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Housing the Homeless

City, homeless advocates disagree on what went wrong at Community House

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Homelessness is a hot-button issue in Boise, and looks to figure prominently in the upcoming city council elections. On one hand, pregnant teens were recently booted from the Booth dormitory at the Marian Pritchett School in the North End to pave the way for a Salvation Army-run shelter, causing an uproar among the shelter's neighbors. Meanwhile, there's the transition of the formerly city-run multi-use facility Community House to a men's homeless facility, now headed by the Christian-led Boise Rescue Mission. In the face of these changes, local advocates say Boise's homeless are facing a huge crisis with no shelter in sight. And while the more experienced Boise Rescue Mission may now be at the helm directing the fate of Community House, stories vary dramatically about how the city handled, or mishandled, transitioning the facility from Community House, Inc. to the Rescue Mission.

Community House started in 1992 as a multi-faceted homeless shelter. The facility housed single men and women, families and also served as transitional housing. People could rent rooms from the facility in both its transitional housing and single-person occupancy shelter on the third floor for prices from $150 to $300 a month. The facility also featured a soup kitchen on the side to offer warm lunches to Boise's needy. According to Bruce Chatterton, the city's director of Planning and Development Services, the board at Community House signed its assets over to the city, which took over operations in February 2004, because of financial reasons. A month later, an ad hoc advisory committee headed by a Boise State professor and local advocates, including the then-president of Community House Inc., submitted a report on the feasibility of a multi-use shelter in the area.

Chatterton said the facility, fashioned after others in the country that began popping up about a decade ago, was decidedly a "failed model." The study agreed. "The dual role of Community House as an emergency shelter and a transition facility should be re-examined," the report concluded. "The needs of a homeless family ... are significantly different from the needs of a single homeless person ... These two populations are not compatible."

But some involved with Community House say the city's decision to abandon the shelter was made even before the board decided to turn to the city for help and the study was commissioned.

"Community House was badly managed for years, while the city was giving money and their stamp of approval year after year," said Jill van Heel of the El Ada Community Action Agency, president of the Boise/Ada County Coalition for the Homeless and the current secretary of Community House Inc.'s board of directors. "Advocates went to the city in about 2001 saying it's a disaster. The city ignored these pleas and finally the advocates went to the board of directors of Community House and reconstituted the board to fix the problems.

"Once Community House hired a new executive director and had a new board, I think they were on the way to making things right and were really working hard to make sure people were treated well. But for whatever reason, the city decided they wanted out of it. The city chose to take over ... and came to the board time and time again, asking us to sign (the facility) over and saying close the doors."

Michael Zuzel, spokesman for Boise Mayor David Bieter, denied these allegations, saying the board asked the city to help and eventually signed over operations to the city. After taking control of the shelter, Zuzel said, the city realized its hands were tied because of restrictions of federal funding. "One of the real problems with us operating the facility is we are required by law to be the overseer of how (federal) dollars are spent on these programs. It makes no sense for us to be the overseer if we're the operator. It's hard being the policeman if you're the one being policed. We were given the suggestion the city should not be running this program."

So, in February of this year, the city asked for a submission of proposals from agencies to run Community House. Local media reported that only one bidder, Boise Rescue Mission Ministries, submitted a proposal. But according to Bill Brown, the then-operations manager at Community House, Mayor Bieter and Chatterton asked Community House staff to submit a proposal for consideration, which it did.

Zuzel told BW a different story. He said the city only asked the employees of Community House to give input on transitioning the facility from the city's care to another agency.

While Community House employees thought they were submitting an official proposal to take over operations, Chatterton said the documents, submitted in February and April, were not handed in according to what he termed the "bureaucratic standards," meaning they were not given to the city's purchasing department and did not address many of the "well-advertised" requests, such as who would take over the city's current control of the facility.

Francis Wray co-authored the proposal with Brown. She told BW the two had a meeting with Chatterton and discussed the proposal to keep operations under Community House Inc. with other city officials. "We had support from the Homeless Coalition and a support letter from the [Veteran's Administration] and El Ada, because part of the proposal was to bring El Ada into the building to utilize case management, food and employment services within the building to have a one-stop shop."

But according to Wray, the city made sure that vision was never realized. "The proposal was never taken to the City Council," she said. "It was never taken to the committee that was reviewing proposals. It was more or less shelved, and they just ignored it."

Chatterton said the city did not realize this was an actual proposal because it did not satisfy requirements mandated by the city, specifically citing a group or groups to lead operations. However, on the first page of Wray and Brown's document, titled "Proposal for the Reorganization of Community House," the authors make reference to several nonprofit and local governmental agencies that would help "the services provided by Community House operate more effectively ... without sacrificing the much needed support to those who have few resources." Wray added that in several meetings with city officials, it was never clarified the group needed to further edit the proposal to meet city requirements..

Local media contacted Brown after the city reported Rescue Mission was the only game in town to submit a proposal. He then went public with his proposal at the end of April. Brown said he was fired from his post at the Community House three days later.

"My question is: Why would the city not even look at that plan?" said van Heel.

"The city was not very supportive of Community House Inc., so there were a lot of problems," Wray said. "There were city representatives on the Community House Inc. board, and they sat back and watched things fall apart with the city withholding grant funds and more."

When told of the accusations by van Heel and others, Boise City Councilwoman Maryann Jordan disagreed. "There were city representatives on that board that began to realize serious problems with Community House," she said. "At the end of the day, it came down to the fact that Community House Inc. was not able to keep the doors open and they came to the city and needed help. The city assumed the operation of Community House to keep the doors from closing."

Jordan attended two meetings almost a year previous to the incorporation asking the city for financial assistance, but said that at the time she was involved with the board. "They were beginning to have problems, issues with funding and other things. There's always a need for more funding with a facility like that."

City representatives say now with the Boise Rescue Mission taking over operations at Community House, which will be renamed the River of Life Rescue Mission, the homelessness issue in Boise will be better addressed. Bill Roscoe, executive director of Boise Rescue Mission Ministries, agreed, saying the building's transition into a men's homeless shelter fits more of the needs of the homeless population.

Because the mission doesn't have enough to pay the roughly $2.5 million price tag for the old Community House facility, it will pay the city $1 a year for the first half of its 10-year lease and pay market rate for renting the building for the lease's remaining five years. Roscoe had no estimation of that price. The facility will have a minimum of 65 beds and provide up to 100 meals per day, he said. Men will also still be admitted to the mission's Front Street shelter and screened to ensure registered sex offenders aren't being housed at the residential 13th Street shelter.

In the Boise area, Roscoe said homeless men comprise about 70 percent of the total homeless population, so the need is much greater for single men. "The women's shelter (City of Light) has not been full all year," Roscoe said. "On the other hand, the men's shelter on Front Street has been full." The Boise Rescue Mission has 65 beds for men at its existing shelter, but has been forced to lodge up to 40 men on mattresses in its chapel.

"A woman with a child in her custody has a lot of options through the state," Roscoe said. "They can find help for themselves and their custodial child. There is no provision to provide single men shelter for the majority of homeless men."

Counter to Roscoe's stance, both Wray and van Heel say the situation isn't rosier for women or families.

"There are women I'm working with now who are camping, or sleeping in their cars," van Heel said.

"Coming right down to it, there is no shelter housing available for a lot of the families that are newly homeless," Wray said. "We're scrambling to provide people with services, but there are no social services out there. We're trying to provide for them as best we can. The welfare of these people is a real concern, especially since it's starting to get cold."