Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story had the incorrect day for the ribbon cutting for Interfaith’s new playground. The ribbon cutting is Thursday.
Tara Smallwood, who has been homeless in Boise for about six months, spends most days caring for her 1-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son inside an old Ford Expedition. There isn’t much space. Her fiance, her sister, her sister’s two children and a dog are in the vehicle too.
But she feels lucky.
“On days like this, there are families walking with their kids from 6 in the morning until 6 at night because they’re not blessed to have a car,” Smallwood told a reporter. She stood in the rain after a Sunday meal at Ann Morrison Park provided by Denie Tackett and her group, Mosaic Street Ministry.
Smallwood’s family is bedding down at night at Interfaith Sanctuary, 1620 W. River St. Every morning, they get up at 6 and must be out of the emergency shelter by 7 a.m.
During the winter, the city runs a day shelter for families six blocks away, the Pioneer Neighborhood Community Center. From about Dec. 1 to April 1, homeless families like the Smallwoods could spend from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the day shelter at 500 S. Ash St., between 11th and 12th streets.
The Pioneer shelter isn’t just a safe and warm place. It offers children all sorts of activities: games, toys, books and art supplies. Lunches are provided to the children and parents, thanks to Life’s Kitchen and the Idaho Food Bank.
But for eight months of the year — unless the weather gets extreme — that shelter is unavailable to homeless families, including women with infants.
“Babies sleep like 17 or 18 hours a day, and there’s no place to put them down for a nap,” said Tim Flaherty, an ex-convict who left his job at Interfaith Sanctuary earlier this year with the goal of opening a day shelter for families. “There needs to be a place where these children, who have done nothing wrong other than being born into homelessness, can take a nap. Moms need a place to make a bottle.
“There’s no rest when you’re homeless,” he said.
Corpus Christi House not ideal for families
There is another day shelter: Corpus Christi House, around the corner from Interfaith Sanctuary at 525 S. Americana Blvd. Many guests of the night shelter stop at Corpus Christi for coffee, breakfast, lunch or a snack during the day. They can get donated clothes, do laundry, pick up mail and just rest. It is open six days a week and closed on Sundays.
About 100 to 125 people drop in every day, including two or three families. But the staff discourages families. The large lunch room has tables and chairs, but there is little else to occupy children, and the environment is not family-friendly.
“We don’t have a problem with families being here, but the role modeling, the language and behavior, tends to be a little rough and not always a great example,” said Rick Bollman, operations coordinator at Corpus Christi House. “Sometimes there’s arguing. Some people don’t like kids, so they treat them meanly. Sometimes, if people don’t tend to their children, then they get in people’s stuff.”
During the winter, Corpus Christi refers families to the Pioneer day shelter. This time of year, many families walk four more blocks to the Boise Public Library at 715 S. Capitol Blvd. As the weather warms up, some head to city parks such as Ann Morrison. If they’re exhausted or sick, they find creative places to rest.
“We sat in a [hospital] ICU waiting room, just so the kids could watch TV for a few hours,” said Jason Smith, a construction worker who three years ago found himself homeless on Boise’s streets with three young boys. He got the idea to rest in hospital waiting rooms after a doctor’s visit when one of the boys was running a fever.
Wyatt Schroeder, executive director of Charitable Assistance To Community’s Homeless Inc., or CATCH, helps homeless families get into stable housing. That typically takes about five months, starting with three months on a waiting list. Families are in and out of CATCH’s office all the time.
“Almost all of our clients will have a child under the age of 5, which is such a critical time,” Schroeder said. “Toxic stress has this very deep impact on the life of a child. The brain architecture gets built differently. These families are in a very vulnerable state and need support.”
CATCH has a kids room where children can play while their parents work on housing issues.
“It’s incredibly exhausting living on the streets and in and out of shelters,” Schroeder said. “Every now and then, I’ll wander into the kids room, and I’ll see entire families asleep in there. The family finally gets a chance to de-stress.”
