Boulder Daily Camera – Brandon George isn’t a kid anymore, and hasn’t felt like one in a decade.
He’s 21 now — 11 years removed from beginning to understand heroin was to blame for the chronic state of filth at his house, and for the erratic, distant behavior of his family members.
As a teenager, George played primary homemaker, cleaning up for everyone else and growing increasingly frustrated, before finally overcoming the gravity of his tragic family situation when he turned 18, and left Florida for good.
George lives in Boulder now, at a time when public relations for young adult homeless people here are historically dismal.
Though Boulder hasn’t conducted a formal study to confirm it, a general feeling persists, particularly among cops, business owners and longtime residents, that since pot was legalized, the city has attracted a new brand of homeless person: younger and sometimes unhoused by choice; more prone to drug abuse and public disruptiveness; and less tenured in town, so therefore less invested, on average, in community vitality.
After six months in Boulder, George is resolved not to fulfill that stereotype. Sleeping on the street and sometimes going days between meals, though, he’s on the fast track to another cliché: middle-aged without a home or job, collecting coins in a cup — the traditional face of American homelessness, and the kind of person ceding headlines to the Front Range’s new wave of young “transients.”
What George needs is a foothold.
“You definitely get judged differently being young and homeless,” he said in a recent interview at The Source emergency shelter and resource center for runaway and homeless youth.
“I guess people can’t understand how we got to where we are, but when we hit the age of adulthood, we’re starting from scratch.”
‘Being able to live in the community’
For the past 50 years, Attention Homes has been Boulder’s resource and housing provider for thousands of homeless youth, and the nonprofit organization now wants to try something new, and controversial, for people like George.
On one of downtown’s largest remaining surface parking lots, 1440 Pine St., at the southwest corner of 15th Street, Attention Homes plans to build a long-term housing complex for 40 homeless people between the ages of 18 and 24. The project is expected to go before the Boulder Planning Board for final approval later this year.
The plot is owned by First United Methodist Church, which has agreed to dedicate it to affordable housing in perpetuity, and will be developed by Gardner Capital Development, which specializes in low-income housing through tax-credit financing.
Attention Homes would move its own offices from an old house south of the lot into the first floor of the proposed building, and offer residents on-site case management, individual counseling, employment guidance and life skills development courses. Though there would be no sobriety requirement, substance-abuse support would be available.
Residents with jobs would give 30 percent of income for rent, but Attention Homes would arrange alternative plans, including free rent in some cases, for those without work.
In contrast to Boulder’s emergency shelters and “transitional” housing programs, this would not be a time-limited experience, and residents would stay a projected average of two years. The young-adult housing programs Attention Homes operates in Boulder today generally are limited to 90-day stays.
A fulfillment of the $12.5 million project’s objective — providing a few years of supportive housing for people who want to stay in Boulder, but are struggling to make living wages, complete educations, address various traumas and learn to live alone — would afford dozens with a minimum but essential luxury, Nelson said: “being able to live in the community in which they already are.”
‘Not dealing with the issues we currently have’
The proposal has invited a deluge of public comments since January, in excess even of Boulder’s typically high level of citizen engagement on affordable housing developments. At City Council and Planning Board meetings, in letters to the editor and during neighborhood informational sessions hosted by Attention Homes, many have spoken in favor, and many against.
Among opponents, the contention that the basic aim of the project is without merit scarcely has been offered. It’s not hard to find people to quibble with just about every other aspect, though.
To begin with, critics say, the design is problematic because it doesn’t meet setback requirements or transition comfortably to nearby residential areas. The matter of fit depends on perspective; surrounding the Attention Homes site are multiple buildings, including several churches, taller than what’s being proposed, but there are many one- and two-story homes in the immediate area, too.
Still, many believe the new project, at 35 feet and three stories, would simply be too tall for the historic Whittier neighborhood.
“I believe it will affect housing values of people in the neighborhood,” said Carole Driver, who lives three blocks from the site.
“You know,” she continued, “this was the neighborhood of the tradespeople of Boulder. Our house was built in 1890 and was the residence of a carpenter. We’re trying to preserve this as a representative historical neighborhood, and structure and architecture are important to us.”
Design aside, siting a program for at-risk young adults downtown is asking for trouble, opponents have argued.
“The people that would be housed there are very vulnerable” to other homeless people in the Pearl Street area, said Melody Lyle, a High Street homeowner and a mother of five. “It’s easy access to drugs, and they’re vulnerable to predators.”
And who, exactly, are the predators? Lyle answers with an anecdote: She and her husband were walking on Pearl Street this summer when a man they’d never spoken to started walking toward them, getting closer and closer and finally lunging at the couple. Lyle’s husband shielded her, and when she looked up moments later, the man was exposing himself to them.
“Right now we have so many transients in the neighborhood and whatnot, and the transients bring a lot of problems,” she concluded. “To bring more people to the neighborhood that do have issues — I feel like we’re just not dealing with the issues we currently have.”
