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Sanctuary goes semi-permanent

Spare office space opens to Boise's homeless population

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Coffee brews in the basement of The Carnegie Public Library Building and bagels are toasting, filling the air of the nearly vacant building with the smells of a coffee shop.The scents mingle under the archways and the slick wood moldings of the Carnegie, a historic landmark on the corner of 8th and Washington streets. The building could be a library coffeehouse, a fancy reception hall or posh offices. The real estate options seem endless. But on this drizzly night, some 60 people call the old library home for the holidays.

For Charles Gruenewald and his partner Judy Coates, the basement has lived up to its temporary name: Interfaith Sanctuary.

"This place launched us in the right direction and that's why we're going where we're going," Gruenewald said. After Sanctuary, Gruenewald and Coats are headed for a small trailer in West Boise.

Sanctuary gave Gruenewald and Coats a temporary home where they could recover from some bad luck and save their earnings so they could to put a down payment on the trailer.

And for the rest of Sanctuary's residents, the basement is also temporary. St. Michael's Cathedral, which owns the building, opened the old library's doors to Interfaith Sanctuary Nov. 27. But the church can only offer the rent-free space to Sanctuary guests for a few months. Just days before the new year, they found out that the shelter could stay at the library until March 31. After that, the shelter will close its doors because a permanent location has not yet been found. But for the time being, the free space gives Sanctuary a little bit of certainty.

"It's been a stabilizing effect for us," said Will Rainford, a social work professor at Boise State and legislative advocate for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Boise.

Interfaith Sanctuary has operated as a rotating congregational winter shelter, occupying space at St. John's Cathedral on the corner of 8th and Hays streets before moving into the library building.

"For us, it's a headache; for them [the homeless], it's a nightmare," Rainford said of the moves.

Boise's homelessness situation has figured prominently on the agenda of city hall. One of the first issues Mayor Dave Bieter faced when he entered office in 2004 was the failure of Community House. The shelter, located on the corner of 13th and River Streets, was built by the city but run and operated by a local nonprofit organization. After Community House funding dried up, the city allocated more than $1 million to keep the shelter afloat.

"The mayor and the council have always said that this is not the kind of situation that they can deal with on their own," said Michael Zuzel, Bieter's spokesman.

The city didn't have the money to keep Community House in operation, so local organizations were asked to submit proposals to take over the shelter. Boise Rescue Mission was the only organization to apply and was eventually awarded management of the shelter.

"The call has always been for the community to [help]," Zuzel said. "Sanctuary fits in with that really well. If they are stepping up to provide those services, that is encouraging."

After Sanctuary changes a location its occupancy, which usually hovers around 65, dips. Sanctuary volunteers end up combing the abandoned shelter locations looking for homeless people who may have not known about the move.

Interfaith Sanctuary was created in November 2005. Organizations that serve the homeless reported to a gathering of faith leaders that about 250 to 300 people were sleeping in cars, parks and on the streets. They said that many of them were either unable or unwilling to use other area shelters. Between Dec. 8, 2005 and March 31, the Interfaith Sanctuary served 300 different individuals.

Sanctuary first sheltered people in a local house of worship and then in a downtown warehouse. By plan and necessity, Sanctuary closed its doors on April 1.

"My goal is to never close doors again. But we can't do it nomadically," Rainford said.

Chris Lutz, a Sanctuary resident who grew up in Meridian, says that if the nomadic shelter had not existed, many of the guests would be "frozen or out freezing somewhere." He said many at Sanctuary just don't feel comfortable or accepted at other shelters around town.

"We get a lot more leeway here," Lutz said.

"Don't take advantage of it," said another guest who filed into the Sanctuary coffee room to fill up on donated bagels and ramen noodles.

The other area shelters, ran by the Boise Rescue Mission, separate men, women and children into different facilities. Couples are allowed to sleep together in two 12-foot-square "couples only" rooms in the Sanctuary basement. Single women are given privacy in another "women only" room and men are spread throughout the basement. Some children who recently arrived at the shelter with their parents were put in a house owned by the Catholic Church. Everyone at the shelter sleeps on foam mats that are spaced about six inches apart from each other. And that's all the accommodation some at Sanctuary say that they need.

Other Sanctuary residents say that they appreciate that a dose of religion doesn't accompany a bed at the shelter.

"It's not forced on you like at other shelters. It's there if you want it," Gruenewald said.

The Rev. Bill Roscoe with the Boise Rescue Mission Ministries said the people whom the Mission shelters serve are not required to attend religious services and as long as no one is abusive toward others or carrying pornography, weapons, drugs or alcohol, they're welcome at the Mission. And those who violate rules are not forbidden from accessing Boise Rescue Mission services in the future.

"We're quick to forgive and forget," Roscoe said.

Even the intoxicated are not turned away from the Mission shelters, which serve an average of 137 people a night, he said. They just have to be able to communicate with staff and control their bodily functions. If they don't quite pass minimum sobriety requirements, they aren't turned away; they just won't get a prime sleeping spot.

"The cops bring us [intoxicated] guys all the time now," Rainford said. "The most vulnerable are the ones with alcohol problems."

An Interfaith Sanctuary survey found that 75 percent of people served by Sanctuary had a drug or alcohol problem. Intoxicated guests at Sanctuary are given a spot on the floor in what is the temporary shelter's equivalent to a drunk tank. Large plastic tarps intended to catch body fluids cover the floor of an office that also serves as storage space. Every night at least one intoxicated guest calls the trapped room home.

Other homeless people, both drunk and sober, who don't call a Mission shelter or the Sanctuary home for the night, take refuge elsewhere.

"We do give sleeping bags out so there are people sleeping out in their cars," said Henry Krewer, president of the Corpus Christi House.

Corpus Christi House day shelter volunteers distribute about three to four sleeping bags per week.

"A lot of people go to a shelter and they don't like it there," Krewer said. "Shelters aren't really pleasant places."

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