The death of Cooper Court overshadowed real progress on homelessness in the Treasure Valley.
A consensus on priorities has emerged from five roundtable meetings this year in which local government, business and nonprofit leaders hashed out factors in and possible solutions for homelessness. A consensus doesn’t sound like much progress, but until now, there’s been none, so it’s a step.
The problem is that, even if the consensus yields results, the solutions it offers are long-term. It could take years to plan, permit and build projects that house the homeless and increase the area’s supply of affordable rentals.
Meanwhile, homeless people are still homeless. Many of them don’t like shelters because of lights-out rules, lack of privacy, their own health or just because they want to live on their own terms — even if it is in the street, exposed to thieves, violence and people who use drugs, abuse alcohol or have mental and emotional health problems.
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The first priority coming out of these roundtables was an emphasis on increasing the area’s supply of permanent supportive housing mainly for chronically homeless people.
As its name implies, permanent supportive housing is a supply of permanent homes coupled with access to supportive services, such as mental health and substance abuse counseling, job training, medical care and life coaching. In some cases, people who live in those homes are required to use the supportive services.
The city of Boise already operates some permanent supportive housing as part of its portfolio of affordable homes.
304 The number of affordable homes the city of Boise owns and rents to low- and no-income families
Of course, making permanent supportive housing a priority begs the question of how to pay for it. That’s especially, and not coincidentally, true these days because vacancy rates for Treasure Valley rental homes are extremely low. In this scenario, private developers usually prefer to build apartment complexes that make a lot of money instead of housing projects that provide a community benefit but whose tenants can be troublesome.
Government agencies almost never do new housing projects on their own, said Diana Lachiondo, Boise’s director of community partnerships. Getting them done takes lots of sources of money.
MONEY FOR HOUSING
One new source has stepped forward. The Idaho Housing and Finance Association has included tax credits for permanent supportive housing projects in the draft version of a document that identifies criteria the agency uses to pick recipients of the federal government’s Low Income Housing Tax Credits.
Statewide, those tax credits could be worth up to $576,149 per year, Idaho Housing and Finance Association spokesman Kevin Harper said.
Everybody likes lower taxes, but how can these credits encourage developers to build new permanent supportive housing projects?
Through the miracle of the free market, said Gerald Hunter, president of the housing and finance association.
In other words: Investors buy them.
Investors give the owners of the projects cash up front in exchange for the tax credits, which are awarded in 10-year chunks.
These days, the going rate for this type of tax credit is 90 cents or more on the dollar, Hunter said. So a developer that wins $1 million worth of tax credits for a project could sell them for an upfront cash payment of $900,000 or more. The investor would claim that credit at tax time and receive its full value, $100,000 at a time, over the course of 10 years. Hunter said the credits can cover 50 to 75 percent of a new project’s construction cost.
That’s a big deal, Lachiondo said.
“When you look at the models that have been successful around the country, they all have these tax credits,” she said.
The Boise City-Ada County Housing Authority is considering trying to tap into the association’s tax credits to help pay for affordable apartments or transitional housing on two Boise lots the housing authority owns, executive director Deanna Watson said.
THE VOUCHER GAME
Tax credits won’t be enough to bring new housing for the homeless and low-income people to the Treasure Valley. Realizing that goal will take other sources of money.
Housing vouchers are one possibility. The Boise City-Ada County Housing Authority administers about 2,000 vouchers worth between $11 million and $12 million each year. Most of that money comes from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Today, none of the housing authority’s vouchers are applied to a specific project. Instead, the housing authority allows people who receive the vouchers to find their own homes, then apply their vouchers’ dollar value to the rent.
Watson said the housing authority can dedicate up to 20 percent of the vouchers’ total value — more than $2 million — to projects, such as an apartment complex for homeless tenants. The authority’s seven-member board is considering such a move, she said.
If that were to happen, Watson said, the housing authority wouldn’t rescind housing vouchers that people are using. Instead, it would reassign some of the roughly 15 vouchers that tenants surrender or lose every month to specific projects. The authority might target projects that house people who have certain disabilities or who meet specific need criteria, Watson said.
Other potential sources of money include land donations, federal grants and allocations from the governments of local cities and counties or the state.
People who monitor homelessness around the Treasure Valley are especially excited that these funding scenarios, or something like them, could lead to the creation of a Housing First model here.
Housing First is a philosophy that essentially says, “Put chronically homeless people in homes first, and worry about their mental health or substance abuse problems later.”
“You put them in a housing unit, then you surround them with supportive services,” said AnaMarie Guiles, who oversees Boise’s Department of Housing and Community Development.
Housing First is a type of permanent supportive housing, but it has no requirements for tenants to prove income or stay off drugs and alcohol, Guiles said. Housing First tenants can’t be evicted for not following through on services or treatment, she said.
I have a great source of pride in being a city employee for an organization that was able to achieve that main objective, and I think the residents of Boise should be proud of that as well.
