Boulder residents, officials, discuss community's 'high utilizer' population

Jan. 25—A high utilizer is an individual who repeatedly visits an emergency department, continually taxing health care resources.

That's how medical experts define the term, anyway.

But that's just one of the many definitions for a high utilizer. What Boulder County District Attorney Michael Dougherty on Wednesday wanted to know was: Which population are Boulder residents referring to, when using such a term?

"Are we talking about the top 50 people who utilize services? The top 50 people who have the most frequent contacts with law enforcement? The top 50 people with the most cases in the justice system or the top 50 people who cause the most harm in the community? Because, those are actually four different categories," Dougherty said.

Dougherty was the first of several panelists to speak during a community-led gathering that Boulder resident Christopher Drummond put together and coined as the "high utilizer" meeting. About 50 residents attended the session, which was held at the Boulder Chamber of Commerce.

"I am specifically referring to the 50-to-75 high utilizers who are (in Boulder) because they 100% have a drug issue," Drummond said, ahead of the meeting. "They are frequently arrested and frequently written tickets. I thought this was a homeless issue, and I have clearly found out that it is an addiction and mental health issue."

Drummond said he wasn't sure where the 50-to-75 range came from, but added a lot of others groups and individuals he's spoken with on the topic have thrown out the same number.

"It's not an exact science," he said. "Maybe people come in and out of that 50-to-75. It seems to be the number that most people agree with that creates the small group that's creating havoc on the rest of (the unhoused population), and the people who are incredibly vulnerable."

Breathing exercises included

To start the meeting, Drummond spoke about his concerns regarding the high utilizers in Boulder and the growing issue of substance use disorder in the community. Later Bart Foster, a professional facilitator and Boulder resident, led attendees through breathing exercises.

Throughout the course of the morning, residents listened to public officials and toward the end of the meeting, they were broken into small groups where they were assigned one of three discussion topics: How to keep schools safe, how to address the high utilizer population in the community and how mobilize and activate the business community to help solve the issue.

Other than Dougherty, Boulder County Commissioner Claire Levy, City Attorney Teresa Tate, Boulder Police Chief Maris Herold, Boulder County Sheriff Curtis Johnson and Boulder Director of Housing and Human Services Kurt Firnhaber also spoke during the meeting.

Boulder City Councilmember Tara Winer, and a representative from U.S. Rep. Joseph Neguse's office were also present, but did not directly speak to the issue.

During the meeting, Herold and Levy, echoed a message similar to Dougherty's, which was was that jail isn't always the answer.

"But sometimes consequences have to be part of the solution," Herold said. "I want to validate what the community is seeing, but I do certainty think that we are all smart people, that we can impact this issue and the young men in women across the Boulder Police Department are in this with you."

Levy expanded on the topic of the day and asked residents how labeling others helps solve the problem that both Boulder and Boulder County are facing.

"Labeling people — saying what's not OK — of course it's not OK to cycle in and out of jail, but that doesn't tell us what is OK and what should happen," Levy said.

She went on to discuss the county's coordinated entry program that is also offered by Boulder and Longmont. The program requires adults experiencing homelessness, who are seeking services, to complete a screening process in order to be matched with the appropriate services.

"We're here to do constructive things and things that are based on evidence — what works and what does not work," Levy said. "Housing with supportive services works, and that's where we want to focus our resources."

A matter of trust

Dre Foster, who is currently experiencing homelessness in Boulder, was also present on Wednesday and spoke during the meeting about need to provide positive reinforcement and — despite how hard it might be — to trust members of the unhoused community.

"I find when people trust me, I'm way more likely to be trustworthy," Foster said. "I try to be a trustworthy guy, but it does feel good for someone to put their faith in you."

He added that if people experiencing homelessness are given positive reinforcement, they are more accepting of the resources in the community. They don't want to be forced to change.

"When they seem most motivated is when they are the ones that are hands-on, and it's not someone coming in and saying 'This is how we're going to fix you guys.'"

Jennifer Livovich, founder of Boulder nonprofit Feet Forward, said she was happy Foster was present for the meeting but wished there was more representation from the unhoused community, or those who work directly with people experiencing homelessness. Livovich was unhoused in Boulder for several years before she founded the organization.

"I truly believe that people who have lived experience with homelessness are absolutely required to really make a dent in the issue and relate to this population," she said.

Drummond said the meeting exceeded his expectations and that he hopes to hold more community-centered discussions in the future.

"Everyone was so civil, had great ideas and (there was) lots of great discussion," he said. "People really were ready to collaborate rather than just share their opinion. There were a lot of commitments from people to get involved after the fact."