Boulder community concerned about homeless center location

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect that Tuesday evening’s meeting was hosted by the Horizon West HOA, that it was announced as a Zoom event days (not hours) before the event took place, and that the meeting organizers had planned to livestream the meeting to a TV in the community room for residents, but were unable to do so due to technical difficulties.

A new homeless day services center slated to open in Boulder in the coming months has drawn backlash from residents at a condo complex adjacent to the center’s location at 1844 Folsom St.

The day services center has been identified as a priority by City Council, and the location was first announced in April. But at an emotionally charged virtual meeting Tuesday evening with several Boulder city councilmembers and staff, approximately 50 residents of Horizon West Condominiums expressed a wide range of concerns about the new center. Several who spoke were irate, and at least one vowed to sue the city over the selection of the Folsom Street site.

A main theme of the comments was that many residents said they weren’t asked to give input on the location and didn’t understand why this site was chosen.

“You want the homeless to feel safe and comfortable in the space. … Why wasn’t any consideration given to us at Horizon West and our other neighbors of our safety and being comfortable in our space?” asked Susan, a Horizon West resident whose last name was not provided.

Kurt Firnhaber, director of Boulder Housing and Human Services, said that while there had been citywide community engagement before a site was selected for the new center, the purpose of that engagement was to develop criteria for site selection. The city looked at more than a dozen sites, considering criteria such as size, distance from public transportation, distance from schools and day care centers, and zoning, and ultimately chose the site at 1844 Folsom St. because it satisfied the most criteria.

Firnhaber clarified that the zoning at 1844 Folsom St. does not require the city to consult with neighboring residents and businesses before implementing projects similar to the day services center. Instead, the city is required to hold a “good neighbor” meeting with residents and hear their concerns as plans for the project continue to solidify.

“The reason (the zoning is) set up that way is to allow needed services for the community to simply be initiated and started up as they’re needed,” Firnhaber told the Camera. “Regardless of what location would be selected in the community, there’s going to be impacts on neighbors, and there’s going to be challenges or concerns raised by neighbors.”

At the meeting, Firnhaber said the city prioritized choosing a centralized location that is close to the parts of Boulder where most of the city’s unhoused residents live. But being in a central location means also being near where other people live.

“It’s really tough to find a place in our city where we don’t have residences (that) is also accessible,” he said.

Some residents had suggested a space at 5150 Valmont Road as a possible alternative, but Firnhaber pointed out that that location is on the outskirts of the city and is far from where most unhoused residents live.

Residents also expressed worries about safety and security. “I hope you understand that we didn’t have a chance to express our concerns before you chose this site,” Beth Thompson, another resident, said at the meeting. “We want to know how you can guarantee that our own vulnerable population of elderly and disabled citizens, along with our property, will be safe and secure.”

Firnhaber pointed out that the city has erected several service centers that initially were controversial, and that drew similar concerns from neighbors before they were created, but said that many of the situations neighbors feared never materialized. He cited the Boulder Shelter for the Homeless and the Lee Hill apartments as examples, though some residents disputed that those sites were equivalent to the new one being created.

City Councilmember Bob Yates, who was in attendance, emphasized that this was “the first of what I think will be many, many conversations” with residents about the new day services center, and that residents would have many more opportunities to provide input on the project. City Councilmember Tara Winer was also present.

The meeting was held via Zoom and was hosted by the Horizon West HOA. According to Firnhaber, city officials had originally requested an in-person meeting, and that the Boulder Chamber had offered to host the event, but Horizon West opted to host the event in the condo building’s downstairs community room. He said the city was notified that the meeting had changed to Zoom a few days before the event. Douglas Bendt, president of Horizon West Condominiums, Inc., confirmed the meeting was announced to community members last week as “Zoom only.”

There was some confusion on Tuesday evening as some residents arrived at the community room, believing the meeting was still being held in-person, and were frustrated by the change in plans. The organizers had planned to have the meeting streamed to a large-screen TV in the community room for residents without computer or phone access, but that option was not available due to “technical difficulties” experienced Tuesday afternoon, Bendt said.

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