90% (Institute for Policy Studies). Add to this our national mental health care crisis where most Americans can not afford the mental health services that they need to succeed and you now have a better picture of the institutional and cultural trends that contribute most to homeless en mass.

Nationwide, seventeen homes are available for every one hundred low income households that need them. This is not enough. Because HUD does not get the funding from DC necessary to adequately reduce homelessness, HUD has turned to a continuum of care model as an alternative to providing housing. Instead of providing housing, HUD offers funding to nonprofit service agencies such as the Boulder Shelter for the Homeless (BSH). While well intentioned, this approach fails. Many shelters, including BSH, put constraints on access — no pets, no kids, no partners —which makes their services inaccessible for too many who need it. And, even when our homeless citizens do qualify for BSH services, there is simply not enough!

The Boulder Shelter only has 160 emergency beds, yet Boulder service agencies counted contacts with 4,844 “unique individuals.”Criminalizing our homeless and eliminating day shelters and services is EXACTLY THE WRONG APPROACH.

Last year, HUD identified decriminalizing homelessness as one of their top priorities. HUD threatened to restrict or pull funding from cities, including Boulder, that have laws that criminalize homelessness. Boulder’s camping ban does just that.

Plainly put, Boulder city government needs to stop criminalizing homelessness. Our unhoused families, elders, unsupported teens, and mentally ill need to be seen and assisted rather than hidden away in forests or jails. The consequences are costly incarceration and accidental forest fires as our homeless try to keep themselves from becoming just one more person who freezes to death living unhoused.
Though not an ideal long-term solution, an immediate and realistic one is support for small tiny-home villages. Boulder city government and related human services need to promote, rather than fight, camps for people to exist in while experiencing homelessness. Here’s why:  

1. They provide a place for people experiencing homelessness to keep their belongings and survive while living outside.

2. They motivate and support those who are trying to get off the streets. Searching for job opportunities and assistance is difficult to impossible while carrying all the items one owns.
3. They provide a central location where service agencies can meet those who benefit from their assistance. Chasing services city-wide can itself otherwise be a full time task.
4. They show the real size of our year round unhoused community. We must face our housing crisis in order to change it. Using police to sweep this crisis under the rug is a disservice to all.


Although it is not the intention of the good citizens and local government of Boulder, we have a caring deficit for our homeless population. Until we acknowledge the causal complexities of homelessness, as well as own fear and profit driven “not in my backyard” reaction to programs that may ease the burden of our unhoused and help them transition to housing, this problem will not go away.


It’s time to acknowledge our illusions about homelessness and hold ourselves and our city government accountable for protecting our community’s most vulnerable population. While the causes of homelessness are complex, the solution is not. People experiencing homelessness have a simple need: housing. Housing cures homelessness. Our job, as good community citizens and good humans, is to help make that happen.

— Darren O’Connor for Boulder Rights Watch (BRW)

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