At about 5:30 p.m. every day, families begin to trickle through the doors of Interfaith Sanctuary, a night shelter on River Street that’s visible from the eastbound Connector.
Parents with children are invited in first each night, and then the single men and women.
Shelter guests help staff wheel large plastic tubs with guests’ belongings out of locked storage units. They set up tables and chairs in one of the hospitality rooms. They stir a large pot of soup provided by Life’s Kitchen five days a week.
It’s a calm, orderly and friendly process that repeats itself night after night.
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Earlier this month, the shelter marked its 10th anniversary of providing emergency housing to the homeless. For the past few months, it has operated quietly in the eye of the storm created by the Cooper Court tent city, which grew up in the alleys around the 10,000-square-foot building and was dispersed by the city of Boise in early December.
The vast majority of those coming through Interfaith’s doors have been there before, and night shift manager Jeff Bernsen greets most by name. He checks how each person is doing and whether they are under the influence of any intoxicants. And he aims to lift their spirits.
“When they leave in the morning, they’re just walking around the city all day with no one to talk to,” Bernsen said. “I can tell they haven’t talked to anyone all day.”
950 Number of individuals who stayed at the shelter the past year, including 144 children
Once they’ve checked in, guests warm themselves over hot coffee and hot food. Sitting at long folding tables, they play chess and cards. On a recent visit, one man read a book — “The History of Foreign Policy in the United States” — while the woman sitting directly across from him poured the last drops of shampoo from one bottle to another. Some smoke cigarettes outside before bed.
It’s not long before the showers are running — guests sign up for 10-minute slots. The whir of an electric razor is audible above the chatter.
By 8 p.m., some of the weary guests sitting in the singles hospitality room are falling asleep in their chairs. A woman in a full-length pajama top and bottom shuffles out to get earplugs before turning in. In the family hospitality room, parents are watching a movie with their kids before bed.
More than a half-dozen people sign up for early wake-up calls — as early as 4:45 a.m. — because they need to be out the door for work. The guests fold up the tables and put them away. There aren’t enough beds for everyone on this night, so eight men sleep on mats in that room and eight women bed down in the observation room, which is normally used to separate those who appear to be under the influence. As long as they aren’t physically or verbally violent, intoxicated individuals may stay.
At 9 p.m., it’s lights out.
SHELTER CREATED BY VOLUNTEERS
Interfaith Sanctuary was created out of nothing a decade ago, a rapid response by local faith leaders to a need for more winter shelter for the homeless. They announced plans to create a tent city on the grounds of Congregation Ahavath Beth Israel, but city officials did not receive that idea well. So the group welcomed the homeless into one local church — Boise First Congregational United Church of Christ. With no experience in running a shelter, they let goodwill be their guide.
84%Share of annual funding for the sanctuary that comes from donations and from grants from private foundations
“I was the first person to open the door, the first day, the first shift that it opened,” said attorney Steve Scanlin, a member of that church. “We were going to open at 7, but it was so cold. There was a couple standing there, so I just opened the doors, poured some coffee and away we went. The next person who came was the fire marshal.”
Scanlin said 45 people slept on the floors of the church that first night. More packed the church on the second night. Mats and blankets were provided by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Father Timothy Ritchey of Holy Apostles Catholic Church in Meridian soon asked parishioners for help in securing a permanent location. General contractor Nick Guho offered free use of a warehouse at 14th and Jefferson.
The shelter operated at that location through March 2006. The next winter, the shelter rotated through Downtown Boise churches for five or six weeks, then set up in the former Carnegie Library building.
In November 2007, the shelter expanded to being a year-round facility and opened in its current River Street location, purchased with financial support from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Boise and Idaho Housing and Finance.
Interfaith Sanctuary’s annual operating budget is about $800,000, with nearly 85 percent coming from private sources (individual and corporate donations and foundations). Contributions are generally robust enough that administrators have only once had to lay off a couple of staff members and reduce shelter hours, and even then it was a temporary problem.
The community’s initial and ongoing contributions to the shelter — which now has 11 staff members, some of whom are part time — cannot be overstated. Its volunteer roll has hundreds of names, and at least 40 are tapped each week. Donations of time and money are why there’s paint on the walls and food in the shelter’s tiny pantry. The Paul Mitchell Academy provides free haircuts for those with jobs or who are seeking employment, and members of the various churches volunteer for shifts each week.
