A Bridge to Nowhere

Day shelter closes for repairs while homeless are ticketed for camping


It was a bullhorn moment.

Ritchie Eppink, legal director for ACLU of Idaho, was anxious to provide curbside legal assistance to the dozens of men, women and children--all homeless--whose numbers have been growing on Americana Boulevard in the shadow of the Boise Connector. But to be heard beneath the soft roar of traffic, Eppink needed some assistance of his own: a bullhorn.

"You don't have to talk to anybody if you choose not to," Eppink shouted into the portable amplifier. "Does everybody here understand that? That's your constitutional right not to speak. The only person who can order you to talk is a judge."

Though sweltering in near triple-digit heat, most of the crowd listened intently. Nearby, a toddler cried, a dog barked incessantly and some of the homeless adults seemed on edge, arguing among themselves. With the exception of Eppink giving street-side legal advice, it was a typical summertime scenario under the overpass near Rhodes Park. But passersby, and even some of the homeless individuals themselves, agreed that this summer's number of homeless congregating in the wide berth of shade under the Connector has reached record proportions.

As a result, this summer's crowds have triggered more conversations with Boise Police officers who have been regularly patrolling the area (Boise Weekly counted five police cars drive-by's in 30 minutes). In a few instances, those interactions between police and homeless have not ended well, resulting in citations for violating Boise's so-called "anti-camping" ordinance.

"I just got this a couple of days ago," said William Smallwood, holding up a police citation and explaining that he has been staying under the bridge for about a month. "The officer told me it's illegal to sleep here."

"Sleep" is the operative word in Section 9-10-02 of the Boise City Code's anti-camping ordinance, which says it's illegal to store "personal belongings ... or other temporary structures for sleeping in an unauthorized area" (i.e., streets, sidewalks, parks or public places).

But Boise attorney Howard Belodoff and Idaho Legal Aid sued the city in 2009, arguing that the ordinance criminalizes homelessness. So it was not surprising to see Belodoff standing alongside Eppink, talking with the scores of homeless people on Americana Boulevard. Eventually, Belodoff also took the bullhorn.

"Listen to me: You can't be punished for doing a normal human thing, such as sleeping, in the city of Boise," said Belodoff. "You need to fight these tickets. You need to defend yourselves. You need to make sure to plead not guilty, I repeat not guilty, ask for a public defender and ask for a jury trial."

Even representatives of the Boise Police Department told BW that they're not happy about issuing citations to Boise's homeless.

"Quite honestly, enforcement is not the answer. It's only part of the answer," said Lynn Hightower, BPD spokeswoman. "The officers know many of the people there by name and interact with them frequently. And those officers often know how long a person has been there and their personal situation. Some appear to be there by choice."

One of those officers is Tom Shuler, a veteran of the Boise Police Department since 1995 and a member of the bike patrol since 1999.

"We're really trying to help out as much as possible," said Shuler. "We're not all about enforcement. It's not purely an adversarial relationship. We try to be decent about it, and if the folks here need help, that's the bigger part of our job."

Shuler was quick to add that Boise's homeless have been hit with what he called "a perfect storm" of events, including the temporary closure of the Corpus Christi House, located only a half-block from the underpass. The sign on the door at 525 American Blvd. says Corpus Christi House is "closed for repairs" until Sunday, Aug. 24.

"Oh yeah, we have a lot more people hanging out here than usual," said Shuler, while surveying the scene of homeless adults and children under the bridge. "When Corpus is normally open, on any given day, there would be 60 people down there. So now, you add that number to the people here under the bridge."

Shuler also said that he and his BPD colleagues weren't overly anxious to hand out those citations unless someone was sleeping on the street when there were available beds at nearby shelters, including Interfaith Sanctuary, the River of Life Men's Shelter and City Light Home for Women and Children.

"We get daily notifications via phone or email from the shelters on how many beds they have. Then we're down here under the bridge to find out what's going on," said Shuler. "If all the shelters are full, we have agreed that we're probably not going to issue a citation."

But citations have indeed been handed out and under the overpass, tensions are running as high as the summer heat.

"We're definitely seeing an increase of homeless being evicted or moved from this location," said Leo Morales, ACLU of Idaho interim director. "When the shelters are full, the bridges are really the only refuge against this extreme heat."

But Morales said the larger debate remains that insufficient resources are being channeled to help the chronically homeless.

"The mayor definitely has the responsibility to ensure that all individuals in the city of Boise are protected, and in the case of the homeless community, we don't think there has been adequate work done to address the issue of homelessness," said Morales. "It's regrettable that our city has a 10-year action plan to deal with homelessness and yet, they haven't dealt with it. We continue to see this issue put to the side, and that leads to the situation that we have today."

Meanwhile, Eppink's amplified voice could be heard clearly as he continued to offer advice to the crowd of homeless people facing the real possibility of being ticketed, evicted or both.

"You don't ever have to allow people to search your belongings," Eppink said. "Repeat after me: I do not consent to this search."

Only one person in the crowd repeated the phrase.

"Come on. Say it again, everybody," said Eppink.

"I do not consent to this search," said about 20 homeless people

"One more time," said Eppink.

"I do not consent to this search," said nearly 50 voices now, in unison.

A Boise Police officer stood by observing. And the temperature inched closer to 100 degrees, even in the shade of the overpass.