As the city of Boise continues to wrestle with the issue of homelessness, the scope of best intentions by well meaning citizens have been matched only by pessimism from critics watching on the sidelines.
At the height of the Cooper Court crisis, when the city cleared out the controversial tent city growing outside the doors of the Interfaith Sanctuary homeless shelter, one homeowner offered up a house she owned to a few Boiseans who had nowhere to go.
"I think I can help. I have a house," said the homeowner, who wants to remain anonymous.
In a matter of weeks, the doors of "Emerald House"—named for the street on which the house and a mix of commercial and residential buildings sit—were opened.
"It's a rather perfect neighborhood for our purposes," said Jodi Peterson, Interfaith Sanctuary development and program director, at the time of Emerald House's opening. Peterson worked with the homeowner to secure the residence to be a home for seven adults.
Unfortunately, since the house opened in April, the situation has eroded, and the residents have been asked to leave. According to a letter sent to Boise Weekly by some of the Emerald House tenants, "The residents have been evicted and must be out by July 7. " The owner sadly informed the residents that she would be "enabling" some residents' bad choices if she allowed them to say.
Peterson said much of what the evicted residents said was true and, while she and the owner "tried to make a bad situation a little better," there was no funding to continue operating the house. Most important, Peterson said, there were no support services in place to help pave a path for safe, sustained housing for the Emerald House residents.
The residents are part of Boise's chronically homeless population. City officials estimate there are about 100 citizens categorized as "chronically homeless," meaning they have a disabling condition, have been continuously homeless for a year or more or have had at least four episodes of homelessness in three years.
All of the Emerald House residents had lived in Cooper Court, which began emerging in the summer of 2015 and continued to grow in size until Dec. 4, 2015, when city officials said open fires and increased criminal activity made the encampment a danger to the community. That night, Cooper Court residents were told to vacate their tents, processed into a one-night temporary shelter and ordered to find alternative arrangements at a permanent shelter.
- Patrick Sweeney
- Cooper Court, a tent city of chronically homeless, first appeared in Boise in the summer of 2015.
"That seems like a dream now," JoJo, one of the Cooper Court residents, said shortly after moving into Emerald House. "No, it was a bad dream."
BW visited Emerald House in April and, while residents said things "weren't perfect," they said they had signed agreements with special "opt-in behavioral clauses" requiring them to treat themselves and each other with respect.
But trouble soon followed.
"The rules kept changing based on what was happening in the house," said Peterson. "The truth is, if someone could have made sure it was a clean and safe house at the beginning, it might have had a better chance. Quite frankly, that's not how it started. It started as a shelter, in hopes that some solutions could be found down the road."
Peterson said she has since learned that solutions, or at least a plan for solutions, need to be in place for such a shelter before the doors even open.
"We made the mistake of thinking that if you give free shelter, then the residents would do everything they could to protect that shelter," said Peterson. "But they didn't have services. Also, there was no funding for management."
Peterson said she and her colleagues turned to the city of Boise in hopes of folding Emerald House into one of the city's sanctioned low-income sites, to be set aside for chronically homeless.
"But there are very specific Fair Housing requirements that would have required us to move everyone out of Emerald House and start from scratch," Peterson said.
And, at least for the foreseeable future, Boise has about eight more chronically homeless people back on its streets.