Homeless Advocate Takes On A.C.L.U., and It’s Personal

On the last Thursday of August, Jennifer Livovich spent the morning simmering beans and cheese sauce in her Boulder, Colo., apartment, preparing nachos. Then friends helped her load a truck with the food, along with donations she had secured — socks, toothbrushes, cellphones — to distribute at a downtown park where dozens of chronically homeless people congregate.

“Hopefully, no drama,” she said as the truck pulled away.

Ms. Livovich has become a central figure in Boulder’s efforts to help the homeless. In 2020, she created a nonprofit, Feet Forward, to serve several hundred people whom the county estimates lack permanent shelter. And she regularly consults with, and is consulted by, policymakers, housing officials and the Boulder County district attorney. In late November she wrote an op-ed in a local paper on homelessness and substance use. To these conversations, she brings an intimate expertise: For five years, from 2012 to 2017, she lived on the streets of Boulder, often inebriated, until a brush with frostbite scared her into treatment.

“She struck a chord in Boulder that I’ve not ever seen before,” said Benita Duran, a former Boulder assistant city manager.

In 2021, the American Civil Liberties Union asked Ms. Livovich and Feet Forward to join as plaintiffs in a lawsuit that would force the city to reform its homeless policies. She was told that the lawsuit was “going to change homeless lives,” she recalled. “So of course I joined.”

Lawsuits like this one are increasingly common around the country, as cities grapple with stubbornly chronic homeless populations and a vexing legal and moral question: Can a person be given a ticket for sleeping in a public area? Or, as the A.C.L.U. contends, does such a policy constitute “cruel and unusual punishment” when there are not enough shelter beds to accommodate everyone in need?

The issue in Boulder became further fraught in May, when Ms. Livovich told the A.C.L.U. that she was withdrawing from the lawsuit. In an interview, she said that she had signed on as a plaintiff without fully understanding the case being made — and that she now feels that the A.C.L.U. and its supporters ultimately do not understand the people that they are trying to help.

Ms. Livovich argued that many people who gather and often sleep around Boulder’s downtown park represent a particular subset of “the homeless.” For them, she said, the primary problem is substance abuse; cheap, potent drugs are so readily available that the “housing first” policy oversimplifies the issue. Treatment should be the first priority and, while Ms. Livovich does not favor ticketing people sleeping outside, she said that some people might need to be removed from the park for their safety, and that of the public.

“I’m not anti-housing first,” she said. “I’m not anti-housing.” But in a world of constrained resources, she added, the spending priorities need to be shifted to put greater emphasis on treatment. “There is a growing subset struggling with addiction, and I have a hard time just giving them an apartment,” she said. “That’s not going to solve their problems.”

“They need treatment,” Ms. Livovich said. “Every dollar not spent on treatment is a dollar wasted.”

The A.C.L.U., she added, “is looking at this through the lens of what is constitutional and not what is happening on the street.”

Tim Macdonald, the legal director for the A.C.L.U. of Colorado, countered that the lawsuit sought to combat what he called the “criminalization” of sleeping in public spaces without an alternative. Treatment was important, too, he said, and housing and treatment were not mutually exclusive. He declined to comment on what the A.C.L.U. said to Ms. Livovich when she joined the lawsuit, citing attorney-client privilege.

“Our focus is to protect the constitutional rights of the plaintiffs we still represent in this case, and continue our efforts to end the criminalization of people who are unhoused in Boulder,” Mr. Macdonald said.

He added that Ms. Livovich was important initially at the outset but her decision to withdraw doesn’t end the claims of other plaintiffs. Among them is Feet Forward, the nonprofit that Ms. Livovich founded. After she announced her withdrawal from the suit, she asked her board of directors to do the same. But it declined and the nonprofit stayed on as a plaintiff, and Ms. Livovich resigned from her own organization.

“They hijacked my nonprofit for this lawsuit,” she said of the A.C.L.U. and its allies on the Feet Forward board. “I was played.”

At the park, Ms. Livovich, 51, and her team set tables under a large tree and began distributing the tortilla chips, cheese, jalapeños and other fixings.

