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Boise's Sheltered Future

Volunteers, police meet to address the void left by Sanctuary

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Nineteen year-old Kathleen* says her family needs a hand up, not a handout.

She recently applied for cash assistance at the Department of Health Welfare, but was denied help because she couldn't fulfill the requirements of looking for a job for at least 40 hours a week. Caring for her young son and a taking care of a high-risk pregnancy made it almost impossible to look for work, she said. Kathleen and her family barely survive on her WIC check and she said she hasn't been able to eat enough. But for a time this winter, she was able to find Sanctuary.

Boise State University social work students found in a recent survey of Boise's homeless community that many people such as Kathleen had few places to turn after the short-term emergency shelter Sanctuary closed March 31.

Sanctuary guests, volunteers, law enforcement and city officials came together for an open forum last Thursday to discuss how to get social resources to people like Kathleen and fill in the gaps left by the closure of one of the few area interfaith shelters that accepted folks regardless of their religious affiliation or their ability to stay sober--and the only one that would provide immediate emergency shelter to entire families without separating the members into gender-specific facilities.

"People have a desire to be in a shelter to protect themselves from the weather. But they do not have the desire to be in a shelter where they have to live by rules (imposed) by other faiths," said Frances Wray of El-Ada Community Action Partnership.

Mahajayne Sorrells of the Interfaith Alliance, who worked at Sanctuary from when it opened in December to its close, said many shelter guests told her that Sanctuary was unlike any other shelter they had visited. "I asked them why and they said, 'Because we are accepted," she said.

Sanctuary was intended to serve people on an emergency, short-term basis and the March closure came as no surprise. Still, its closure left many without shelter in the rain and in desperate situations. Wray said one former Sanctuary resident couldn't find room in other area shelters or a place to stay elsewhere and panicked. Finally, the woman prostituted herself out to put a roof over her head, Wray said.

Sanctuary administrators recently conducted what they admitted was a "crude" survey to find what life after Sanctuary had to offer its approximately 300 guests. They found that only about 10 percent of the 177 surveyed have found some other kind of shelter. About 6 percent were camping and 4 percent found "other" places to reside.

"The other 90 percent will not or cannot go to other shelters," said Will Rainford, Sanctuary spokesperson and legislative advocate with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Boise. "The question is, when we closed on March 31, what happened to the other 270 people? Who will serve the other 270 people?"

Forum participants said their main concern centered on the stats that painted a picture of folks without homes falling through a number of cracks. The Sanctuary survey and follow-up interviews by Boise State social work students and Sanctuary volunteers found a few former residents took shelter in cars or slept in the Foothills. Some simply walked the streets all night, and slept at the Corpus Christi day house between the 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. hours of service. Some single moms walked with their small children in strollers all day.

"People who are making $5.45 an hour cannot pay rent in Boise," Wray reminded forum attendees.

Law enforcement also joined the forum to talk statistics. Boise Chief of Police Mike Masterson said the department has its eyes on crime numbers in neighborhoods surrounding shelters. He noted that raw data indicates that some crime rates jumped in the area surrounding Sanctuary and decreased in the Boise Rescue Mission neighborhood after Sanctuary opened in November. But Lt. Pete Ritter added that the numbers are inconclusive and open to interpretation. A canvas of area neighborhoods would be needed to correlate any changes in crime rates to a shifting of homeless populations, he said. Homeless advocates warned that the data could help feed into myths about homeless populations.

Rainford said the forum gave people the opportunity to offer comments on plans to re-open a shelter in November, but also to challenge the idea. In the end, representatives of about a dozen social service organizations pledged their support for the shelter. Organizations including Supportive Housing and Innovative Partnerships, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Boise, Catholic Charities of Idaho, Corpus Christi and El-Ada said they have committed funding to the re-opening, and will continue to serve the homeless through Sanctuary. Rainford said Sanctuary organizers wanted planning discussions to be as inclusive as possible and even invited representatives from other shelters to join the talks. Boise police officials and Sanctuary administrators said they used the forum to forge an alliance to tackle issues in partnership that affect both law enforcement and homeless populations.

Rainford said plans to open a shelter by November 31 are solid, because "We do not have a choice." But until then, those without homes have the summer heat to contend with. Rainford said that's a real concern to Sanctuary volunteers.

"Once you're overheated, it's too late. By then, you are rescuing," he said.

The open forum attended by social justice organization and interfaith volunteers also explored issues surrounding homelessness and some of the obstacles preventing people from accessing the resources needed to help get them back on their feet. Some talked of plans to open a summer cooling station where people can get out of the heat, hydrate and sober up. Many noted that homelessness does not happen in a vacuum and many factors can lead to the loss of permanent housing for anyone.

Dwight Scarbrough with Veterans for Peace, who attended the meeting, said he envisions a sort of one stop shop for homeless folks. He sees the kind of place where someone could easily access the social services that could help get them into permanent housing. Think of a tourist information center stocked with maps, directions to area attractions, shopping guides and pamphlets about local hot spots, he said. The concept could help more than just tourists.

"You have populations who become homeless for different reasons," he said. That means folks need a variety of resources but they often can't run all around town to access them. Putting Health and Welfare services, child care, food assistance, health care and then some under one roof could help ease some homeless burdens, he said.

Henry Krewer with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Boise also encouraged forum participants to think creatively. "This community has to think outside the box and Sanctuary was a step forward," he said. "There are homeless Boiseans and they want the same things we want. But society has put them in a box. They're in a barrel and we need to help them out."

*Interviewed by Boise State social work students

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