Boulder’s sense of itself now challenged by homeless youth plan
March 6, 2016
BOULDER, Colo. — A compact college community of 100,000, Boulder has an image of being liberal and generous. Visitors stroll by shops selling hipster outdoor wear and ads for yoga classes. Neat, Victorian homes exude charm.
But for all of its ambiance, a homelessness problem mirrors those of bigger, grittier urban centers.
A proposal to build a three-story complex to provide long-term housing and services for young people struggling to find shelter is challenging Boulder's sense of itself.
Anxious residents have traded questions: Could the housing bring more traffic and crime? Would children be safe walking to school past new neighbors who might be dangerous drug addicts or unpredictable because of mental illness?
John Spitzer, a real estate agent who lives near the proposed site, said he has occasionally allowed a homeless person to camp in his attic.
"There's probably more homelessness now than there was 30 years ago," he said. "It is a problem in Boulder."
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But he balks at having an "institution" in his neighborhood and worries Boulder could be overwhelmed by homeless people.
Attention Homes, which will run the complex, has worked with runaways and troubled teenagers for decades in Boulder. In each of the last two years, it has helped nearly 750 young people at its day drop-in and overnight emergency services facility, up from 196 in 2011.
Pinning down numbers nationally for homeless young people can be difficult because agencies have different definitions. Jasmine Hayes, who focuses on youth for the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, says national data shows that communities need a range of responses to help tens of thousands of homeless teens and young adults.
Ty Ridenour hasn't had a fixed address for most of the four years since turning 18. He noted what sounds like stereotypes in Boulder's conversations about housing the homeless.
"I've never touched a drug in my life, and I've been homeless and mentally ill," he said.
He has worked two jobs but is unable to afford housing. It's unlikely anyone for whom he made change at a grocery store help desk or meals at a fast food restaurant knew the neatly dressed worker was homeless and had bounced around foster care. He said being transgender caused friction with some foster parents and prompted beatings from adult-shelter residents.
He has a place in a housing program where most residents are much older but still hangs out at an Attention Homes drop-in center, a quick bus ride from downtown.
Attention Homes plans its new complex near downtown, on the edge of a neighborhood of peaked-roof homes that would look alike if their owners weren't so playful with exterior paint and lawn ornaments. One residence was used as the home of Mork and Mindy in the 1978-1982 TV sitcom of the same name.
The complex would house about 40 people between the ages of 18 and 24 in efficiency apartments and peer mentors. The site is a parking lot for First United Methodist Church, which counts among its members 92-year-old Phyllis Olson, who 50 years ago was part of a Bible study group that helped found Attention Homes.
Church members voted recently to offer the lot under a 60-year lease option agreement. Olson said she is confident opponents will see that building the housing is "a good thing to do."
Attention Homes has had several meetings with neighbors. Residents in the complex will likely have been in foster care or were victims of violence, materials state. Underage drinking will be prohibited, and residents won't be allowed to use drugs that are illegal under federal law — including marijuana, though its use is legal in Colorado.
Plans have yet to reach city zoners. But city planner Chandler Van Schaack expressed surprise at the attention the proposal has sparked so early, even in a city where homeless shelter plans have been contentious.
The complex would be the first of its kind in Boulder, home of the main University of Colorado campus, but other cities have such housing.
Regina Cowles lives four blocks from the Boulder site, but her concerns have been allayed, she said.
"Boulder cares," she said, who runs campaigns for local ballot issues. "We talk about (compassion) like we talk about diversity and equity."