Wearing a T-shirt bearing the words “Be Kind,” she jovially greeted friends she knew from her street days as she handed out supplies to the hundred or so people waiting in line. A 54-year-old woman who gave her name as Julie clutched new socks and a muffin as she described how she had just been released from the hospital after being treated for pneumonia. An argument among several men rose in volume from somewhere nearby.

In its lawsuit, the A.C.L.U. contends that “homelessness in the region is generally the result of economic conditions,” and that Boulder must first provide sufficient housing before enacting “cover bans” and issuing citations for sleeping in public spaces under blankets and other forms of cover. It characterizes the ticketing as “cruel and unusual punishment.”

Boulder has countered that its police department has discretion over people sleeping in public places. In several early judgments, a district judge agreed with the city that a tent ban does not violate the state constitution but said legal arguments could continue on the question of whether people could be cited for sleeping with a blanket or other covering. A trial date is set for August.

“There is no sobriety in the park,” Ms. Livovich said, looking around. Many of the people who gather there are desperately addicted, trying to stave off withdrawal, and sometimes violent and psychotic. Ms. Livovich said that the A.C.L.U. misunderstood this subset of homeless people. In Boulder County, one-half of 1 percent of the population is homeless but accounts for 10 percent of felonies in 2018-2019, according to the county district attorney.

Ms. Livovich has argued for streamlined services, supervised treatment when necessary and even detaining people who present a risk to themselves or others. She said the lawsuit did not prioritize the well-being of people who were at risk of dying everyday. “Nobody has constitutional rights when they’re dead,” she said.

Mr. Macdonald, of the A.C.L.U., noted that some of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit had been cited for sleeping outside and that their cases “had nothing to do with drug use or illegal behavior.”

The city does not keep a daily total of its homeless population, with most data collected at the county level. In January, Boulder County reported 839 people who lacked permanent shelter; around one-half stayed in a shelter and one-quarter were in transitional housing, leaving 243 people outside. People avoid shelters for many reasons, including fear of violence or constrained freedom. Drugs play a role, too, according to a city analysis: “Either the person has self-medicated into a state in which they cannot make a reasoned decision about sheltering, or they do not want to shelter because they cannot actively use the substance while staying at the shelter.”

Kurt Firnhaber, head of Housing and Human Services for the city, said he endorsed “housing first” but that housing alone did not solve the problem for some people grappling with drug addiction. “Many individuals struggle to get through the night,” he said. And shelters were not always a refuge. One night this summer, Mr. Firnhaber said, a man at a local shelter “took a chair and started breaking all the glass in the building.”

At the park, as Ms. Livovich’s team was cleaning up, an argument that had been escalating between two men suddenly exploded when the older of the two — who was tall, with a long white beard, and wielded a six-inch knife — began chasing the other.

Ms. Livovich quickly learned the cause: There had been a fentanyl overdose in the park the night before, and the older man was chasing the dealer he thought was responsible. The police arrived and dispelled the tension. Later, Ms. Livovich said she was disappointed but not surprised by the older man’s attempt to defend the park from a perceived threat. “When I lived out here,” she said, “I used to say, ‘This is my park.’”

Ms. Livovich grew up in Hammond, Ind., her father a financial executive and mother an administrator in a law school. She described her childhood as “privileged.” She attended Indiana University briefly but dropped out.

She married at 35, and the relationship was abusive. “Drinking was our common denominator,” Ms. Livovich said. She left the marriage at age 38, landing in South Bend, Ind., where “my drinking got crazy,” she said. In 2012, she came to Boulder.

Her life centered on feeding her alcohol addiction. “It ruled my every move,” she said. She often woke behind King Soopers, a supermarket, and then pooled her cash with other habitual drinkers and designated someone to go inside and make the purchase. “All day, every day,” she said.

People who knew her then described her as charismatic and sometimes ornery. “There are two sides of Jen — there’s sober Jen and drunk Jen,” said Brentt Van Wagner, 39, who was homeless for two dozen years until recently. When intoxicated, Ms. Livovich was “angry,” he said. “She puts her foot down a lot. Commanding — we’re going to do this, and we’re going to do it this way.” He added, “She’s a good person. She’s got a good heart.”