‘Our concerns have been ignored completely’
Opponents of the project also have lodged a common, high-level complaint concerning a perceived public-process sham.
“Right from the beginning, it’s been ‘our way or the highway,'” Whittier Neighborhood Association president and former Planning Board member John Spitzer said. “At the so-called ‘neighborhood meetings’ with Attention Homes, all of our concerns have been ignored completely.”
Many suggestions from neighbors have never been considered, for various reasons.
One idea offered was that the project should be reoriented to serve homeless families instead of young adults. Since Attention Homes won’t waver on that, Driver asked, can’t the density of units be reduced, to accommodate, say, 25 people instead of 40?
“See, that’d be a wonderful start,” she said. “That’d be more embraceable. But we felt like we hit a brick wall every time.
In fact, 40 units is 12 fewer than Boulder would allow on that site. When there are properties with combined ownership, as is the case with the block First United Methodist controls, the site review process considers them as one property, city planner Karl Guiler said.
Boulder, in this case, allows density allowances to be “transferred” from elsewhere on the site to 1440 Pine St., which some opponents believe is manipulation. Boulder staff and Attention Homes maintain the density is appropriate.
Meanwhile, requests for a shorter building have yielded no budge. Spitzer, an architect who’s designed some 150 homes in the Boulder area, drew up in his spare time an entire new site plan that maintains the 40-unit density, but brings the building to two stories by hacking 4,000 square feet of office space currently slated for the ground floor.
His plan, he claims, would shave at least a couple million dollars off the project cost, and would “feel homier” for residents who’d be at street level instead of two and three stories up in an “institutional, jail setting.”
In a July letter to the Planning Board, Historic Boulder President Gail Gray proposed another solution for what she sees as a proposal “far too massive and out of proportion to the east end of downtown.”
“(The house at) 1424 Pine St. and any other eligible buildings in the block should be landmarked,” Gray wrote. “Several small structures, more in keeping with the Whittier neighborhood, could be constructed with small side yards and providing as many bedrooms as the massive institutional structure proposed.”
‘We’re speaking a different language’
As of now, the project awaits a final site review by the Planning Board — and possibly a City Council call-up, if the council is inclined to consider changes.
The chief expressed concern from city leaders to date has been the long-term affordability of the project. But the fact that landowner First United Methodist Church voted overwhelmingly as a congregation two weeks ago in favor of an explicit affordable housing purpose on the site “in perpetuity,” and not just for the next 60 years, as previously floated, settles the most significant city-side qualm voiced yet.
With a final review pending and the church vote having put to rest a major outstanding issue, alternatives brought by Spitzer and Gray — plus others who want to scrap the plan altogether and place the facility on the edge of town — are not being considered.
Though no hearing has been scheduled, Attention Homes says it’s got an effective deadline of Jan. 1.
That’s because this, like so many other affordable housing developments, and particularly those in expensive real estate markets, is reliant upon various government funding sources that Attention Homes fears it could lose out on by waiting much longer.
Of the $12.5 million needed to build the facility, developers are banking on $9 million in low-income housing tax credits from the state. Meanwhile, 43 other projects are seeking the same such credits. The competitiveness incentivizes density, for one, with applicants to the state pitching the most economical cost-per-unit models they believe are workable.
It also encourages swift and decisive action.
“It’s very urgent,” Gardner Capital’s Shannon Cox Baker said, when asked about the timeline for 1440 Pine St.’s approval.
It’s a rough repeat of a common process with affordable housing developments in the increasingly expensive Boulder market, and one that played out similarly earlier this year, when Boulder Housing Partners sought, and received, approval on an accelerated timeline for an affordable housing project on Palo Parkway.
Neighbors had begged for lower density than the planned 44 units, but staff with Boulder Housing Partners said they couldn’t afford to reduce the number of apartments.
“In order to compete for these funds, and in order to attract quality lenders and investors, the project must be of a minimum size,” project manager Lauren Schevets said in May, referencing low-income housing tax credits and other sources. Forty-four units was “right at that feasible threshold.”
When the Palo Parkway plan won final approval from the Planning Board three months ago, many of the opponents who’d attended countless neighborhood meetings and offered suggested changes for many aspects of the development felt that their invitations to have a say in the final outcome were insincere.
Ultimately, the most significant neighbor-informed changes made to the final product concerned building color and other relatively minor design aspects, while repeated requests for lower density produced zero movement.
“Are we never going to listen to the people we’re supposed to be representing?” City Councilwoman Lisa Morzel asked in June. “And just continue to have a public process without really considering the input?”
Asked what lessons can be mined from the public processes for the Palo Parkway and Pine Street projects, Attention Homes’ Nelson said the engagement should have concerned “how,” and not “whether,” the project gets done.
“If there were a magic bullet to steer the conversation to ‘how,’ it becomes a more collaborative conversation,” Nelson said. “But we’re speaking a different language, effectively.”
