The first and only Christmas dinner at Emerald House was straight out of a Hallmark holiday special. The house was warm and bright. Inside were a feast and a pile of gifts for eight people who had been evicted from Boise’s Cooper Court homeless camp.
They didn’t have to worry about where they would sleep that night in December 2015. Jody Bolopue, a local property owner with an empty house, had seen the news about Cooper Court and wanted to help.
Bolopue called Jodi Peterson, then a contractor with Interfaith Sanctuary and now its co-director. The exiled Cooper Court residents could live in the 1,300-square-foot building for free, until they got jobs or disability checks. There were a few strings attached: Don’t break the law, keep up the house and the yard, and be a good neighbor.
Ten months and a lawsuit later, the house was vacant again.
“Her heart was in the right place, totally,” one former resident said of Bolopue. “She just didn’t know what she was getting into.”
Emerald House was, in some ways, like other group homes scattered around Boise. It was an option for people who can’t live in a home of their own because of chronic mental illness, addictions, unemployment, criminal records or simple lack of money.
With the city in the middle of an affordable-housing crisis, the Statesman has learned of several property owners in Boise who rent out rooms in single-family homes. Some of the rentals are legal. Others may not be. Some are licensed or sanctioned by the state. And many are protected by federal law.
Unlike the “housing first” approach that is now being tried in Boise, unofficial group homes like Emerald House lack on-site medical, mental health or social services. That is a key reason the Emerald House experiment failed, according to those involved.
But there weren’t — and aren’t — many other options for people in Boise who are homeless or living paycheck to paycheck. Boise needs thousands more residences for people who make little to no money.
That’s why JoJo Valdez and seven other people moved into Emerald House.
‘We jumped at the chance’
Valdez, 41, and her husband Mickey got into drugs while living in Twin Falls. He spent time in prison and they eventually became homeless in Boise. With little income and a felony on his record, the couple had trouble finding a place to rent, Valdez said.
They lived at the Interfaith Sanctuary shelter for a month before moving into a tent in Cooper Court, so that they could live together again and because JoJo was having anxiety attacks in the shelter.
When they were forced to leave Cooper Court, “we jumped at the chance to go to Emerald House,” she said. “And for the most part, we knew everybody that was going to be living there. Well, we thought we did. When you live with someone, it’s a whole lot different.”
Without on-site staffing or resources, the housemates soon foundered. People stopped doing chores. One resident, who spent decades homeless, became aggressive.
“We did drugs in the house. We partied in the house. We had a lot of people in the house that weren’t supposed to be there,” Valdez said. “As much as we were grateful, we weren’t aware of how ungrateful we were being.”
Someone eventually asked Lisa Veaudry, a former director at homeless day shelter Corpus Christi, to step in. The living situation improved for a while. People got jobs. They started doing the housework required in their lease.
But it was too late.
The house was costing a lot more money than Bolopue expected, and it didn’t seem to be helping anyone. She started eviction proceedings in August 2016. In response, Veaudry contacted a lawyer from ACLU of Idaho.
“My personal belief is you can’t take people out of a homeless situation, in crisis, in the alley, and then put an eviction on their record,” Veaudry said.
Lawyers on both sides eventually agreed that the residents would move out within a month and everyone would go their separate ways.
Almost all of the Emerald House residents now have homes of some kind. One went back to the streets.
Valdez and her husband ended up in another group house — a duplex shared by 16 people, including the owner. It’s not a good environment for someone attempting to stay clean and sober, she said, and they hope to find another place soon.
What works, what doesn’t
“It’s important for you to know that I was not thoughtful enough about this, nor was the homeowner,” Peterson said while recalling Emerald House. “I was impulsive because I was scared and sad.”
A professional appraiser with 20 years’ experience as a landlady, Bolopue is hardly a novice when it comes to real estate and rentals.
But the Cooper Court residents signed “flim flam” leases, she said. She thought that Interfaith Sanctuary would manage the house and be on-site at least weekly, and that the tenants would start paying $100 a month to help cover utilities and taxes. Instead, she paid hundreds of dollars a month to cover utilities and received about $300 total in rents.
“No one lived there full time, no one managed it, it was not designated as a clean and sober house,” said Peterson. “There was no one who was licensed as a social worker or who had any authority to regulate the environment.”
All those are key characteristics of more formally managed group facilities.
Taryl Hall spent much of his adult life on and off the streets of Reno and Boise, unable to keep a job or a place to live. He eventually received a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia; for about a year, he was in assisted living.
