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Cruel Summer

Hot weather is as much a reminder as the cold that solutions to homelessness in Boise need to be long-term

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It was already sweltering outside on a mid-summer morning when a dozen people began walking toward a small strip of shaded sidewalk under the Boise Connector. All across the city, air conditioners were running full-tilt, public swimming pools were filling up and the streets were emptying as people headed indoors to escape the sun. That wasn't an option for 66-year-old Craig [Editor's note: Boise Weekly agreed not to use the last names of the homeless people we spoke to].

Craig was sitting in the back of an old station wagon parked on Americana Boulevard. He was shirtless and covered in sweat as the temperature continued climbing to what would be triple digits that day.

"It hasn't killed me yet," he said.

A few feet away, Jeff and Doug, also in their 60s, sat on the sidewalk. Every day they try to stake out a shaded spot and do their best not to get in the way of pedestrians and cyclists.

Jeff has been homeless for seven years, about the same amount of time he has been in recovery from methamphetamine addiction. To fight the heat, he had a couple of cans of Mountain Dew, his favorite beverage, within reach.

"I'm always drinking," he said.

Doug smiled. He admitted he doesn't hydrate enough and said he isn't sure how long he has been homeless. Also, Doug has cancer.

"I get some help over there," he said, pointing around the corner to a Terry Reilly Health Services clinic. "But this heat? Well, it doesn't really help my health."

For people like Craig, Doug and Jeff, summer in Boise can be crueler than winter.

"This year, we were really surprised at how quickly some of our people got badly sunburned. It started early this summer and continues," said Morgan Smith, a social worker at the Interfaith Sanctuary shelter on River Street. "Everyone is really worn out when they come in at the end of the day. They're exhausted from being in the sun all day."

Plus, the consequences homeless people face can be far greater than sunburn and dehydration.

"There are so many risks in summer," said Interfaith Sanctuary Director Jodi Peterson. "There is going to be dehydration, but there is also going to be heat stroke and even [skin] cancer."

As temperatures continue to rise, so does the number of homeless men, women and children in Boise.

"Yes, there are indications that we're seeing more homeless this year than last year," said Peterson. "Here at Interfaith Sanctuary, we have been at capacity most nights for several months now."

Not during the day, however. Shortly after dawn each morning, Interfaith closes its doors, sending hundreds of residents outside. Their options for escaping the heat remain few.

"There are so many risks in the summer, and there are not a lot of places offered as safe havens during the day for our homeless population," Peterson added.

The City of Boise opened a temporary cooling station at the Pioneer Community Center on Ash Street. It's open on days when temperatures hit 95 degrees or higher, but only to families with children, which means Craig, Doug and Jeff have to go elsewhere to get out of the sun. Sometimes it's under the bridge on Americana Boulevard, and sometimes it's Ann Morrison Park, the downtown branch of the Boise Public Library or the Corpus Christi Day Shelter on Americana Boulevard.

"Do you know what might surprise a lot of people in Boise? There are a number of people here who have jobs—some part-time, some full-time. I've been seeing more of that this summer," said Rick Bollman, Corpus Christi operations coordinator. "So wrap your head around that for a moment: These are people who are employed, but they still can't afford a place to live."

Peg Richards, president of the Boise/Ada County Homeless Coalition, said the so-called working poor are indicative of the lack of options.

"We are behind the times in the way we address homelessness," said Richards.

In summer 2014, Boise Police Department officers began citing a number of homeless people for "camping" under and around the connector bridge. Many of those cited set up campers and tents along a small service street behind Corpus Christi and Interfaith Sanctuary. Known as Cooper Court (the name of the road) the tent city grew exponentially until December 2015, when police came in and cleared everyone out. Boise Police Chief Bill Bones says the struggle with homelessness and how his department can respond stretches back much further than Cooper Court, though.

"Honestly, I think we could go back at least 20 years and say that there were a lot of things we would do differently," said Bones.

The tent city became a flashpoint for how—or if—Boise would reevaluate the best way to serve the homeless population.

"Cooper Court put homelessness on the front page," said Richards. "More and more people realized the system we had in place was not working."

At Interfaith Sanctuary, Peterson said Cooper Court revealed a greater need to provide services beyond just a place to stay. She said it became clear providers needed to start addressing the causes of homelessness, including addiction and mental and physical health issues.

"We learned we could make a lot of changes from inside our shelter," she said. "For example, we went from two social workers to 10 case managers."

Peterson said one of the best ways to help some homeless people get back on track is to help them acquire something most of us take for granted.

"I worked with a man who had been homeless and out on the streets for 16 years, because he had no identification," she said.

It can be a long process—it took nearly five months for the man to secure a state-issued photo ID—but it can make a big difference.

"And you know what?" Peterson said. He literally got a job the very next day. The next day. Imagine that. He got a connection, after being disconnected for so many years."

According to Richards, another takeaway from Cooper Court is the need to put a greater emphasis on housing-first initiatives.

"The shelter system is not the answer," she said. "There is a huge difference between a shelter and home."

City of Boise officials have looked at examples of initiatives in other regional communities like Salt Lake City and Seattle. Boise, in partnership with the Idaho Housing and Finance Association, Ada County, and Saint Alphonsus and St. Luke's hospitals, has plans to break ground on a 40-unit housing-first initiative later this year. The facility will be called New Path Community Housing, and support services will be available on site. Most advocates agree New Path is a good first step, particularly for people who are chronically homeless—The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development defines chronically homeless people as those with a disabling condition who have had at least four episodes of homelessness in the past four years.

"If you can get those people into constant care and support, it takes the pressure off the system to be able to look at ways to improve and better serve others," said Peterson.

Peterson said the 120 or so chronically homeless men and women in Boise take up the most time, energy and resources. Providing them with a long-term supported living situation frees resources for other areas like case management services. While city officials are optimistic about the benefits New Path will provide, homeless advocates know there is still a lot to be learned from Cooper Court.

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