From 2014 to 2016, Ms. Livovich received 51 citations, spent 266 nights in jail and was “hauled to detox 72 times,” she said. Some detentions “saved my life,” she said, because she stopped drinking for a few days.

In December 2016, after a scare from frostbite, she entered sober transitional living, spent 18 months in recovery and enrolled at Colorado State University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in human services. She was placed into housing in Boulder through a state voucher program. In October 2018, she started collecting socks to give to the homeless.

In late 2020 that effort grew into Feet Forward, whose mission expanded to provide food and other staples. It coordinated with Boulder County to provide clean needles and other harm reduction supplies, soliciting items from donors and obtaining a shuttle bus to provide mobile outreach services.

“She has a wealth of knowledge of working with people in trenches around the homeless,” said Michael Dougherty, the Boulder County district attorney, who said he has had multiple conversations with Ms. Livovich over the years.

Her manner could be direct. “She’s good at calling everybody out in the room who thinks they know better,” said Molly East, executive director of Focused Reentry, a nonprofit that helps people transition from incarceration to society. “Her lived experience is fundamental to solving things.”

Last spring, after Ms. Livovich withdrew from the lawsuit, she asked the board of Feet Forward to do the same. When they declined, she asked the board members to resign so that she could replace them. Only one — Ms. Duran, the former assistant city manager — did so.

“Jen kept raising the issue and saying, ‘This isn’t right. I don’t want to be involved,’” Ms. Duran said. In the end, Ms. Livovich herself resigned, to follow her own “moral compass,” she said.

Darren O’Connor, a board member, sent an email to Feet Forward volunteers. “The board was saddened to receive this resignation,” he wrote, adding, “It was important for Feet Forward to remain as a named plaintiff, as deciding to withdraw would require dismissal of the lawsuit.” Later, Mr. O’Connor said, the board learned that the lawsuit could have proceeded even if the nonprofit had dropped out.

In August, when Ms. Livovich marshaled supplies to give to the homeless, she did so under the aegis of a new nonprofit, Street Scape, that she hoped would give her and her team a platform to continue helping.

Ten days later, Ms. Livovich started drinking. Over the next week, her drinking was intermittent but consistent. She sat in a recliner in her apartment sipping 100-proof peppermint schnapps from the bottle or a tumbler, her laptop and cigarettes nearby.

This was not her first relapse, she said, but she had been largely sober for four years until the troubles started over the lawsuit. “I was so devastated,” she said. After resigning from Feet Forward, she relapsed badly, went into rehab and got sober again, briefly.

“The one thing that I had is gone,” she said, her voice slurring, eyes heavy. She had developed a mission and organization, and felt it had been taken from her. “I don’t have a place,” she said.

Friends, including local officials, checked in to remind her that she played a vital role in the community. With their support, Ms. Livovich found her way into a detox program and then started intensive work through Alcoholics Anonymous, aiming to attend 30 meetings in 30 days. Soon she was sober and “fighting for my life,” she said in a text. “Root for me.”

While she was in detox, she overheard soon-to-be-released substance users on a phone in the public area desperately calling around to find placement in long-term clinics but coming up empty. She worried for them. “The moments for recovery are fleeting,” she said. Some people may lose motivation. “And where are they going?” she said. “They’re going back to the park.”

As the weeks went by, Ms. Livovich struggled to find a Medicaid-supported therapist and a clinician to prescribe drugs for depression and anxiety, and those that might help reduce her alcohol cravings. She said there were not enough treatment options and she couldn’t find help. She made it 64 days sober, and then she relapsed again just before Thanksgiving. A few days after the holiday, she fell in her apartment, hit her head and cut the inside of her mouth, leading to an emergency room visit. Friends got her back into detox. One of them, a physician, pulled some strings and got her an appointment with a therapist and a clinician during the first week of December.

“Look at how difficult it has been for me to get treatment, and I’m relatively well connected,” Ms. Livovich said. “Imagine what it looks like for somebody who knows nobody but other guys that are getting high in the park.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *