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From the Far Margins

A tiny suggestion

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We walk past the man whose sign asks for money and face the internal conversation about whether the money will be spent on food, drugs or a bottle of beer. We walk faster and cross the street or grass when we find people sleeping on sidewalks or in parks. We wonder what's wrong with them and have an internal debate about how safe it is to pass while they sleep.

There's a difference between wanting homelessness to end and wanting homelessness to vanish. When a city criminalizes public sleeping or camping in bushes, parks, cars and campers, it wants homelessness to vanish. It's like when we make building a substandard house or shed, or living in a mobile home on our own land, a violation of city code.

Sara Rankin, in her stunning City Club talk in November, laid it all out for us. We want poverty, drug use, mental illness, racism, and our neglect of veterans and people with disabilities to be invisible. Boise criminalizes homelessness to protect us from seeing the failings of our mental health system, our lack of treatment for addiction, the failure of our low wages and welfare safety net, the brutality of childhood sexual abuse, war trauma, extreme poverty, rape and domestic violence.

Boise swept Cooper Court away, scattered the problem into the bushes and promised a solution would come soon. Housing First. The housing solution that doesn't require sobriety or recovery, but which gets people off the street into a housing complex with social workers and an array of mental and drug treatment services. It's an essential option. Salt Lake City tells us it doesn't cure all. Some people don't follow rules. Others continue to use drugs even after being offered treatment. Some mentally ill residents remain combative and unkempt even with medication and support. We know this.

Yet, if we want to end homelessness, do we reject reject Housing First as an option just because it won't serve everyone? Or do we admit people are vastly different from one another? Some need quiet or community or a level of support that caseworkers may be too overwhelmed to provide.

I live in a 288-square-foot house, built fully to code on my own lot in Boise. It was not always fully to code. I tried living in a motorhome while I built my house. I had respectful Boise city officers knock on my door—even when I'd parked on a dead-end street and ran an extension cord from a friend's house. Parked in another friend's yard, behind a tall fence, one of her neighbors reported me and forced the city to make me move. I was lucky. I found a spot where no one objected.

Reporting people sleeping in hedges, parks and motorhomes is how places like Cooper Court happen. Often there's no bed in a shelter or nowhere else to go.

I have a tiny suggestion for us: What if Boise adopted a provisional housing code? What if whenever a history of homelessness qualifies someone for Housing First, they could be allowed to live in motorhomes or tiny houses? What if instead of hiding out and complying with no code at all for sanitation and fire prevention, a set of codes was written for basic health and safety? I know Boise City Code and can make suggestions. Yes, some people will take advantage of this. Is that a reason to do nothing and instead obsess over who needs this shelter and who's just trying to get around the standards all of us law-abiding people in our nice houses live by?

Let's take this a step further. Generous people out there have backyards bigger than they really want to weed, water or mow. People have back driveways that sit empty; places an extension cord could reach. There are places to park and decorate or hide a portable toilet, and sanitary ways to use sewer clean outs that are better than people using bushes near sleeping areas, gutters, Dumpsters or plastic bags.

What if people signed up to host a house or camper in a backyard or alley? What if they interviewed those looking for spots to park a shelter? What if they worked with caseworkers to identify issues like mental health challenges or drug use so that the "renter" could make a contract with a homeowner as to what was acceptable and what was not?

Some renters would need a close relationship. Some would just need quiet and space. Some might welcome children, some not. Some would need regular medication checks or help getting to meetings or finding treatment or support services. The match might be beneficial to both the owner and the "renter."

The fact is, we as a city do have a way to try to heal or correct the problems we would rather not see. We can do better at reversing the tragedy that our Legislature creates every time lawmakers refuse to increase the minimum wage, underfund substance abuse treatment or fail to fund medication for those working poor with psychiatric needs.

No solution is easy or perfect—mostly because of our desire to make homelessness vanish rather than make it end. But we have to try everything. If we do any less, we might as well reopen Cooper Court and admit we'd rather look at the problem than solve it.

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