City spokesman Mike Journee on last week’s Cooper Court sweep, which he said was handled peacefully and with no arrests.
The governments and housing authorities of Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County, with the help of the Utah state Legislature and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, have earned nationwide praise for their Housing First approach. It’s reduced homelessness and costs borne by taxpayers, such as unpaid hospital visits, jail stays and ambulance rides.
The Treasure Valley will need the same kind of multipronged dedication if it’s serious about adopting a Housing First model, Hunter said.
“In a Housing First model, you’re basically pulling homeless people, or potentially homeless people, into these rental units,” he said. “And their capacity to pay rents is going to be substantially reduced.”
The second priority to come out of this year’s homelessness roundtables was an emphasis on providing rapid rehousing for families that aren’t chronically homeless.
The idea is to quickly move people, especially families, who’ve fallen into homelessness to permanent homes of their own. Rapid rehousing includes a variety of support services, including help with the housing search and landlord negotiation, short-term financial or rental assistance and support designed to help people maintain new housing, increase or stabilize their income and learn how to use other services to prevent the loss of their housing, according to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness.
This would help relieve what’s known as housing insecurity, which affects families who typically have a home but hit a run of bad luck — or make bad decisions — and end up homeless, even if it’s for a short period of time.
The third priority is more affordable housing. This is the toughest nut to crack, Lachiondo said.
Like many places in the U.S. , affordable rental housing is hard to find here.
Developers are planning or building new apartment projects in the Treasure Valley, but many of them are upscale apartments that are more expensive than average. Several projects aim to revamp old, cheap apartments into nice, expensive ones.
Historically, that’s been a pretty standard scenario, said Mike Brown, whose company LocalConstruct has built high-end apartments in Boise and renovated older buildings in order to get higher rents out of them. In normal times, Brown said, developers build high-end apartments because they can’t make money unless they get high rents for new construction. Those units gradually become more affordable as they age.
The Great Recession interrupted that process, Brown said, because so few homes were built between 2008 and 2012. Now, demand is rebounding, but supply hasn’t kept pace.
Brown said his company has 23 tenants in Boise who use vouchers to help cover their rent. Most property management companies have income, rental history and background requirements. Sometimes, those requirements disqualify voucher-holders. That’s especially likely for high-end rentals, Brown said.
Some landlords have blanket policies to not accept vouchers. Others avoid voucher-holders if they can find renters through traditional means, which is easily accomplished these days, Brown said. That’s not because they don’t like the program or the people, he said. It’s just that processing the vouchers is one more task to administrate, so why do it if you don’t have to?
Brown said government can do some things to encourage developers to build affordable housing. Those measures include reducing the number of parking spaces required for a new project and allowing a project to have more floors than normal if it includes a certain number of affordable, income-restricted units.
Brown said LocalConstruct may include five to 10 income-restricted apartments in its next Boise project, whose details he and his partner have yet to work out.
HOME FOR A HOMELESS COMMUNITY?
Getting a consensus on priorities from the homelessness roundtable meetings was progress.
Even Jodi Peterson, a fundraiser for the Boise homeless shelter Interfaith Sanctuary who is critical of the way Boise has handled the Cooper Court situation, thinks the city’s long-term strategy is a good one.
That happens in the Highlands where I live. We have fires. We have people that are beating their wives.
Homeless advocate Jodi Peterson on what she says were exaggerated claims of dangerous conditions in Cooper Court.
Peterson has focused her own efforts on short-term help, but roadblocks are everywhere. She said she coordinated an effort in October to replace old tents at Cooper Court with new ones and provide sleeping bags for people living there. Then the encampment was disbanded.
She was in negotiations to secure a place where about 20 of the most vulnerable homeless people could camp through the winter. That fell through after protesters disrupted Tuesday’s City Council meeting, leading to fears of similar backlash when it came time for the campers to move out.
Peterson talked about securing a piece of land where the homeless could live permanently as a small community.
People there would live in very small homes that offer basic shelter: roofs, walls and lockable doors. Common buildings would provide showers, bathrooms and laundry facilities.
Each person living in the community would have to sign a contract to keep their spaces clean and abide by rules banning disruptive behavior and drugs and alcohol.
City spokesman Mike Journee said the city would accept that kind of development, or any kind of development for the homeless, as long as it meets city safety and building codes and receives the right permits.
What if a private person wanted to allow large numbers of homeless people to live in tents or other temporary shelter on his or her land? Would that be legal if portable toilets and other amenities were provided?
“Very highly unlikely,” Boise Planning Director Hal Simmons said in an email. “This would not be considered an allowed use in any residential zone. If by chance someone did have a property that was large enough or unique enough to conceivably accommodate this type of use, a special exception could be requested. This would require public hearings by the (Planning and Zoning Commission) followed by the City Council.”
But that’s not the city government’s focus right now, Journee said. Rather, it is committed to the three priorities that came out of the homelessness roundtable meetings. Journee said the city hopes to announce plans soon for a new permanent supportive housing project.
