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Someone Else's Christmas

'God Willing, There Has to be a Miracle for Me, Too.'

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The first-ever Christmas tree at New Path Community Housing. - COURTESY KENDRA LUTES
  • Courtesy Kendra Lutes
  • The first-ever Christmas tree at New Path Community Housing.

The Dickensian metaphor is almost too obvious. The specters of Christmases past, present and future cast long shadows over Boise's homeless community. To some, it may seem like old news that a Boise Police Department action in December 2015 shut down a growing tent city of homeless men, women and children, but to many of those that were swept away from what was called "Cooper Court," it seems like yesterday. Nearly 100 homeless people were rousted from their tents and shacks and shuttled to a temporary shelter at Fort Boise, but were quickly told that they would need to find another place to sleep. Nearly everyone involved agreed that it was not the city's finest hour. Officials insisted that the encampment was a health and safety hazard, but the homeless argued the timing couldn't have been worse. They knew better than anyone that winter kills. Indeed, less than two months later, 48-year-old Perry "Rusty" Woodard, who had been in and out of Boise homeless shelters, was discovered frozen to death on the banks of the Boise River. Two days later, on Feb. 9, 2016, Boise Mayor Dave Bieter said the Cooper Court debacle was "a stark example of a model that was unsustainable," and something dramatically different had to be introduced to assist the chronically homeless.

"Three years...gosh, let me collect my thoughts. Three years ago. That was...that was really difficult on everybody," said Heidi Hart, chief executive officer of Terry Reilly Health Services. "It was so hard for everybody that was displaced, that was involved or who witnessed it. It was a crossroads. Something different had to happen. Symbolically, for New Path to be opening at the same time of year is pretty special."

Hart, along with advocates, health care professionals and a cadre of elected officials, stood alongside Bieter in February 2016 to propose what was initially called a "Housing First Single Site" and what is now officially called New Path Community Housing, a complex on 2200 W. Fairview Ave. that is ironically just a few blocks from what was once the Cooper Court tent city.

"Cooper Court was really an impetus, a motivation for a lot of different groups to come together and try and do something different," said Kendra Lutes, clinical supervisor of homeless services for Terry Reilly. She and Hart sat inside the corner offices of the newly opened New Path, which they share with a team of specialist care givers. For example, there's an onsite licensed social worker, two certified peer support specialists experienced in mental illness care, a case manager who focuses on alcohol- and drug-abuse treatment, and a housing specialist who helps men and women who have experienced chronic homelessness to move into New Path. That housing specialist has been one of the busiest people in Boise for the past several weeks.

Terry Reilly CEO Heidi Hart (right) and Clinical Supervisor Lendra Lutes (left). - GEORGE PRENTICE
  • George Prentice
  • Terry Reilly CEO Heidi Hart (right) and Clinical Supervisor Lendra Lutes (left).

"We have about 45 people here at New Path right now," said Lutes. "As we speak, we're full, because that's our capacity."

And no one is expected to leave any time soon. The very definition of being chronically homeless, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, is someone who has "experienced homelessness for longer than a year, or someone who has experienced homelessness four or more times in the past three years."

And while there are many more legal and clinical definitions that specify who qualifies to stay at New Path, the overarching rule for many of its day-to-day operations is "it depends."

The Boise City/Ada County Housing Authorities provide the lion's share of rental assistance and operating funds for New Path. According to the authorities' executive director Deanna Watson, the assistance comes from so-called project-based vouchers, converted from tenant-based vouchers.

"We are the first housing housing authority in Idaho to create a project-based voucher program, and it is through this mechanism that a development serving people who can't afford to pay full rent, like people coming from long-term homelessness, can even exist," wrote Watson. "Tax credits make construction possible. Our assistance makes operation possible."

In effect, the program allows tenants to pay approximately 30 percent of their income toward rent and utilities. The Boise City/Ada County Housing Authorities picks up the difference, up to a ceiling amount set by the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Corporation, and will total to at least $4.5 million over then next 15 years ($300,00 per year).

"Those vouchers are actually attached to the living unit at New Path, not the person in the unit. After the Section 8 voucher is applied, the individual pays what they can, if they have any income," said Lutes.

Tenants can come and go as they please. They're also responsible for their own food (each unit includes a small kitchenette). Possession of illegal drugs is an absolute violation of a lease. And when it comes to the multiple levels of counseling and mental health services, it's up to the individual to determine what's best.

"People here are like anybody else. They have to take care of themselves. They want to live independently," said Hart. "What we're doing here is meeting people on their own terms, working on goals that they'll set for themselves. But to be clear, this is not transitional housing. The overall goal is to be stable."

A separate company, Tomlinson & Associates, manages the building. Tomlinson has hired a live-in site manager and regularly staffs an office that manages day-to-day operations. Another company, CAN.-ADA. Security, handles the safety of the building and its residents. A security guard regularly patrols the perimeter of the building in the evenings and is on site inside on weekends.

"Our team from Terry Reilly is here every weekday, and we're always on-call, problem solving," said Hart. "We're at that stage where we're learning a lot from one another."

When Boise Weekly visited with Hart and her team at New Path just before Christmas, a 53-year-old woman who identified herself as Mary was sitting in the lobby.

"I've been homeless myself for five years now," she said. "I think I might be the next person on the waiting list. Twenty-eighteen was just..." Mary looked down at her weather-beaten shoes, took a long breath, and looked up again with a half-smile. "Well, I have to tell ya', 2018 was just plain awful. Twenty-nineteen has to be better. I'm praying to get inside New Path. It's just so hard at Christmas. God willing, there has to be a miracle for me, too. Something good has to happen."

The Terry Reilly Health Service team includes CEO Heidi Hart (center, back) and Clinical Supervisor Lendra Lutes (far right), along with Devin Pugmire, Samantha Joseph and Justine Murphy. Not pictured are Matt Weaver, Erica Lamiell and Casey McGee. - GEORGE PRENTICE
  • George Prentice
  • The Terry Reilly Health Service team includes CEO Heidi Hart (center, back) and Clinical Supervisor Lendra Lutes (far right), along with Devin Pugmire, Samantha Joseph and Justine Murphy. Not pictured are Matt Weaver, Erica Lamiell and Casey McGee.

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