The sheltered, shady areas under the 15th/16th street overpass by Rhodes Park were cleansed — of people, their belongings, and dirt/debris — shortly before the Memorial Day holiday. Fencing — to ensure that people cannot use the area — went up about May 30.
The renovated Rhodes Park — justification for the area closures — is to be a “state-of-the-art” recreation place. Some are excited about plans for interactive art, murals, colored concrete, skateboarding features and a parkour course along 15th Street. These amenities, however — gained at a cost of $1.25 million from Albertson Foundation, $300,000 from the city of Boise, and a $10,000 grant from Tony Hawk Foundation — also are gained at human cost that has been ignored by the entities involved in planning, funding, and designing the renovation.
The increased numbers and visibility of people experiencing homelessness near Rhodes has spoken volumes over the past year, but official responses to date have added insult to the injury of homelessness by 1) increased ticketing and jail time for “crimes” including “camping” (code for sleeping outside without a home); 2) the recent closure of the space, and 3) perhaps most insidious and insulting: complete silence about the renovation impacts — as if there were none.
The closure of these areas has not “disappeared” our homelessness crisis; it has only engineered people experiencing homelessness further out of sight. Some, who are able, have moved farther out along the river. Some, with physical disabilities or advanced age, cannot move that far. Some have constructed makeshift shelters in nearby alleyways to protect from exposure.
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Temperatures are 80s, 90s, and have risen above 100 degrees. Hot pavement along the alleyways, close quarters, small children, service animals, a recently hired private security guard patrolling the alleys — hardly a tenable situation. Staying in shelters is not appropriate for all: Some cannot tolerate the often crowded, often noisy shelter nights; some have work schedules that conflict with shelter hours; couples cannot always stay together; some fear bedbugs; some have been kicked out of the shelters.
Many who live near Rhodes need the convenience of nearby services. Though most would welcome opportunities for better situations, the area has offered at least a means for immediate survival and receipt of services, including preventive medical services, testing, and information from providers who know where to find them.
Current talks among city, county, business, and faith and health care leaders regarding affordable housing and homelessness are encouraging — for the longer term, but they do nothing to staunch the bleeding now. Creative minds, hearts, and funding streams working together could hammer out immediate stopgap solutions as well.
Our community has found funding for a state-of-the-art recreation facility. Community leaders also could find means for stopgap measures, for instance, to provide housing and case management now for the most vulnerable citizens — families with children, people with disabilities, seniors, veterans; to construct tiny-house villages or canopy shelters on vacant properties close by; to construct and manage bathroom/shower facilities. We could stop criminalizing the life-sustaining act of sleeping outside, a constitutionally questionable practice that hampers the currently employed, perpetuates the myth of homelessness as a criminal act, and keeps those without means in debt and with a criminal record.
The renovated Rhodes may be just dandy when it’s done. The end, however, will hardly justify the means without 1) acknowledgment of and 2) remedy of the impact to citizens we’re “putting out,” many of whom have few options for other places to be. Without these, the renovated Rhodes — in all its glory — will serve long into the future as a dismal reminder of what we are doing, and not doing, today.
Barbara Kemp is president of Boise/Ada County Coalition for the Homeless.