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Christmas on Ash Street

A city's gift of warmth

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Nicole was, at first, reluctant to talk about her situation. She was more interested in taking a load off her feet.

"I'm nine-and-a-half months pregnant," said Nicole, 41.

Finally deciding to share her story, she asked that her last name not be used. She's not too proud of her current situation. Being pregnant and homeless was not how she expected to be spending the holidays.

"This will be my ninth child," said Nicole.

Uncertain if we heard her right the first time, BW asked Nicole to repeat herself.

"Yes, I have eight children--most of them grown, but I currently have two with me. There's a fourth-grader and a fifth-grader, both girls."

Reaching under her many layers of clothes (we counted four), Nicole vigorously scratched her calves and ankles.

"I'm diabetic," she said. "Plus I think I'm allergic to being pregnant."

But during the conversation, Nicole eventually warmed up to a half-smile, saying that she had a number of things to be grateful for this Christmas--her children, Patrick (the baby's father), who said he'd be marrying Nicole sometime in the new year, and the fact that she'll soon be completing her high-school equivalency exams. But for the moment, at least, she was most grateful to be sitting down inside a relatively modest building on Ash Street.

"This place is a blessing," said Nicole. "If it wasn't for this place, I don't know what I would do."

"This place" is the Pioneer Neighborhood Community Center, south of downtown Boise, which has served as an after-school respite for latchkey kids since the 1990s. But for the last three winters, the facility has also served as a day shelter for an increasing number of the city's homeless--specifically, homeless families.

"We're not a day care, and we don't provide services," said Paul Schoenfelder, a youth services coordinator with the Boise Parks and Recreation Department since 1994.

But the soft-spoken Schoenfelder said the shelter was "a huge success" due, in large part, to its location.

"If this center was even two miles east of here, it probably wouldn't work," said Schoenfelder.

Looking in any direction proves Schoenfelder's point. On the south side of Ash Street are rows of low-income housing, where scores of kids come home from school to empty households. A block and a half to the northwest is the River of Life Rescue Mission for men. A few more blocks to the west is the Interfaith Sanctuary shelter, where families and couples can sleep together under the same roof, and about a block to the north is the Corpus Christi Day Shelter, where the city's homeless migrate each morning when the night shelters close their doors.

"But Corpus isn't a place for children," said Nicole.

The City of Boise agrees. That's why the office of Mayor Dave Bieter decided to ask the Department of Parks and Recreation--already managing the Pioneer Center as an after-school program--to do double-duty, offering the facility to homeless families during the winter months. Every morning, as many as 50 homeless moms, dads and infants show up at the Ash Street center. They can stay until 3 p.m. but have to leave before the after-school kids show up.

The make up of the couples, some married, some in "committed relationships," definitely skewed younger. When BW visited in early December, the majority of parents were in their 20s, with one as young as 18 years old.

"The intake here is quite simple. We get referrals from the shelters telling us about parents and pre-school-aged children who don't have an appropriate place to be during the day," said Schoenfelder. "We'll be open seven days a week until the end of March."

And, yes, that includes Christmas Day. Some homemade paper snowflakes and decorations made by the after-school kids adorned the windows and walls. Schoenfelder, who has spent his Christmases working at the shelter, said there will be some stockings and toys from Santa for the children.

"I had a family last year ..."

Schoenfelder stopped mid-sentence and looked away. He started his sentence again.

"I had a family ..."

Schoenfelder swallowed hard, his voice cracking a bit.

"And ..."

His eyes welled up a bit but not enough for anyone who wasn't sitting very close to notice.

"They were pretty frustrated on Christmas," he said. "They were a married couple with two young children. And the parents got a little angry, because people wanted so much to give them things."

Schoenfelder looked away, studying the paper snowflakes on the wall.

"You see, they didn't have any place to put the presents," said Schoenfelder. "They said, 'This is great that you want to give our kids some toys, but where are we going to put them?'"

Schoenfelder acknowledged that while the kids see such joy on Christmas, sadness and frustration is the parents' reality.

"A lot of people want to give at Christmas, but how about a gift certificate for a shoe store? You see that 4-year-old girl over there?" he asked, pointing to an adorable little one in pink pajamas. "Her parents don't have any place to put another pair of shoes. But come July, she's going to outgrow those shoes."

Schoenfelder said, rest assured, Santa won't skip Ash Street this year. There will be some toys under the tree, and hopefully, some gift certificates.

As Nicole bundled up at 3 p.m., saying she needed to pick up her two daughters before suppertime at the River of Life, she made certain to say one more thing.

"Have a wonderful Christmas," she said with a full smile, waving goodbye.

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