Some of these families also have school-age children. The Boise School District had 984 homeless students in 2015-16 and has had 724 so far this school year, according to district data.
Homeless advocate strikes out on own
Tim Flaherty, the ex-con who wants to open the new day shelter, worked at Interfaith Sanctuary about two years, first as an employment specialist and then as assistant director. In February, he decided to try to fill the gap in services that bothered him so much at Interfaith.
He founded a group called Astegos (the Greek work for homeless), recruited family and friends to serve on its board, got it registered as a 501(c)3 nonprofit, created a website and Facebook page and set up a GoFundMe account to raise $40,000 toward establishing the shelter.
He estimates rent and utilities will cost about $28,000 a year. He plans to use the remaining $12,000 as matching funds to get two AmeriCorps volunteers.
He’s looking for any help he can get.
“Hopefully people will say, ‘Yeah, I want to get involved in that. Let me come help,’ ” he said.
Flaherty has been hitting the streets, sometimes with his grandmother, to look at available spaces Downtown near the other shelters — preferably at least 1,000 square feet, with an office and restrooms.
Flaherty, 35, said part of his motivation comes from his own experience hitting rock bottom and being on the receiving end of help, kindness and forgiveness.
He especially understands the barriers that homeless felons face in getting their lives on track because he, too, is a felon.
Get-rich-quick scheme backfired
Flaherty once dreamed of becoming a bank president. Eight and a half years ago, he was a 26-year-old Boise State University student who was studying finance and working as a loan officer.
But he wanted wealth, and he cut legal corners. He invested $3.1 million in stock that he did not own by exploiting a loophole in Fidelity Investments’ practices, according to court documents.
Fidelity caught him in time to reverse all but about $550,000 of the investments. Flaherty was arrested. He pleaded guilty to wire fraud and served a year and a half in a federal prison in Oregon. He expects to be paying off the half million dollars in restitution for the rest of his life.
Flaherty’s brother, Martin, a pastor at a Caldwell church, said he saw a change in his younger sibling during monthly visits to prison.
“At first it was ‘I need money to buy things. Can you help me?’ ” Martin Flaherty said. “One month I show up, he said, ‘Hey, can you get me some Bibles? I’m trying to teach a guy to read.’ Then, ‘The library could use these movies, and I could use some grammar books.’ He started helping people with their needs.”
The federal charge wasn’t Tim Flaherty’s first brush with the law.
He was charged with felony fraud in 2001 in Bonner County, where he grew up, according to online court records. The Idaho Statesman could not immediately obtain the case file itself, but it appears from the charge that he wrote a check on an account with insufficient funds. The charge was later dismissed by the prosecutor.
“That was for a $3 check that I wrote,” he said.
Online court records also show two sealed cases in Bonner County, which Flaherty declined to explain except to say they were only “stuff as a kid.”
In Ada County in 2003, he was charged with felony grand theft. The charge was later dismissed by the prosecutor. Because the file is from over a decade ago, it wasn’t immediately available at the courthouse. Flaherty said the case was “a disagreement with a friend that ended up getting settled civilly.”
Flaherty’s criminal record could pose a problem for people who want to help his cause but wonder whether to entrust him with their donations.
Flaherty said they’re free not to donate.
“There are safeguards in place, and I don’t have access to those funds. I’m not the treasurer,” he said.
The president of the board of Astegos is Martin Flaherty, Tim’s pastor brother. The treasurer is Carol Gorman, the Flaherty brothers’ grandmother.
Outreach to unsheltered another focus
The Flaherty brothers went on the street last week. They handed out sandwiches and snacks to people along Americana Boulevard near Corpus Christi House and Rhodes Skate Park.
Tim Flaherty said Astegos will reach out to homeless people who are unsheltered, meaning they’re unwilling or unable to stay in local shelters. He and other volunteers have gone to encampments along the Boise River and other hidden places to offer help to those not seeking it. They plan to continue.
One man Flaherty spoke with last week was a 26-year-old named Justin, a heroin addict from Seattle who said he came to Boise six months ago to try to get clean. Why Boise? It was the first bus out of town.
