Residents of Cooper Court, the homeless camp between Americana Boulevard, River Street and the Connector, are allowed to stay Friday night and into Saturday at Fort Boise Community Center at 700 Robbins Road, where city officials hope to connect them with counseling, housing and other community services.
Boise Mayor David Bieter and Police Chief Bill Bones described the city’s plan Friday at a press conference at the community center.
Bieter said residents would begin to be encouraged to leave as the press conference started at 10 a.m. He also said the city would declare a state of emergency in the area.
By 2:30 p.m. a city spokesman said eight of the roughly 135 people living in the camp had taken the city’s bus over to Fort Boise. At a 3 p.m. news conference, Eugene Smith, Boise’s deputy police chief for operations, said Cooper Court would be empty by Friday night.
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The community center will close around 5 p.m. Saturday. Asked what the city expected to happen Saturday night, Smith said he couldn’t speak to where people might stay because it would all depend on what housing services they connect with at Fort Boise.
In the long term, Smith said, the city’s Friday actions won’t solve Boise’s homelessness problems. But he believed the gathering at Fort Boise provides an opening for the community as a whole — including the public and former Cooper Court residents — to discuss the matter.
“People need to go over and communicate and determine, what are they going to do for the long term?” he told assembled reporters.
Shortly before noon, the ACLU of Idaho put out a news release strongly criticizing the city’s actions as “a secretive, surprise attack on a vulnerable community” and slamming officials for “forcibly evicting and processing human beings.”
“What we saw today in Boise is government at its most shameful. Government should be open, transparent, and democratic. ... The planning was done behind closed doors, to intentionally keep the broader community out,” Executive Director Leo Morales said. “... We have seen this kind of government displacement before in American history, and it has always been shameful. The city cannot spin its way out of the cruel bottom line: today, it destroyed a community using totalitarian tactics.”
Protesters gathered near the camp Friday morning and several road closures were in place. The right lane of the eastbound Connector will be closed through Saturday at the River Street exit. In addition to a block of River Street closed Thursday, closures will include Americana from Shoreline Drive to Front Street.
Bieter said 13 organizations will help provide care and services at the community center, which will be open for this purpose through Saturday. Available there: hot meals, showers, a change of clothes, bus and taxi passes, food vouchers, referrals for housing services and counseling, cots and bedding. The Idaho Humane Society will take in any pets belonging to Cooper Court residents and care for them free for as long as two weeks until their owners resettle.
The city has also set up a hotline for members of the public wanting to donate or volunteer: 208-972-8970.
“This is about getting people into services. Getting them into a safe environment,” Bones said.
Bieter and Bones cited a range of concerns at Cooper Court, including the number of people living in such a small area, and the dangers of fire or carbon monoxide poisoning as people try to heat their tents. City officials had hoped cold weather would encourage people to leave without further intervention, Bieter said, but that didn’t happen.
“Every effort is being made to be calm and remain compassionate,” the mayor said.
But the message was firm: “Ultimately there’s no choice,” Bones said. “You have to leave today.”
Officers will do everything they can to avoid arresting people, Bones said, though he admitted that may be necessary in a few cases.
People seemed sad but, for the most part, accepting Thursday night when Lisa Veaudry stood in front of a small crowd to tell them they’d be removed from Cooper Court, the homeless camp between Americana Boulevard, River Street and the Connector, on Friday morning.
“I don’t want you to be afraid when you see lots of people,” said Veaudry, who’s listed as the interim operations coordinator and education director for Corpus Christi, a day shelter next to Cooper Court. “There are going to be lots of people.”
Those people will include police and providers of services such as mental health and substance abuse counseling, Veaudry said. The officials she spoke to about Friday’s operation said police would not conduct a warrant check on the dozens of people living in Cooper Court, many of whom have outstanding warrants stemming from tickets for minor offenses such as camping or urinating in public, Veaudry said.
“This is tragic on 1,000 levels,” she said. “If I had a magic wand I would fix it.”
Friday morning, some residents of Cooper Court were packing up their things. Protesters gathered at the site for rush hour, waving signs with sayings like “Let’s end homelessness not hide it” and “Bieter hates Jesus.”
Earlier Thursday, the city closed a block of West River Street between South Americana Boulevard and South 15th Street. Barricades were set up at both ends, and two police SUVs sat parked next to the barricades.
A local company set up large, enclosed tents and installed portable heaters inside them on the closed-off block of River Street. Workers set up two large garbage dumpsters on the same block. At least eight bicycle police officers circulated through the area.
Journee said the closure was due to the “unsafe, unhealthy conditions at Cooper Court.” He called it the “early stages of addressing that situation” but would not say if that meant the city was about to kick people out of Cooper Court or take some other action.
“All I can tell you is there’s more information coming to you at a later time,” Journee said.
At Friday’s press conference, Bieter and Bones said they didn’t believe the city could share more information ahead of time. Friday’s actions were originally intended to happen earlier in the week, they said.
“It was important that we not telegraph this hours or days ahead, because of the sensitive nature,” Bieter said.
Cooper Court has been a source of growing frustration and concern for people at City Hall. They say they’re worried about rows of tents in the camp blocking access for emergency vehicles, as well as reports of people warming themselves with open flames and gas heaters inside tents. The city has often warned people camped in Cooper Court that they were breaking the law and asked them to move out. The campers are violating a city law that prohibits people from sleeping in public places and burning open fires.
Critics have accused the city of exaggerating the seriousness of the situation.
The camp was previously set up under the Connector near the Rhodes Skate Park and attracted similar efforts from the city to break it up there. The camp eventually moved west after renovations at the skate park brought temporary fences that walled off the area.