Fawn Pettet has a master's degree in social work from Boise State, but even she'll admit that nothing can prepare you for working with the homeless. Pettet spends her workdays and some nights at Interfaith Sanctuary, an emergency shelter in downtown Boise serving indigent men, women and families with children. Pettet, originally from Ontario, Ore., has been the shelter's support services director and grants administrator the past two and a half years. It's her job to help Boise's homeless population get back on its feet, through hands-on case management and by applying for grants that help fund the shelter and its programs. We spoke with her one afternoon shortly before the shelter opened its doors.
How do you stay mentally and emotionally positive in a job like this?
Once I get to know people, even the ones I get frustrated with, when I sit down with them one on one--I have a very informal style--they start to share a part of themselves with me. Even if we make the smallest progress, like get them a state-issued ID, that may be the first piece of identification that makes them feel, "I'm a valid person and I have proof." And that can make them glow for a week and they walk around showing people their picture on their ID. Sometimes I'm thanked for just being nice, for saying hi and asking them how their day went. The depressing parts are fuel for wanting to make bigger changes. Where I am in the organization, we can at least make organizational change and build partnerships in the community to create larger change.
Has the recession made your job more difficult?
Yes. We started to feel the economic downturn at least six months before everybody else started to see it. Our numbers never got lighter during that previous summer and the waiting list for all the housing programs got longer. Currently, the Section 8 voucher list is something like five years long. Finding housing is probably the hardest. A lot of our people don't have a high school diploma. And even those with a high school diploma--they really are not qualified for much above service-oriented jobs. With a larger part of the higher-educated market fighting for the same lower-paying jobs, our people don't have a chance.
Do you think the City of Boise should establish donation stations around town?
We've talked about that idea a little bit. There are various ideas of how to allow somebody to give without contributing to panhandling. I like the idea of donation stations because they're meeting the needs for both sides. I know even for me, when I see a panhandler, and I know most of the panhandlers personally--I know their educational background, their personal background, their family--and it's still very awkward for me to see them. So I can just imagine how much the general community feels uncomfortable and compelled to do something about it. I don't know how they would divvy the money up but the partnerships are pretty strong here in the community where even if one agency got the bulk of it, other agencies could refer to it. I could see that working well.
How is your faith impacted when you see suffering up close on a daily basis?
I am not religious. I don't fit into any kind of convenient category when it comes to religion. I grew up primarily atheist, and I always thought it was interesting that when I did something nice people would say, "Oh, you're such a good Christian." And I would think, "Why do I have to be a Christian to be nice or good?" The inter-faith activity here has been nice. As I've worked here, I've learned more about integral dynamics, which includes spirituality as part of your whole living. And just through working here and studying more of that and integrating that into our services, it has helped me to see and feel out what I believe and where I fit in the world. I think that I'm here to be as balanced as I can be in myself so that I have positive energy to share with other people.
Interfaith Sanctuary does not require its guests to take part in religious activities. Does this mean Interfaith Sanctuary gets a different clientele than other shelters?
Yes. Some of the other shelters might be mostly well known for having religious requirements, but in general they have more strict program requirements. So the people we end up seeing are the ones who, for whatever reason, do not want to or cannot meet those requirements. We have some very passionate, pious Christians. We have people that don't celebrate Christmas whatsoever. If people want to talk about their religion while they're here, that's allowed. Preaching, evangelizing--staff does not stop or provoke those kind of conversations.
We are able to take part in them, but we don't see a lot of religion in general. We deal more with behaviorism. All of our policies are behaviorally based, so we don't have to address people's personal beliefs. As long as you are being respectful of everyone here and of our space and of our staff, you're allowed to be here.
How hospitable a city is Boise for homeless people?
That's so difficult for me to answer. I've never been in a homeless shelter outside of Boise and I have no idea really how they are run differently. My understanding is that Boise is a better place in some people's opinion. I think a lot of people, they move from place to place trying to find a place where they're going to be successful. So we'll have people that come through from all different directions, but eventually they move on.
What other message would you like to get out to the community?
This time of year people think about it more, but we started as a community response, and we are still very much based in the community. We very much depend on community volunteers and donations. We have five staff and 60 volunteers, so there's no way we would be successful without participation from the community. It would be nice to help people remember that occasionally.