The Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future Beg Boise to Rethink Homelessness

"Suddenly everything turned on its head."


While some Treasure Valley residents might have considered area snowfall on Dec. 7 "Christmas-y," the caregivers and residents at Interfaith Sanctuary knew better: This was the type of weather that kills.

Exposure to the winter elements has claimed many lives of homeless men and women in Boise, and the cold blast prompted postponement of a Christmas tree light lighting behind Interfaith's shelter—a stark reminder that, while the season can bring great joy for many, it can also present great hardship for others.

On December 3, 2015, Boise police erected a barricade not far from Interfaith, along River Street between Americana Boulevard and 15th Street, hemming in a tent city of homeless people that had become known as Cooper Court. The nearly 100 men and women who had spent the past several months in the tent city were shuttled to a temporary shelter at Fort Boise, but were quickly told they would need to find another place to sleep. Some ended up at Interfaith, others drifted away to find warmth elsewhere.

Much has changed since the pre-Christmas sweep of Cooper Court. Through the spring and summer of 2016, community members and city officials hashed over numerous plans to lessen the number of Boiseans who struggle to keep a roof over their heads. From tiny houses to purchasing a parcel of land where homeless men and women might build another community, to the current Housing First model being pursued by the city, this Christmas, the homeless, advocates and city officials are looking back at what was, what is and what could—or will—be.

The Ghost of Christmas Past

"It seems like so long ago," said Jodi Peterson, co-director of Interfaith Sanctuary, recalling the Dec. 4, 2015 clearance of Cooper Court.

While the pre-Christmas sweep was conducted without incident or injury, resolving a situation that officials insisted could have become dangerous, unhealthy and a political headache, many agreed it was not the city's finest hour.

"Homelessness shouldn't be criminalized," said Leah Pederson, who once experienced her own bout of homelessness.

Pederson joined a handful of other demonstrators near the police barricade, holding a large cardboard banner that read, "Bieter Hates Jesus, Jesus Was Poor & Homeless." The protestors laid much of the drama at the feet of Boise Mayor Dave Bieter, who had declared the encampment a state of emergency. City officials said the sweep culminated an increasingly dangerous situation to the residents of the tent city, including drug use, unsanitary conditions and the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning from heating units that some of the residents had propped up inside their tents.

Homeless advocates pushed back hard, with the ACLU of Idaho labeling the sweep a "surprise attack."

Christmas 2015 was a particularly somber occasion, with a recurring question echoing through the Boise homeless community: Where did the Cooper Court residents go? As expected, a handful decided not to fight city officials or the elements and found a place to sleep inside Interfaith Sanctuary. Soon, however, it was clear many of the former residents of Cooper Court were still outside.

On a mid-winter afternoon in early February, some of those homeless men and women joined with advocates in Julia Davis Park to remember Perry "Rusty" Woodard, whose body had been discovered on the bank of the nearby Boise River.

"We have hundreds of more [people] who are incompatible with shelters—still out in the cold—and thousands who are 'homeless in waiting' because they can't meet their monthly bills," said Barbara Kemp, a member of the Boise and Ada County Homeless Coalition.

Woodard was not the only homeless person to die in Boise in the months that followed the dissolution of Cooper Court. Four days before this Christmas, on the evening of Wednesday, Dec. 21, those who lost that struggle will be remembered on what has become known as Homeless Persons' Memorial Day.

The Ghost of Christmas Present

"I can promise you that it will be a particularly moving night," said Peterson, referring to Homeless Persons' Memorial Day. "What's interesting is that it's also the first night of the Xtreme Holiday Xtravaganza on the stage of the Egyptian."

This year marks the 11th anniversary of the Xtravaganza, the popular benefit concert to support Interfaith Sanctuary. Hosted by internationally renowned Boise musician Curtis Stigers (who is also Peterson's fiance'), the Egyptian stage is expected to be filled with a long list of Idaho musicians, dancers, comedians and community leaders. The concert will be held on two nights, Wednesday, Dec. 21 and Thursday, Dec. 22.

"I'm so incredibly nervous about this year's event," said Peterson. "Interfaith depends so much on those donations from those two nights."

She has little time to be nervous, given her new executive role at Interfaith Sanctuary. Peterson had been a long-time contract worker and volunteer at the shelter, but the controversy surrounding Cooper Court "changed everything," she said.

"I quickly learned that they weren't out there in the freezing cold just because they wanted to smoke crack every night," she added. "I truly learned about those who are shelter-resistant. Suddenly everything turned on its head."

After the sweep of Cooper Court, Peterson was tapped to become Interfaith Sanctuary's new director of development and programs. What followed was a big change to Interfaith's operation.

"We used to have two people with a master's degree in social work, but we don't have the luxury to counsel 164 people with two social workers," said Peterson. "So we took the money from those two salaries and got 10 caseworkers who are currently working on their social work degrees at Boise State University to help us."

Interfaith's new affiliation with Boise State came this past summer, after President Bob Kustra convened a meeting with the university's deans of social work, nursing and engineering.

"He said, 'Let's make Interfaith the teaching shelter for Boise State's cross-disciplines,'" said Peterson.

Now, in addition to the social work students, Boise State's School of Engineering has committed five students to design a new entry and exit security system for Interfaith. Students from the School of Nursing will soon be participating in a weekly on-site health clinic, conducting assessments, checking blood pressure, giving flu shots and conducting well-being exams.

While Peterson said there is more optimism surrounding service to the homeless community in Boise, the city's most ambitious project to combat homelessness should become a reality by Christmas 2017.

The Ghost of Christmas Future

Less than two months after Cooper Court was cleared out, Bieter stood before the press on February 2016 and announced a partnership to craft a solution known as "Housing First" to fight chronic homelessness (for more, see Page 8).

"The best alternative is to get someone in a safe, clean place to live first," Bieter said at the time. "Only then can you get to the root causes of homelessness."

The mayor pointed to a then-new study that revealed community costs to help approximately 100 chronically homeless men and women run to more than $5.3 million each year. According to the Housing First model fronted by Bieter, annual expenses would rise to about $1.6 million.

In mid-November, the Idaho Housing and Finance Association announced it was ready to move forward with a single-site permanent building that will be known as the "New Path Community Housing Project," to be built on what is currently a vacant lot on Fairview Avenue and 23rd Street—a few blocks from Interfaith.

The project will be funded through $5.8 million in low-income housing tax credits from IHFA, $1 million from the city of Boise and another $500,000 from IHFA. The project will be shepherded as a joint venture between the Northwest Integrity Housing Company and TPC Holdings V, LLC.

New Path Community Housing will be developed to provide "safe, stable housing and services for up to 40 families and/or individuals experiencing chronic homelessness." Another $500,000 has been committed for the project's support services, including counseling and security.

"Do I expect some of the people who were in Cooper Court or some of the chronically homeless that are currently at Interfaith to go into that new facility? Absolutely," said Peterson. "Next Christmas? Who knows? It could be a lot better."

As for this Christmas, Peterson said a number of homeless men and women who had been rousted from Cooper Court a year ago have found their way back to the curbs of nearby Americana Boulevard.

"They just can't function in a big shelter with a lot of people," said Peterson. "But Christmas is coming. The cold is here. The snow is here. The ice is here. We've got to keep them in our prayers."