The city won’t designate public land for a permanent homeless camp.
“We cannot allow a situation like Cooper Court to materialize again,” Journee said. “You're simply transferring the problem to another area if that happens.”
City staff is still calculating the cost of last weekend’s sweep of Cooper Court, which included operations by the police and fire departments, as well as vouchers for food and other necessities, Journee said.
Homeless couple: ‘We can’t go anywhere’
Meaghan “Ray” and Anita “Drea” Sletto said they came to Cooper Court because they felt discriminated against for being a married lesbian couple.
That and Drea’s intense anxiety were reason enough for the couple to set up their tent there. Both slipped into homelessness in the summer of 2015. Ray is in the process of applying to the College of Western Idaho and Drea, who said she recently got out of prison, said she’s working on putting her life together.
Ray said family and friends have offered help to the couple, but resources are dwindling. Her mother disowned her because of her relationship with Drea, she said, and her stepfather rents his property, so can’t offer his yard for them to camp on, she said.
Their four-person tent was filled with clothes and blankets. It was parked right behind the Corpus Christi day shelter and it was where they brainstormed ideas about a dream shelter they want to open: They’d call it Home and Aid with No Judgment.
Their shelter would be a safe space for families and married couples, with an on-site daycare, job-skill classes, and marriage/family mediation. In their idea shelter the toilet paper would be provided by the shelter, not donated, there would be detox rooms, and parent date nights.
After police cleared Cooper Court, the couple on Saturday yanked out their belongings and packed them into five duffel bags, two backpacks, a suitcase and a makeup bag. They were grateful for Boise police officers’ help, and the $125 voucher they each got for their tent from the city.
But they’re nervous about where they’re going to sleep at night.
“We don’t know where to go tonight because people are still telling us to go to shelters,” Ray said. “They’re not going to accommodate my wife’s medical needs, and they’re not going to put us together.”
Strangers put them up in the 7K Motel on East Chinden Boulevard, Ray said. But their help and options for semi-independent living are running out.
“Anxiety is pretty high. My wife’s anxiety is so bad, she wants to throw up in a corner and disappear,” Ray said.
The couple isn’t sure what’s next for them. Each day they have to determine where they’ll eat and sleep and who they can reach out to for help the following day. Both of them want housing, beyond a tent, but they want it together, Ray said.
“We can’t go anywhere,” she said.
Erin Fenner, email@example.com
Paramedic: ‘It’s up to us as a community to assist them’
Echoing the sentiment of other advocates and first responders, Dawn Rae, an Ada County community paramedic, said housing-first is the way to go for Boise’s homeless population.
That model prioritizes setting homeless people up in permanent housing before addressing other day-to-day needs.
“Until there’s somewhere people can go, you’re not going to fix (homelessness) by feeding people and bringing them tents and kicking them out of entryways,” Rae told the Statesman in an interview before Cooper Court was cleared. “There’s nowhere else for them to go. Building more shelters: that’s a short term answer, but long term? There’s got to be a better way.”
Paramedics have been concerned for the safety of the residents at the Cooper Court encampment: emergency vehicles could not get in or out; a warming fire could get out of control. Calls for assistance spiked after campers set up, according to Ada County Dispatch.
Medics often transport homeless people to the emergency room for preventable reasons. But the reason some homeless people don’t take care of their chronic health problems is because they’re focused on other pressing needs, Rae said.
“When you’re homeless, you spend your whole day worrying about: Where am I going to go to the bathroom? Where am I going to get food? How am I going to get water?” she said. “Your medications and maintaining a healthy diet for your diabetes or your congestive heart failure sort of run by the wayside. So the exacerbation of chronic disease is almost a given if you’re homeless.”
Rae said the general public may have some unfair prejudices about people in the camp.
“There is no one story. There is no one person at Cooper Court or in (Interfaith Sanctuary). Everybody has different things that brought them down there. The stereotype is that they’re all mentally ill drunks, which is not true,” she said. “That’s a gross misconception and a gross oversimplification of a lot of the issues a lot of these folks have.
“Are there issues that we as a society and as a community can help with? Yes. Are there things those folks need to do themselves? Yes. But when you’re starting from below point zero to climb out of (homelessness), it’s up to us as a community to assist them in those things.”
Erin Fenner, firstname.lastname@example.org
Event to benefit Boise homeless
Local musician Curtis Stigers will host an additional night at this year’s Xtreme Holiday Xtravaganza. The extra show will take place Dec. 19. The Dec. 20 and 21 shows are sold out, said Jodi Peterson, who organizes the annual event.
Proceeds will go to Corpus Christi House, a day shelter that offers meals, a place to stay during the day, a mailing address and connections to social services for people in need.
Tickets for the event, dubbed “The Night Before The Xtreme Unplugged,” are $50 for general admission. They are available at curtisstigers.com.