Every day, dozens of homeless Boiseans walk the streets with a cloud hanging over their heads because of outstanding warrants for their arrest. The warrants often stem from minor issues, such as drinking in public or sleeping in a park overnight.
Police aren't necessarily hunting them. But run-ins with officers might reveal the warrants, landing the homeless people in jail again. In time, many of them give up trying to resolve their legal problems. Fixing them seems too daunting, and they've learned to distrust institutions.
Outstanding warrants afflict as many as 60 percent of Boise's estimated 220 chronically homeless people or will soon without intervention, said Jodi Peterson, director of development and special programming for Interfaith Sanctuary, a shelter on the corner of River Street and Americana Boulevard in Boise.
The warrants are among the biggest obstacles homeless people face when they try to get their lives back on track. On Monday, the groups that make up much of Boise's safety net for homeless people will begin a program to tackle this problem.
"If this works, it can greatly reduce court costs, police and jail costs, recidivism," said Dan Steckel, an Ada County judge who has advised Peterson on putting Monday Meet-Up together. "You know, there's a nasty cycle of crime where, once you get in the system and start owing money and time, it's hard to get out of it. So if we can help folks get out of that cycle and focus on treatment rather than the court system, that's a win for everyone."
The program, called Monday Meet-Up, will connect homeless people with resources to help them resolve warrants, complete community service and otherwise comply with the consequences of past convictions, said Peterson, who spearheaded the initiative.
How it works
Meetings will take place every Monday at Interfaith Sanctuary; the nearby Corpus Christi day shelter; The Phoenix, a gym for recovering addicts that's next door to Sanctuary and Corpus Christi; and CATCH of Ada County, a nonprofit that works to find homes for the homeless.
Peterson said Interfaith's staff will hand out invitations at Corpus Christi and on the streets. Police officers, judges, prosecutors and public defenders also will invite people to take part in the program.
Peterson expects as many as 100 people to show up each Monday morning. They'll check in at Corpus Christi with case managers who will gather basic information about participants and the issues they're facing. The case managers will create initial plans for tackling those problems, Peterson said. College of Western Idaho representatives will offer sign-ups for life-skills classes and GED tutoring. The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare will sign up people for food stamps or other programs.
After that, participants will be encouraged to go to Interfaith Sanctuary to discuss their legal issues with public defenders and a probation officer. At 1 p.m., case managers will drive participants to the Ada County courthouse, where judges and prosecutors have set aside time to address citations and warrants the homeless people are facing.
Participants also can sign up for substance abuse and mental health treatment, as well as community service, at Interfaith.
The Phoenix will hold open gym hours during Monday Meet-Up and introduce people to physical health programs like marathon training and rock climbing, Peterson said. CATCH will help them find homes.
Police often do not look actively for someone wanted on outstanding warrants unless someone is considered a threat to others. But a warrant may surface when someone is ticketed or arrested for something else, and then a person can be jailed.
The new program is not open to people who are wanted for serious criminal offenses, Peterson said, though convicted felons who have violated their probation or committed subsequent minor offenses are welcome.
The goal is to help homeless people out of legal trouble so they can get jobs and housing and begin independent lives.
Homelessness has become a major issue in Boise in recent years. The city in 2015 broke up a homeless camp in Cooper Court, the alleys behind Sanctuary. Last year, after a series of meetings on homelessness between government, business and nonprofit leaders, Boise and other organizations broke ground on a 40-apartment project for chronically homeless people. That building is scheduled to be completed late this year.
Monday Meet-Up is an extension of these developments. Steckel, Peterson and other people familiar with homelessness in Boise have been frustrated by the legal plight of homeless people, many of whom bounce between the streets, jail and the courtroom.
"They get picked up. They get thrown in jail for three or four days," Peterson said. "They lose the job that we finally got them. They miss their housing meeting, so they're taken off the housing waiting list. That small infraction was causing a ton of aftershock."
Peterson looked around for ideas and found Community Court in Spokane, which has been diverting homeless people from the traditional court system since December 2013, said Seth Hackenberg, the program's coordinator. Hundreds of people come every week to Community Court, Hackenberg said. About half of them go to their prescribed court dates, and most of those people follow through on the court's requirements like drug screening and community service.
"It helps people that otherwise wouldn't realize they have chances to get help," Hackenberg said.
Community Court's leaders are mentoring Peterson and other Monday Meet-Up leaders. Unlike Monday Meet-Up, Community Court has a judge with authority to issue sentences and set other legal requirements, Hackenberg said. Peterson hopes Monday Meet-Up takes that step someday.
Peterson said the new program will allow participation from people who aren't homeless, too. The program isn't just for people in legal trouble, Peterson said. It can help anyone with housing, medical, substance abuse, emotional or other problems who may need help like treatment, education, job training, food stamps and disability payments.