On a recent cold morning, a homeless man on a bike overloaded with his belongings rolled up to the doors of the old Boise Rescue Mission and stopped. The door was locked, uncharacteristically. The sign said that the Mission had stopped serving food there and was now in its new location over on River Street.
He sighed, his breath pillowing out into the frosty Boise air. Putting his foot back to the pedal, he steered on, toward a place he hoped would have a hot meal for him. Maybe a bed.
Maybe not. Boise homeless shelters are often full to the gills these days, especially as winter chills force people without homes inside.
"We are at capacity," said Will Rainford, a spokesman with the Interfaith Sanctuary, at a recent public forum on homelessness sponsored in part by the City Club of Boise. That's more than 100 people a night, he said, who are seeking basic services from the shelter. In a way, Rainford's facility itself only recently escaped from temporary housing. Interfaith Sanctuary just found a permanent home of its own.
"It's a community problem," Rainford said. "I don't want to sing a rosy song. There are huge holes in the service net for people who are homeless. We have so much more work to do."
Homeless advocates estimate about 350 to 500 people are chronically homeless in Boise and the Treasure Valley. Federal guidelines consider you chronically homeless if you've experienced more than two episodes of homelessness in the last year.
Richard Armstrong, from the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, estimates the state has about 5,400 homeless people.
In general, Idaho and Boise's homeless population looks different from that of coastal cities like Seattle and Portland, said Armstrong. The stereotype of the single male sleeping on a park bench doesn't jibe with the majority homeless population's appearance in Boise.
"There is no real consistent face. We're dealing mostly with families," Armstrong said. "We're also dealing with the issue of providing shelter."
Experts say a great percentage of Boise's homeless are transients from other states; many of them come to Boise rather than a larger coastal city because it's one of the safer areas of shelter.
Several subsets of the population raise concerned eyebrows. War veterans are increasing in their numbers on the streets of Boise.
And sex offenders continue to be a hot potato that fewer agencies know how to touch because they are deemed inappropriate mixers with regular homeless populations such as families or single women. This recently became more acute when the Boise Rescue Mission moved out of its Front Street operation. The agency had about 12 registered sex offenders staying there. When the location shut its doors and moved to a more residential area on River Street, they could not take in those sex offenders.
"It breaks our collective heart to turn them out into the cold, but there's nowhere else for them to go," said Jim Gambrell with the Boise Rescue Mission.
Bright spots have emerged. In the last year, the city of Boise joined with local charities to create Project CATCH. The program, which stands for Charitable Assistance To Community's Homeless, primarily assists homeless families with children younger than 18. The program is also available to young adults, ages 18 to 22, who are aging out of foster care.
Greg Morris, the director of the program, said his operation served over 28 families with more than 70 children in the first year.
"I think we're seeing multiple layers of the community really beginning to work together," said Morris. "This is not just one segment of our community's problem. This is something we can all have a role to play in working together."
But that's not necessarily a strategy borne of high-mindedness. Armstrong, noting his agency's limited budget hike in the coming years, said alliances are essential to a limited net of support.
"It's a race," said Gambrell. "It's going to take more than us as shelters to keep up with it."