BOULDER, Colo. – A lawsuit filed today by ACLU of Colorado challenges the enforcement of two Boulder ordinances that target the city’s unhoused residents by criminalizing survival outdoors. The first ordinance prohibits sheltering or storing property outside under a tent or temporary structure. The other, often called the ‘camping ban,’ forbids sleeping outside while using “any cover or protection from the elements other than clothing.”
Courts across the country have recognized that it violates the Constitution to punish people for sleeping outdoors when they have no meaningful alternative.
In recent years, Boulder has slashed funding for shelter while it allocated millions of additional dollars to enforcing criminal laws against unhoused people. As a result, the ACLU argues, the city has effectively made it a crime for people experiencing homelessness to exist safely outdoors when they have nowhere else to go.
Since last summer, the lawsuit alleges, the Boulder Shelter for the Homeless has turned away more than 250 people, with 2/3 of them turned away on nights with freezing temperatures. Boulder enforces the challenged ordinances against unhoused residents even when dangerous weather poses elevated risk of heat-related illnesses, hypothermia, frostbite, and even death.
“When the shelter turns people away into the cold, it offers them a blanket — the bare minimum they need to protect themselves outside. But the City of Boulder makes using that blanket a crime,” said ACLU attorney Annie Kurtz an Equal Justice Works Fellow.
The ACLU’s clients include housed and unhoused Boulder residents as well as Feet Forward, a nonprofit that provides support and services to people experiencing homelessness. The lawsuit comes after two ACLU letters warned Boulder that its enforcement of the two ordinances against unhoused residents was inhumane, dangerous, and unconstitutional.
“Just as the war on drugs proved to be a disaster that did not reduce drug use but did wreck lives, Boulder’s war on homelessness is a disaster that has not reduced the number of people living outside but is wrecking lives for unhoused people in our city,” said ACLU cooperating attorney Dan Williams of Hutchinson Black and Cook, LLC.
Today’s lawsuit, which relies on the state constitution, was filed in Boulder District Court. In addition to Williams and Kurtz, the legal team includes ACLU of Colorado Legal Director Mark Silverstein and ACLU Cooperating Attorneys Meghan C. Hungate of Hutchinson Black and Cook, LLC, and Andy McNulty and Cat Ordoñez of Killmer, Lane & Newman, LLP.
The ACLU of Colorado is the state’s oldest civil rights organization, protecting and defending the civil rights of all Coloradans through litigation, education, and advocacy.