We could not exist without the volunteers. Besides producing a lot of energy and serving, they are a contact to the community. We have to have that contact to keep the community continually aware of the homeless, and we have a responsibility as a community. Homelessness doesn’t end or stop by just professionals doing their job.
The Rev. Ed Keener, board chairman, Interfaith Sanctuary
Tami Masarik, a mother of three sons who are all in their 20s, has volunteered one night at the shelter each week for a decade.
“It feels good to be there,” she said. “It’s just so good to give and to have a purpose. I think I get more than they get.”
STRUGGLING TO SURVIVE
The shelter serves people of all ages and backgrounds. Guests face different struggles — some have mental health issues, others have substance abuse problems. Some have both.
There are those who did not grow up in a stable home, and they haven’t been able to create one for themselves. Still others fell on hard times, losing jobs and/or homes as a result.
He had given up. He was beaten down by life. There was no fight left in this man.
Tim Flaherty, Interfaith Sanctuary employment specialist, on a 55-year-old veteran he assisted in finding a job and apartment
Some have been affected by serious health conditions. One woman said treatment for skin cancer wiped her out financially, while another said she suffered four strokes (and those have affected her memory). Some take medicine for diabetes, and at least one person staying at Interfaith is getting dialysis at a local clinic.
A 24-year-old named Chance was feeling optimistic because he’d just landed a job in West Boise. He said he’d been sleeping in bushes before he found out about Interfaith Sanctuary. It will take him at least a month to save up enough money for first and last month’s rent on an apartment, he said.
A woman named Wendy said she, her teenage daughter and their two dogs have lived at the shelter since August. Before that, they were living in the camper of her pickup, which she parked in the Wal-Mart parking lot on Overland Road.
The 46-year-old mother, who has battled methamphetamine addiction but says she’s been clean for nine years, is thankful to be able to stay at the shelter until she and her fiance can get back on their feet.
“It’s one day at a time,” she said. “Sometimes a week will be smooth, then there are a lot of bumps.”
500,000 Bed nights provided from 2005 to 2015
THE SEARCH FOR PERMANENT SOLUTIONS
When Cooper Court sprang up around Interfaith Sanctuary and Corpus Christi House, it became the most visible face of Boise’s homelessness issues.
Before the tent city, “people slept on Cooper Court but never in tents,” said Jayne Sorrels, Interfaith’s executive director. At most, 20 people would curl up in blankets outside the shelter when the weather warmed up. They usually left in the morning, so there was no permanent occupation.
The sudden tent city grew so large it blocked staff and volunteers’ access to the shelter’s parking lot, and the U.S. Postal Service stopped delivering. Getting donations to the building became difficult. Those staying inside the shelter said the noise outside sometimes kept them awake. The nonprofit’s board spent $6,000 on private security “for the safety of our guests, our staff and our volunteers,” said the Rev. Ed Keener, its chairman. “We felt it was the responsible thing to do.”
They could be very noisy. I guess they’d be up all night partying. They were disruptive.
Brenda, an Interfaith Sanctuary guest, talking about the impact of the Cooper Court tent city on the shelter
Interfaith operates at capacity most nights, but shelter leaders aren’t looking to expand bed or floor space. They want to help the community find more permanent housing solutions. And they’re coordinating with other community agencies in a way they weren’t before.
“We’ve all been so overwhelmed by the work that each agency is doing,” Sorrels said. “... We’re better leveraging our resources to meet the needs of people.”
She said Interfaith plans to hire a part-time employee to help guests obtain Social Security and disability benefits, a difficult process that involves a lot of paperwork. It’s easier to get people into housing if they have some sort of income; already this year, the shelter hired its first employment specialist.
Interfaith is involved in the mayor’s roundtable on housing. Three priorities have been identified: permanent supportive housing for chronically homeless individuals, rapid rehousing for families and affordable housing.
“What is permanent supportive housing going to look like in this community?” Sorrels said. “We’re willing to participate and engage. We don’t know what that’s going to look like yet.”
The sanctuary is located at 1620 W. River Street in Boise.
Donations and business mail should be sent to: P.O. Box 9334, Boise, ID 83707. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
What do they need? First, money. This is the time of year that they raise funds for operations. Second, volunteers. You can sign up online. Find the master supply list online at interfaithsanctuary.org.