Homelessness is a collective struggle. It exists in virtually every city in America, and it weighs upon every resident of those communities — even those of us fortunate enough to have a home.
In a society as prosperous as ours, it is shameful that even one person finds it necessary to sleep on the street.
Like many of you, I am increasingly concerned about economic inequality, the shrinking of the middle class, and the increasing financial pressures on working-class Americans. Homelessness is a vicious symptom of these larger concerns. These collective struggles have no simple answers but bring with them a collective duty: to do whatever we can to protect the lives and safety of our most vulnerable residents. That is why, two weeks ago, the city of Boise took action to protect the people who were living outdoors at Cooper Court.
Let me be clear: The encampment at Cooper Court was a dangerous place and becoming more so every day.
Open fires amid the dozens of tents and makeshift shelters packed into that confined area presented an immediate threat to the lives of the people living there. Firefighters and police responded to multiple calls about tents catching fire. Fortunately no one was injured in those incidents, but an even more catastrophic blaze engulfing multiple tents and the people inside them was not just a possibility; it was inevitable.
Those same tents blocked the fire lane for the nearby buildings, choking off emergency access to the area. Among those buildings are homeless shelters occupied day and night by dozens of individuals and families. Consider what would have happened, for example, if Interfaith Sanctuary had caught fire in the middle of the night, with all of those people sleeping inside, and firefighters were unable to respond quickly and effectively because the fire lanes were blocked.
The situation was simply an invitation to disaster.
The encampment lacked running water and proper waste disposal. We received regular complaints about human feces deposited on the doorsteps of nearby businesses, and bags of urine and waste thrown over fences onto private property.
Finally, the encampment had become a magnet for a growing criminal element, eager to take advantage of people who have already been victimized enough. Indeed, Cooper Court had become the city of Boise’s No. 1 area for police, fire and EMS calls, with more than 1,600 so far this year in response to, among other things, assaults, sexual assault, thefts and intimidation.
Allowing our homeless neighbors to continue to live in such perilous conditions was worse than intolerable; it was immoral.
Our Boise police officers have spent every day for months talking one on one with the occupants of Cooper Court, getting to know them — even learning the names of their dogs — and, most important of all, gaining an understanding of the very real and difficult challenges that these people face. In addition to that outreach, teams of service providers conducted assessments and actively encouraged Cooper Court occupants to access available resources, such as our emergency shelter system.
At the same time, officers methodically and consistently informed residents that the situation in Cooper Court was unsustainable and that the city, at some point, would be required to address that. In the end, the plan that the city mapped out and followed two weeks ago was designed to protect the safety and dignity of every person affected.
Unfortunately, the deteriorating situation in Cooper Court has overshadowed our effort to develop long-term tools in the fight against homelessness.
Indeed, some have acted as though Cooper Court were the sum total of our work to help those experiencing homelessness in our community. Actually, the city of Boise, along with our community partners, has a comprehensive, long-term approach.
Collectively, we have learned from similar efforts around the country that the most effective way to combat homelessness in the long run is through a “housing first” model: providing permanent, supportive housing — not a shelter, not a tent, but a real home — that includes counseling, treatment, job training and placement, and other essential services.
Housing first is a proven, data-driven approach for addressing the root causes of someone’s homelessness. Creating such projects can be difficult, complex, expensive and labor intensive. They require resources, expertise and commitment from all levels of government, the nonprofit and corporate sectors, and the faith community.
But it works. And we are committed, as a community, to create these kinds of resources. We hope to be able to share details of a permanent supportive housing project in Boise sometime in early 2016.
We can no longer ask, “What is the city of Boise going to do about homelessness?” Instead, we need our residents to ask, “How can I help make a real, long-term difference in the lives of our homeless neighbors?”
Some have suggested that closing down Cooper Court demonstrated a lack of compassion for the less fortunate among us. They are wrong. Allowing our less fortunate neighbors to live in squalor, in danger and in fear was inhumane and immoral.
I know Boise can do better than that, and I know we will.
Dave Bieter is the mayor of Boise.
Helping the homeless
Each year, the city of Boise spends $4.5 million to address homelessness and affordable housing on behalf of all of Ada County. Much of this funding goes to nonprofit providers in our community.
Boise is perhaps the only city government in the nation that operates its own affordable housing properties — 304 units around the city — that serve as housing of last resort for people in need.
Each winter, the city opens a day shelter program at the Pioneer Neighborhood Community Center to offer healthy activities and a safe place during the day for homeless families with preschool and school-age children. The program includes lunches for the children and hot meals for their parents provided through Life’s Kitchen and the Idaho Foodbank.
The city took the lead in establishing Allumbaugh House, a free mental health and detoxification facility, which averages 50 percent homeless patients in any given month.
Most important for the long term, the mayor’s office has led the creation of a Housing and Homelessness Roundtable, composed of representatives from government, nonprofit, corporate and faith-based partners, to find people with the expertise, resources and the desire to find solutions that are right for our community.