Justin, who did not provide his last name, rode a bicycle he assembled himself at Boise Bicycle Project, 1027 S. Lusk St. Justin said he has stayed off heroin but is now doing meth. He doesn’t worry much about where he’s going to sleep because he doesn’t sleep often, he said.
“I stay up for four days at a time, then I sleep,” he said. He said he passed out at McDonald’s and once slept behind an ice machine at a Downtown hotel.
Why not stay at one of the shelters?
“It’s the worst people on the planet all in one room,” he said. “And I’m one of them.”
He said his backpack, which had his driver’s license, was stolen at one of the shelters. Flaherty said he helped Justin obtain a state ID card so that he can get a job.
Could Pioneer stay open year-round? No, says city
While Flaherty is convinced Boise needs a year-round family day shelter, it is not a top priority for some Boise agencies that serve the homeless.
The city of Boise opened the Pioneer day shelter in winter 2007. It has been reopened every winter since 2009, according to Bonnie Shelton, the communications manager for the Boise Parks and Recreation Department, which runs it.
The shelter has served as many as 41 families per winter, though it averages 33. About two dozen people are there on a typical day.
At least one city employee is at the shelter whenever it is open. It costs about $5,800 per month to run.
When it’s not a day shelter for the homeless, it’s used for Parks and Recreation programs, including youth camps and activities.
“I’m told by our staff that because the facility is used for a variety of recreational programming, using it as a year-round day shelter is not feasible at this time,” Shelton said.
Interfaith not ready to launch day shelter
Jodi Peterson, co-director of Interfaith Sanctuary, said she would like to offer a day shelter to families, but the organization doesn’t have the money.
“I have to find some sort of sustainable way to do that — private donations, single donations, that kind of stuff. I’m not there yet,” Peterson said.
The shelter’s $1 million annual budget comes primarily from private sources. It no longer takes any federal funding.
About one-third of the 164 beds at Interfaith are occupied by families.
Peterson said Flaherty has “a great business mind” and helped the shelter become more efficient. But she is concerned that he may not have the all of the social-work skills needed to run a day shelter for a complex homeless population.
“It’s a real problem — what our homeless people do all day long,” she said. “What do we do for these families? How do we make their days more productive? I agree that Tim is bringing that to light.”
Flaherty said he has a solid background in helping the homeless and felons transitioning from prison, including a couple of years as a volunteer in Boston before he worked at Interfaith.
“I worked every day for two years inside that shelter [Interfaith],” he said. “For the last 12 months, I basically ran the shelter. I was leading the shelter, and the team of 10 caseworkers for the 10 months prior to leaving. I feel like after two years working in the shelter, that prepared me to go out and form a new organization to help solve this problem.”
Interfaith has initiatives to help improve the lives of children who spend time there, including a new playground that’s being celebrated with a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Thursday, April 27. The playground was funded by the Nagel Foundation, PATHS and more than $20,000 in donations from the 2016 Idaho Gives campaign.
The Boise Rescue Mission serves men at one Boise shelter, and women and children at another.
Women with children who stay at Boise Rescue Mission’s City Light Home for Women & Children are often involved in shelter programs or working during the day, and baby-sitting is available on site for their children, according to Jason Billester, vice president of development.
“We expect our guests to be working or looking for work, doing something productive,” he said.
The Rev. Bill Roscoe, president and CEO of Boise Rescue Mission Ministries, said he doesn’t see a big need for a year-round day shelter for families.
“I don’t think there will be 14 families staying at a day shelter,” he said. “There’s going to be a certain number of people who aren’t interested in doing anything but what they want to do.”
Flaherty disagrees. “It’s not right to have a mom leave a shelter at 7 a.m. with no place to go and an infant in her arms,” he said.
Knowing that some people will doubt his motives, he vows to press on and expects to succeed.
“How do I expect people to trust me?” he said. “I guess I would say that I’ve been trying to live my life in the right way in these last four or five years.”