He felt overmanaged there, so almost six years ago, he began renting a room in an eight-resident house on Orchard Street. His experience hasn’t been perfect — in December he told the Statesman about being slammed against a wall by former housemate Bruce Marchant, the man accused of killing Boise State student Sierra Bush. But overall, he said, it’s an improvement.
“I like the independence,” said Hall, a former line cook who is now on disability. “You can come and go. There’s no curfew. There’s nobody dishing out meds. There’s nobody supervising. You’re on your own.”
Even then, Hall has a lot of support from his “treatment team,” which includes a doctor, counselor and medicine manager. A psychosocial rehabilitation worker helps with shopping and navigating the world outside the house. A personal care service worker spends four to six hours a day inside, helping Hall with cooking, cleaning and putting on compression socks.
“It’s a stable, secure environment,” Hall said. “I’m not on drugs. I’m not losing my mind. I’m not causing problems. I’m not running the street.”
New options on the way
The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare does license some types of group homes. They include residential assisted-living facilities and certified family homes.
But it does not dictate that people on state or federal public assistance live in those.
“We don’t want to create an environment where people can’t make up their own minds,” said Ross Edmunds, the state’s behavioral health chief. “We have that; we have commitment laws. ... What we do in our mental health program is to do the best assessment on folks that we can, and try to help them with case management and medical treatment services, and create the best environment for them.”
That becomes complicated when there’s not enough appropriate housing for people with severe and persistent mental illnesses. And when a resident in a state-licensed house is in crisis and threatens or acts out, that resident may have to move out.
The department plans to use $1 million to create a statewide pilot program of 50 HART houses — Homes with Adult Residential Treatment — to offer different housing options for people who are receiving mental health care.
“We need something different in the state of Idaho than we have today,” Edmunds said. “Intense services delivered in a congregate living setting, so they’re not broken apart.”
At the same time, Boise’s “housing first” initiative is gaining steam.
A new complex of apartments that would be offered to homeless people, with on-site services, will soon be built at Fairview Avenue and 22nd Street.
Not in their backyards?
Some neighbors of group houses told the Statesman they understand that people need to have shelter, but they don’t think such homes are appropriate in residential neighborhoods.
They have complaints about traffic, speeding, inconsiderate parking, rude behavior, noise from a shared backyard. Several said they have seen illegal activity near the houses.
Because there is no database or formal tracking of group houses, it is extremely difficult to tell how their presence affects crime rates. Emergency dispatch logs for several unofficial group houses included calls about mental health crises, suspected drug use and more mundane things like “loud punk kids” with a bonfire.
Outliers such as Marchant — who stayed in an apparent group home owned by Bush’s father, then left several months before her kidnapping and killing — can sway outside perception of the homes.
The Glenwood Rim neighborhood, along the northern edge of the Bench, is full of large homes built in the 1970s. Some have been converted to sober-living houses — semi-supervised facilities, unlike Emerald House.
“I’m all for these homes,” said Angela Adams, 35, who has complained to city and state officials about them. “But let’s place these people in a place where it’s good for everybody.”
Adams said she found syringes in her yard and saw people selling drugs in the neighborhood. Through her complaints, she learned that Boise can’t just tell group homes to move. The law expressly allows landlords to rent to multiple people with disabilities — among those, “emotional illness, (past) drug addiction ... and alcoholism” — living in a group setting in a single-family home.
Adams eventually “gave up” on “fighting this battle” and moved to another part of town.
About a block away from Adams’ former house, LeRoy Lokken said the sober-living houses in the neighborhood don’t bother him, though he recognizes that the neighborhood has changed as rental tenants gradually replace families like the one he raised there.
“I was in the military for too many years to worry about Mickey Mouse crap like that,” he said. “What are we going to do with them? Throw them on the street? ... They gotta have a home, too.”
There likely are dozens of people living in the neighborhood’s sober houses.
One of them is Matt Drinkall, a 31-year-old whose mother died and father suffered a stroke while he was growing up. He dropped out of high school and developed an alcohol addiction. Court records chronicle his struggles with substance abuse.
Drinkall moved into a Rising Sun Sober Living house in June, after two years in prison. He pays $400 a month for a shared bedroom and has nine male housemates. There’s a curfew — 10 p.m. on weekdays, 11 p.m. weekends. No guests are allowed, there’s random drug and alcohol testing, and a manager makes daily visits.
Drinkall gives half the credit for his sobriety to the house — its accountability and the low rent. He knows which neighbors don’t mind the house and which ones dislike it.
“They think that, OK, it’s just a bunch of felons,” he said. “We’ve made our mistakes, but to me, it’s not who we are as people.”