It's a city within a city. Tucked off of Boise's Americana Boulevard is a winding avenue of tents, tarps, lean-to's and what some even call their "condos." Welcome to Cooper Court—a tent city full of dozens of Boise's homeless men and women. The encampment has grown significantly and the behaviors of the occupants are violating any one of a number of ordinances or laws, beginning with the fact that it's nearly impossible to negotiate a vehicle through the gauntlet.
"The post office has stopped delivering our mail. We had to divert everything to a P.O. box," said Interfaith Sanctuary Executive Director Jayne Sorrels. "We stopped taking deliveries of donations. The River of Life Mission has had to drop off pallets of bottled water this summer."
That's the least of it. Walking among the scores of people camped out on the city street reveals human waste, alcohol and drug use, and even stacks of firewood.
"Yes, there are open fires out there," said Sorrels "We see children out here during the day. We've told the adults, 'Please don't do this.' They're setting themselves up to be more vulnerable to child protection calls. It's just not safe."
There are multiple reasons why so many of Boise's homeless men and women have chosen to live in Cooper Court—almost as many as the actual numbers who make up the tent city.
"Right now, our best guess is that there are 70 people out there," said Sorrels. "We're pretty certain there are multiple people in the same tent."
The U-shaped Cooper Court, just south of the I-184 Connector, is technically classified as an unmaintained Ada County Highway District road, and is primarily used for deliveries, sanitation pickup and emergency vehicles.
Officials at Interfaith Sanctuary are particularly concerned that when Boise citizens see a tent city only several feet from their doorstep, the public might get the impression the shelter is full.
"Nothing could be further from the truth. Nearly every night we have vacancies, "said Sorrels, adding the shelter has a total of 165 beds for men, women and children.
"It's important for the public to know that nearly all of the people outside on Cooper Court would be welcome inside," she said. "Only about three of them are outright banned from shelters because of high-level behavioral issues. And at Interfaith, people can come inside even when they're under the influence of drugs or alcohol, so it's not like you have to be clean and sober. Our rules are more behavior-based."
Sorrels said the temptation coming from the open use of drugs and alcohol outside the doors of the shelter are a constant worry.
"People coming into Interfaith have told us that they don't feel safe walking through that gauntlet," she said. "And they know that while they're struggling to stay clean and sober, at any moment they would walk out the door and get any drug and drink whatever they want."
Meanwhile, Wyatt Schroeder, executive director of the CATCH program, which places 60-70 Ada and Canyon county homeless families inside permanent housing each year, said even if law enforcement were to force the tent city out of Cooper Court, the bigger issue of chronic homelessness wouldn't come anywhere near being solved.
"This tent city is exposing a huge donut hole of our current services," Schroeder said. "In many cases out on Cooper Court, we're talking about folks who, more than likely, have re-occurring mental health or substance abuse issues. And that is the very considerable issue of chronic homelessness. Even if everyone were to be moved away, it wouldn't change homelessness in Boise."
That said, the tent city is a probable violation of Title 9, Chapter 10, Section 2 of the Boise City Code, better known as the city's anti-camping ordinance, which Boise officials are currently defending in federal court.
"We have a lawsuit out there so we have to be careful about what we say," Mike Journee, spokesman for Boise Mayor Dave Bieter told Boise Weekly. "We are very aware of the challenges that are out there."
Journee added that City Hall was getting "regular updates from the police and fire departments on the situation," and officials were "working with several stakeholders, including ACHD and the Idaho Transportation Department, to find an appropriate path forward on this."
At ACHD headquarters, spokesman Craig Quintana told BW the problem was "primarily a law enforcement issue," and public questions or concerns should be rerouted back to City Hall.
Meanwhile, over at Interfaith, shelter officials said they're not overly anxious to call the police on those whom they want to assist.
"This has become a very difficult discussion for us," said Sorrels. "Interfaith Sanctuary has based our values on compassion, respect and dignity. We're trying to juggle the need of taking care of people inside the shelter with those outside. But more and more, the situation in Cooper Court is putting the people inside the shelter at risk."
Sorrels and Schroeder said the bigger, more important question is adequate services for the temporary and chronic homeless. Until then, the short-term (and growing) problem on Cooper Court casts a shadow on that conversation. When asked if the time has come for a law enforcement sweep of the area, both Sorrels and Schroeder were reluctant to advocate for police action.
"But the health issues out there are not good," Sorrels said. "And the problem is that most of the public doesn't know about this."