A winter storm—both literal and figurative—is on Boise's horizon. As Northwest forecasters point to subfreezing temperatures for much of November, the first significant snowfall coming as early as Tuesday, Nov. 17, Interfaith Sanctuary homeless shelter is at capacity or near-capacity in its sections for men and women. City of Boise officials said they're focused on long-term solutions to homelessness, but a more immediate issue continues to dominate a full city block.
Cooper Court, the tent city in an alley off of Americana Boulevard behind Interfaith Sanctuary, first made headlines in early September. As the tent city grew in the following months, so did the media reports—and the controversy. Politicians cringed, law enforcement bristled and homeless advocates grew angry as they were asked if the situation at Cooper Court was the "new normal."
The city argued it made no sense for individuals to sleep on the streets when there was room in the shelter only a few feet away. With Interfaith at or near capacity, the River of Life men's-only shelter laying out mattresses in its dining room and the women's-only City of Light shelter also at capacity, services for the city's homeless are in a state of triage rather than strategy.Update: Officials with the River of Life mens-only mission said November 12 that their shelter had as many as 40 open beds and that their representatives have been regularly visiting Cooper Court, trying to get its male occupants to move to a safe, dry space at River of Life. Simply put, River of Life officials say, they have plenty of space available either in traditional beds or in their emergency overflow.
"Everyone agrees that what has gone on at Cooper Court is not healthy or sustainable," said Erik Kingston, housing resources coordinator for the Idaho Housing and Finance Association. "I know that City Hall wants to support long-term strategies, but Cooper Court has become... Well, it has become a community-in-waiting, hasn't it?"
With more than 20 years at IHFA, Kingston knows as much about housing—and homelessness—as anyone in Idaho.
"Over the years, I've probably had 40,000 phone conversations with people who are in need of housing. Out of that number, you start to recognize patterns," Kingston said. "These are people working service-related jobs—maybe they're making minimum wage and maybe their hours have been cut back. It's difficult for them to afford a $700 monthly rent check," he said, adding Ada County's rental vacancy rate was about 3 percent and heading lower.
"The number of people who are on the edge of homelessness is significant," Kingston said. "You can make housing affordable one of two ways: Either increase wages or reduce the cost of housing by introducing price points that reflect the needs of the community. Let me put it this way: When housing is affordable to diverse incomes and needs, the entire community is more stable."
Separate from his duties with IHFA, Kingston is also an advocate with new nonprofit Boise Alternative Shelter Co-Op, which he said has a "practical response" to the situation in Cooper Court with the introduction of low-cost, insulated structures as alternatives to sleeping on the streets.
Kingston reached into a folder of renderings of a one-room, 8-foot by 8-foot dry sleeping space for one or two adults, which he said would cost approximately $500 to build. BASC is proposing possibly 30 such structures to be constructed and installed on about 1 acre of land. A larger yurt-like shelter would provide shared bathrooms, showers and space for food preparation.
Kingston said the project is more than a concept, pointing to a similar community called Opportunity Village, in Eugene, Ore.
"Boise's issue was Eugene's issue," said Andrew Heben, founder and project manager of Opportunity Village. "Why does the concept work? While the construction may be very simple in its physical appearance, it meets the basic needs of people: a safe, secure environment while they transition into something more permanent. A good many people staying in our shelters are now working class."
Heben said the key to building Opportunity Village was to convince Eugene city officials the concept would be a viable option to people sleeping in situations similar to Cooper Court.
"I would tell Boise to give this a shot. Do it incrementally, like we did. At first, the Eugene City Council voted 6-2 to approve a one-year pilot project," said Heben. "One year later, they voted 8-0 to continue. We have an operational agreement between the city and a nonprofit to manage the community. Yes, city officials were skeptical at first, but it exceeded their expectations."
"To be clear, this event will not be another forum on homelessness," said Kingston. "This is a tangible proposal that more people in Boise need to hear about. We're excited to hear this and we're more than anxious for public officials to hear about this."
Meanwhile, on the other side of Boise, Matthew Scott said he has another alternative to Cooper Court, but he pushes back when anyone compares his concept to the BASC proposal.
"Yeah, I've talked to them, but they don't like to listen to me," said Scott, who admits he's a bit rough around the edges when it comes to working with the "powers-that-be."
"Look, I've been homeless. I know about this more than they do. People think the homeless are lazy. That's bull-crap. It's you and me, a couple of paychecks away from being homeless," he said.
Scott was anxious to show off his work-in-progress: a 96-square-foot, one-room shelter that, at first glance, looks similar to the BASC model. The biggest differences, Scott said, are he wants to put his shelters on wheels and include solar-powered outlets and a toilet (similar to a boat or RV) at an approximate price tag of $5,000.
"My nonprofit is called Idaho Tiny House, and we have volunteers come by every Saturday to help with construction," said Scott, who has set up work space behind Signs by Smith on Glenwood Street in Garden City. "The first question people ask me is: 'Where are you going to park it?'"
Scott said he is talking to area churches about securing a space to temporarily locate the mobile shelters, but Boise zoning laws prohibit such shelters from becoming permanent without a legal variance.
"But we're still going to keep building my tiny homes so that people can get on board," Scott said. "I want to get this first one done before the snow flies."
When it does, Boise officials may need to consider the BASC model, Scott's tiny home or some other alternative, or else Cooper Court will soon become a winter encampment.