"Inertia is negligent homicide for people in the street."
—Becky Kanis Margiotta, former director of the 100K Homes Campaign
A year ago, I was deeply involved in local efforts to end homelessness. I participated in the Boise City/Ada County Continuum of Care and Homeless Coalition. I wrote to the mayor and council, asking them to follow the 10-year Plan to Prevent and Reduce Chronic Homelessness—into which they'd invested significant resources all the way back in 2007—and adopt Housing First. I testified against a number of laws criminalizing homelessness. I recruited others to testify against these proposed laws as well. I disrupted and was dragged out of one of these meetings. I held signs in protest and rallied with others both inside and outside of City Hall.
I and a handful of people rose early one Saturday morning to meet with the mayor one-on-one and talk about our priorities. I realized it was unfair to ask the city to shoulder the cost of ending homelessness by itself. I educated myself about the federal resources that were and are available to the state of Idaho in the form of grants distributed by the department of Housing and Urban Development. I learned there was a mechanism for citizens to influence how that money is spent called the Consolidated Plan. I testified at the "pre-draft" public hearing on the state's consolidated plan. I read and submitted comments on the 500-plus-page draft consolidated plan, jointly composed by the Idaho Housing and Finance Association and Idaho Department of Commerce.
I and the people who joined me did not just protest. We offered alternatives. We suggested solutions. We volunteered our time and were willing to continue to do so.
None of this mattered. Each time, Mayor Dave Bieter and the Boise City Council chose criminalization over compassion.
Despite several significant losses in court, this trend shows no sign of reversing. Boise officials like to talk a big game about how they want to end homelessness, and how they're "working on it," but the facts tell a different story.
Historically, people experiencing homelessness and their allies have not been a powerful voting bloc. Organizing people whose daily lives consist of one crisis after another is challenging. Mayor Bieter and the City Council know this. They know that if they simply continue to drag their feet and delay, people on the street will either die, move on to another city or manage, despite the odds, to pull themselves out of homelessness—even if only temporarily.
This strategy of delay is costly in terms of human lives, quality of life and tax money. Despite participating in the Continuum of Care—mandated by the federal government to receive federal money for combating homelessness—since 1993, the aforementioned 10-year plan, shelling out hundreds of thousands of dollars to consulting companies for "needs analys[e]s," and organizing and vigorously promoting a housing and homelessness roundtable, nothing has really changed.
With the exception of a few years when the numbers went down, thanks to infusions of federal money into an existing rapid rehousing program, efforts to reduce homelessness in Boise have stagnated. Every year the demand for affordable housing far outstrips the supply.
I've been out of touch with elected officials and other decision makers about homelessness for many months. Last week, however, I had a bit of extra energy, had been back in touch with activist friends and decided to try again. I emailed the mayor and City Council. Now they're talking about "Pay for Success"—a clever name for a scheme that appears to be about enriching banks at taxpayer expense to fund solutions that are already proven to work. Here's what I got back:
"Thank you for checking in with us. We agree the PFS has been used to fund solutions that are already known to work—in our case, we hope it will give us a tool to demonstrate local impact to all the 'payors' who would have to be at the table to fund outcomes (county, hospitals and us).
"In the meantime, we are working on a pilot model with partners at CATCH, Interfaith, Terry Reilly and the Housing Authority.
"As for the GAO review—my understanding is that the GAO has provided a review and suggested increased collaboration from the federal government. In fact, the Feds just released a new PFS grant process last week through HUD.
"Director of Community Partnerships, Office of the Mayor, City of Boise"
If this response meant anything to you, I'd love to hear from you. I didn't understand it.
In addition, I was angry the response I got came not from any of the people to whom I'd addressed it, but from an official in the mayor's office I'd been advised to copy on the email.
This is the point where I should wrap it up. Unfortunately, I have no comfort to offer.
By the time you read this, it is likely Mayor Bieter and other City Council incumbents will have been reelected. I hold out no hope for meaningful change from them.