Issues around housing have been boiling in Boise for some time as rent and home prices skyrocket. Over the past several days, those issues seemed to suddenly become more visible. One homeless shelter reached its maximum capacity for the first time and was left scrambling as it tried to deal with the extra people who still needed a bed. A different group set up tents across from the Capitol building to draw attention to the plight of those struggling with homelessness only to have Idaho State Police Officers seize some possessions on Tuesday evening.
Shelter overflows into parking lot
“Suddenly, on Friday night, we literally had to turn away 20 guests that we couldn’t find shelter (for) in our shelter building,” Interfaith Executive Director Jodi Peterson-Stigers said Tuesday in an interview. “They didn’t have anywhere else that they (were) qualified to go. It was a lot of trauma for our staff and for those guests.”
Not wanting to repeat the same situation the second night, the staff put out an open call to the community asking people to donate sleeping bags. About 30 sleeping bags were dropped off. The staff then set up the sleeping bags on floor mats in a large outdoor tent behind the shelter. The tent is heated by propane.
“We kind of just quickly regrouped and were like, ‘OK we need to do something until we have a better permanent situation,’” Peterson-Stigers said.
On Saturday, 13 people slept in the tent.
Among them was Randy Saintero, age 57, who said he became homeless for the first time last week after being hospitalized for a stroke. He said he returned home from the hospital to find that his wife had placed all his possessions on the front lawn. Having nowhere else to go, he found himself sleeping in the Interfaith tent.
“It was warm and there was heat,” Saintero, who said he had “never stayed in a shelter in his life” until then. “I was sleeping on the floor. It wasn’t too comfortable. It is what it is.”
Interfaith Sanctuary can hold 148 guests inside its building, including 124 in bunk beds and 24 sleeping on the floor on mats.
Other than Interfaith, Boise Rescue Mission Ministries, which has five local shelters, is the only other organization with emergency overnight shelter beds in the Treasure Valley. Interfaith staff members reached out to the Rescue Mission for help with the overflow. While only 320 of the Rescue’s Missions 500 beds were taken, some of those sleeping in Interfaith’s tent did not qualify or had previously been booted from the Rescue Mission.
The Rescue Mission’s staff agreed to take in a handful of people whom the staff had previously turned away for not following the mission’s rules. After some guests left for the Rescue Mission, seven people stayed in the Interfaith tent on Sunday night and eight on Monday night.
“What we agreed to do is reevaluate every single case,” Boise Rescue Mission Ministries President Bill Roscoe said Tuesday by phone. “So anyone who comes through (Interfaith) Sanctuary and wants to stay with us and has had previous problems at the Rescue Mission, we’re willing to extend grace, if you will, to those people and allow them to stay on the condition that they understand the rules and policies and they agree to abide by those.”
One key difference between the two shelters is the qualifications guests must meet to stay. Interfaith is considered a low-barrier shelter, meaning it has few qualifications. As long as guests do not steal, act violently or damage property, they can stay at Interfaith.
The Rescue Mission is a high-barrier shelter. Roscoe acknowledges that there are more rules at his shelters, including “no drugs (or) alcohol, no foul language, no threats.”
Guests must remain drug-free and sober during their stays. Guests also must follow habits laid out by the shelter such as eating meals with the organization, changing clothes at night and turning the lights out at a certain time.
“I think there’s a misconception that coming to the Rescue Mission is like going to jail,” Roscoe said. “We have a lot to offer. We are kind and loving people. We have all the things you need to recover.”
Tent protest at former Ada County Courthouse
Another set of tents, unrelated to Interfaith Sanctuary, went up over the weekend across from the Capitol building. They were still up Tuesday evening. The 12 tents were erected in front of the former Ada County Courthouse just east of the Capitol to to create a visual reminder to lawmakers of the state’s housing needs.
About 20 people joined together to take shifts in the tents or on chairs 24 hours per day. The group is made up mostly of people experiencing homelessness or who are involved with Idaho Mutual Aid, a Facebook group dedicated to exchanging resources. The demonstrators sometimes walked around quietly inside of the Statehouse to show lawmakers their signs. They want lawmakers to create more solutions for those in need of housing.
People are allowed to protest in tents on the state-owned Capitol Mall, which includes both buildings, but cannot camp there or bring “indicia of camping.” Those “indicia,” meaning signs or indications, of camping “may include, but are not limited to, storing personal belongings or for sleeping,carrying on cooking activities, laying out bedding or making any fire,” according to a court ruling.
The restrictions were set after a federal judge ruled that demonstrators who camped near the old courthouse during the Occupy Boise movement in 2011 had a First Amendment right to set up tents there as part of their protest but not to camp overnight.
That law was put to the test on Monday evening. At around 5 p.m., about five Idaho State Police officers arrived to the protest and removed two tarps that were placed upright to block the wind and two outdoor electric heaters. The officers told demonstrators they must remove the tables they had brought. The officers also had them move all belongings, including the 12 tents to a section of the lawn about 20 feet away because of concerns for the lawn.
Demonstrators said the items were related to the protest and pointed out that the Occupy Boise court ruling does not specifically forbid tarps, electric heaters or tables.
Major Russ Wheatley, who said he made the call to remove the items, told the Idaho Statesman that these items are related to camping.
“As I understand the order, and I’m just a cop, they can have a tent and people can be with the tent,” Wheatley said. “It doesn’t say they can have a tent city. They can’t have any stuff that would be an indication of camping.”
One organizer of this week’s protest, Yolanda Pullman, said people experiencing homelessness are simply tired of being treated poorly and offered few solutions.
“They believe we are dirty, filthy POS-es and that we’re all bums, drug addicts and alcoholics,” Pullman, age 51, said, choking up. “That is not so.
“There’s many, many issues that have led to homelessness,” she said. “(With) high prices of housing, when you get a little over $800 a month to live on as I do on disability, it’s not possible. The housing wait lists that are affordable are three to five years long.”
Pullman is hoping the increased visibility will help others see those dealing with homelessness as “worthy of helping.”
“I don’t look dirty. I’m not garbage. I’m not second rate. I’m a person too.”