‘They’re starting from nothing’
Seated next to Brandon George at The Source, 19-year-old Emily Thoreson, who has been homeless for three years, speaks of the challenges of saving up money to better one’s situation while having to live on the street.
When she first got to Boulder, she got a job at Dunkin’ Donuts on 28th Street, and slept in her car at night.
“I would wake up constantly by cops,” she said. “They’d knock on my window in the middle of the night and tell me, ‘You can’t be here.’ They’d tell me to go the free campsites in Nederland. Well, that’s really far away and you don’t always have the money for gas.”
Though it hasn’t been decided who, exactly, would comprise the inaugural class of 1440 Pine St. residents, Thoreson seems a likely candidate, because she’s been connected with other Attention Homes programs and has demonstrated a desire to work out of destitution.
For all the uproar over Boulder’s influx of young homeless people and their perceived lack of collective investment in the city, Thoreson is a prime example of another side of that demographic.
“I see a lot of young kids on the streets, younger than me, under 18, and the majority of them do have goals,” she said. “A lot of people in that age range want to go to college, want to start school or work, and they don’t have a chance to do that, because they’re starting from nothing.”
Whenever homeless housing of any kind is pitched in Boulder, there is keen public interest in the expected make-up of the benefitting population. As a general rule, those with long-term or at least semi-permanent ties to the area are seen as more deserving, and “transients,” less so.
It will invariably be a key discussion point if and when the City Council — fresh off a tour of the city’s homelessness programs and possible future homeless village sites and set to hold a study session on homelessness Monday — decides to place something similar in Boulder.
Need ‘doesn’t stop when they turn 18’
And skepticism around who, precisely, will be served on Pine Street has been a constant in recent months.
Per an agreement, one quarter of the residents would be referred by Boulder County’s human services network, but federal funding sources prohibit local preference, so Attention Homes cannot guarantee what so many seem to want: a project that caters exclusively to the neediest young people who actually call the city home, and not to any 18-to-24-year-old who happens to pass through.
But, Attention Homes Executive Director Claire Clurman said, “these are people who are known to us.” And while 40 units may seem a lot, the residents will be staying long enough that anyone who isn’t tied to Boulder but comes here seeking a stay on Pine Street will likely be disappointed to find no vacancy.
Clurman is used to fielding questions about who the project would and would not help, but she’s also had to answer to some who question whether the organization is indeed fit to serve young adults in the first place, regardless of where they’re coming from.
That’s a fire largely ignited and stoked by Jan Hittelman, a former Attention Homes staffer who lives a block from 1440 Pine St., and who believes his onetime employer is now abandoning its identity.
The organization cut its teeth placing people 12 to 18 years old in small-scale home settings, and the single-family house Hittelman lives in now was, in fact, an Attention Homes program site for decades. He, like others, has called the proposal “institutional” and not homey, and isn’t confident in the staff’s ability to help an age range north of 18 in a large facility so close to the temptations of downtown.
“The truth is, and it’s something Attention Homes doesn’t want to talk about, but often nonprofits will chase funding to survive, and when that happens, you morph your mission. That’s what’s happening here,” Hittelman said.
“Frankly, I’m really uncomfortable with the position of having to speak against Attention Homes,” he adds. “But I feel like somebody has to speak up. They want to talk about the nobility of the project, but money is what’s driving this whole thing.”
In the sense that the developers have had to be opportunistic in their pursuit of financial backers that encourage certain project traits — density, for one — Hittelman is at least partially correct that money is a driver, the project staff acknowledge.
But to the point that Attention Homes is ill-equipped to serve the slightly older versions of the sorts of kids Hittelman advocated for and worked with for decades, Clurman notes that he hasn’t been with the organization for 14 years.
When he left, the relationship between Attention Homes and the county was frayed completely. Boulder County, then and now a key funding source, believed in a different kind of service than Attention Homes wanted to offer, including more security for residents, locked facilities and more restrained clients.
The county was hesitant to place kids with Attention Homes, which promptly went dormant in 2001 and 2002.
‘They were just struggling incredibly’
Since its resurrection, the county’s human services and the nonprofit have fully healed the relationship; both sides said as much in interviews, and the county’s transitional age youth coordinator, Ann Sullivan, called the latest proposal “really exciting.”
Each has also evolved in the process. In 2009, Attention Homes began working for the first time with the 18-to-24 range it now seeks to place at 1440 Pine St.
“What we found is that they were just struggling incredibly” in young adulthood, Clurman said.
“What we do best is we build relationships with these young people and we build up trust in a world where they’ve been abused and victimized by the adults in their lives — and that doesn’t stop when they turn 18,” she said
Nelson chimes in with another defense of Attention Homes’ ability to execute the 1440 Pine St. plan in a way that ultimately puts to rest the concern that 18-to-24-year-olds are outside the organization’s sweet spot.
“It would be like someone who worked at an advertising company in 1999 saying, ‘You shouldn’t use apps and Twitter now,'” he said. “We have to evolve with the times, and there has to be a progression in how we provide services, and that is true also for who we’re providing them to.”