The event held close to the winter solstice at Boulder’s Bandshell was conceptualized to honor those who have passed, and also recognizes the survival of those who slept outside on the longest night of the year.
The Boulder Threshold Singers opened with May This be an Opening followed by a reading of Boulder’s Declaration by Mayor Suzanne Jones, “The winter poses extreme hardship for inadequately housed low-income men, women, and children in Boulder. The spirit of the holiday season of giving provides an opportunity for affirmation and renewal regarding a commitment to end homelessness. Citizens of Boulder are encouraged to commit themselves to promoting compassion and concern for all brothers and sisters especially those who are poor and homeless. In remembering those who have died on the streets, the cause of ending homelessness is kept urgent as is the city’s commitment to preventing such deaths in the future.”
This year the list of those who died while homeless included 19 people, but Chris Byrnes who works for the Housing First Program at the Boulder Shelter for the Homeless said that four people who died this year had been housed for over a year, or their names would have brought the list to 23, “There’s some dignity there, that when they passed away, they passed away surrounded by people who cared for them, surrounded by people who loved them. They were off the streets and all of them were reconnected with family.”
Volunteer Coordinator for Bridge House Scott Medina added about the four formerly homeless, “These people would have been homeless. We’d be honoring them here probably, having died on the streets. Probably alone. They had a much different opportunity for their passing. Everyone deserves that dignity.”
In November the Bridge House, Boulder’s day shelter for those experiencing homelessness and the working poor, lost its location after the end of a ten-year contract for free rent with the First Congregational Church. Finding a new location has met financial challenges as well as community challenges from those who don’t want a shelter in their communities.
This year a somber climate was in the air, but also a frustration that more needs to be done to alleviate the challenges that those affected face.
Dizzy Wind who sang Hobos Lullaby (left) also talked about a horrifying family dynamic that he faced growing up. “We came from places you probably don’t understand. If you don’t stop those things, your ten year commitment to stop homelessness is – excuse my language – bulls–t.” The city of Boulder has found itself under an umbrella of scrutiny for having approached the tenth year of it’s Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness, especially from people who speak during the public comment section of city council meetings, “It’s amazing to me that as Boulder tries harder, it seems as though things have gotten harder on the homeless.” Dizzy Wind said he arrived back to Boulder on October 1, “I’m really here back in town to hope I can understand why this town of love has enacted things that are both good and exactly opposite of the good that is replaced. I’m talking about the tarp laws, I’m talking about the attitudes.” Boulder’s camping ban has found itself under criticism as in other cities across the nation for ticketing people who are sleeping outside while using any protection such as a tarp, blanket, or sleeping bag. “We all have to look each day and say, ‘How do we give a hand?’ And it’s not giving cash out. It’s fighting the laws that are totally against homelessness.”
Another voice from the crowd yelled out that Boulder’s proposed sanctuary ordinance that will soon be enacted to protect those threatened by President-elect Donald Trump who are living in Boulder without documentation, should also include protections for those living in the city without homes.
Steve McMillian said, “There’s a lot of us who passed away and the only reason that we did is because we didn’t have a warm place to go that night. This year is the first time that somebody actually came to me and told me that there was somebody not breathing down by the creek. My training kicked in, but I was four hours too late for this gentleman that was found under the 28th Street frontage road bridge this year.”
As an action item, McMillian encouraged others to write to City Attorney Tom Carr and City Manager Jane Brautigam in support of tiny homes. Last spring a delegation from Boulder toured tiny home communities in Oregon in what some thought was a serious attempt to consider similar communities in Boulder. A subsequent tour of Boulder potential locations took place, but some Boulderites have expressed frustration that the concept has not seemed to have moved forward. McMillian raised the issue of the Valmont Bike Park, a 40 acre publicly owned area on Airport Road where homeless advocates would like to see a tiny home community, even if on a temporary basis, “I think a community like that would definitely prevent a lot of these homeless deaths each year due to exposure.” The proposal to Boulder City Council would resemble the tiny home communities visited by the council in Eugene and Portland, Oregon in terms of being self-governed and self-sustaining.
Mike Homner, a member of Boulder Rights Watch, a group that advocates for those who experience homelessness accompanied Boulder City Council on the Oregon tour of tiny home communities. Homner reiterated the call for city council to take a lead in following through with the suggestions brought to them by the Boulder community regarding tiny homes, “We spent a lot of money looking at everything and [city council] saying it’s not right for Boulder is just not right. We have fallen on deaf ears.” Homner added that a tiny home community could be erected temporarily and more quickly than a more permanent housing community and would give reprieve to those who need a temporary location to stay and to store belongings, “That would save lives immediately and would give them all the things they need to get them back on their feet.”
Elizabeth Robinson is currently a homeless navigator with Boulder Municipal Court and knew two of the people who died this year. One, Andrew Duncan became a father after his death. Robinson said that she saw this as a way for his life to go on. Raymond Burch was the other whom she would see occasionally on walks. “Close to the time of his death, that day he was really at peace and loving the landscape and saying how at home he felt, even that he missed being outside. I hope that he’s reunited with his place and in a deeper peace.”
The 19 honored:
Andrew Tyler Duncan