Traci Foy sat on the concrete steps of the white clapboard apartment building she had called home for the past three years. It was Aug. 3, early evening, still sunny and in the high 80s. She cradled her tiny dog in her arms. And she wept.
Because on this night, she and Aajyn — her doctor-prescribed, Chihuahua-pug “comfort companion” — were homeless. The rent on her one-bedroom North End apartment had risen during her tenancy from $575 to $750, and she just couldn’t afford it any longer.
So when Lawrence Shapiro and Anna Webb rounded the corner of 6th and Hays streets with Coco the pitbull, Foy called out in desperation. She knew them from the neighborhood. She needed help.
“I cried,” she recounted, “and I said, ‘Can you please take care of my dog? I don’t want to take him down there.’ He’s happy-go-lucky. I didn’t want to ruin that.”
“Down there” is a Boise homeless shelter called Interfaith Sanctuary, where Foy has lived since mid-August in a dormitory with a score of other women. Being in the shelter, she said, would “break Aajyn’s heart. ... He didn’t ask to be homeless. Neither did I. But he depends on me.”
Foy is 56 years old, disabled and lives on a fixed income, which places her among the most vulnerable residents of this fast-growing and increasingly expensive metropolitan area. These are the people who bear the heaviest burden from the Treasure Valley’s housing shortage, which has caused rents to rise and the supply of inexpensive apartments to all but dry up..
No statistics report how many local or state residents fall into homelessness because they can no longer afford to rent. The Idaho Food Bank’s partner agencies are seeing an increase in “new families,” said Morgan Wilson, the food bank’s chief development officer, and “hearing stories of people who have been displaced from housing.”
Boise apartment rents have jumped 4 percent in the past year, with studios averaging $770 a month and one-bedroom apartments $899, according to RentCafe, a national listing service.
The vacancy rate for affordable housing in Ada County hovers at around 0.4 percent, said Erik Kingston, housing resources coordinator for the Idaho Housing and Finance Association, or IHFA. He said Idaho has a gap of about 80,000 units statewide for homes that its lowest-income residents can afford to rent.
Kingston runs his organization’s housing hotline, which means he has talked to more than 30,000 people over the last 20 years. At a housing meeting convened by the Cathedral of the Rockies in September, he described the increasing pain that women and men like Foy experience in the Treasure Valley’s tight real estate market.
“I’m hearing an increasing amount of despair in the voices that I talk to, people that are losing their housing, they’ve got nowhere to go, some of them are seniors,” he said, speaking for himself, not the IHFA. “The last six to 12 months is the first time in 20 years that I’ve heard people talk about suicide.”
These days, Kingston’s email signature carries a stark reminder to at-risk Idahoans scrambling for a place to live: “It’s important to know you aren’t alone and help is available. Although they don’t offer housing assistance, the Idaho Suicide Prevention Hotline is an option if you or someone you know is in crisis.”
Someone, for example, such as Foy, a former certified nursing assistant, for whom stability depends on three key factors: Medication to address her major depressive disorder, chronic anxiety, back pain and fibromyalgia. A roof over her head. And Aajyn, 10 pounds of furry solace.
These days, she lives without two out of three. “It’s hell,” she said.
New rent: 80% of income
It’s early September. A month has passed since Shapiro took Aajyn in. Foy couch-surfed for the first two weeks, before finding a bed at Sanctuary. She has not seen Aajyn since Aug. 3. She fears that visiting her dog and leaving him again will harm the creature she loves the most. But Aajyn is not the only one with separation anxiety.
Foy stands in the hot sun in front of her former apartment building. Her shiny silver hair hangs in a waterfall to her waist. Her face is flushed, and her voice rises in distress as she talks about trying to live on a $936 disability payment and $142 in food stamps each month.
She managed pretty well before her rent spiked. Books and clothes came from the Idaho Youth Ranch thrift store. Transportation was her purple bicycle, a gift from a former neighbor, and the Treasure Valley’s anemic bus system. Aajyn got his annual shots at reduced cost from Zamzow’s vaccination clinics.
Their days were simple and mostly revolved around walking Aajyn, napping, doctor appointments and Foy’s weekly therapy session at Access Behavioral Health Services.
Then in February, her landlady raised the rent to $750, aka 80 percent of Foy’s monthly income. After three months of struggling to make the rent and pay her bills, she started looking for a new place to live. By August, she couldn’t afford her home any longer, but she still hadn’t found another one.
“I am on disability due to my mental status and my aches and pains,” she said, tears welling behind her sunglasses. “But I had my dog. I can’t talk about my dog. He has to stay with other people, and I’m in a shelter now.”
She pauses, begins crying in earnest. “I don’t know how she could displace us like that. It’s just cruel. ... I’m not asking for much. I just wish I could find a place so I could have Aajyn. He helps me get out of bed and not think of suicide.”
A companion in hard-won sobriety
A week later, that resolve cracked. It was Sept. 13, and Shapiro drove Foy over to the storage unit where nearly everything she owned was crammed into 100 square feet: clothing; bedding; a sofa; a wedding picture of her sister, Dana, who was killed in 1994, when a semi-truck slammed into her motorcycle.
The mercury had pushed past the 90-degree mark. Foy had run out of lorazepam, the anti-anxiety drug that calmed her and helped her sleep. She was overheated, overtired, sad.
“We’d been working there for an hour, pulling stuff out of boxes,” recalled Shapiro, who has become something of a guardian angel for Aajyn’s mother. “She sat down on the ground and said, ‘I need to see my dog.’ ”
Six weeks without her comfort companion “is a long time for her,” Shapiro said. Aajyn was born on Nov. 27, 2010. He and Foy had been together since Feb. 4, 2011.
Aajyn was 9 weeks old at the time. Foy had stopped drinking exactly 10 months earlier. By the time Foy was priced out of her North End apartment and handed Aajyn over to Shapiro and Webb, the struggling woman and the tiny dog had been together nearly all of his life.
And he’d supported her through almost all of her hard-won sobriety.
The first 44 years of Foy’s life were tough enough. Her abusive, bipolar mother kicked her out of the house when Foy was 13. She lived on the streets for two years, got her first job at age 15 working at a Hot Dog on a Stick franchise in Santa Monica, California. Her mother died when Foy was 30; her sister, when Foy was 32. She became a single mom that same year.
But things took a turn for the worse in 2006, when she married the man she now calls “It,” who beat her on a regular basis. During the most severe assault, he punched her in the head so hard that her vision was blurred for weeks and she eventually developed a trauma-related cataract in her left eye.
She left him a year later, because “every time he hit me, I loved him less. I hated him. I wished I would have died. I slept with a butcher knife under my pillow. If he was gonna touch me one more time, I was gonna cut him up. I didn’t care at that time.”
Foy had been drinking heavily to dull four decades of pain. On time off from her job as a nursing assistant, she would hole up with cigarettes and drink a box of cheap wine a day. By 2008, she was living in a motel.
One night, when she was about to embark on her second box of wine in less than 24 hours, Foy decided she wanted to kill herself. She picked up the phone to dial 411; maybe the suicide hotline could help. Drunk, she dialed 911 instead. The police came.
For the next couple of years, she bounced from psych ward to state hospital to rehab to a halfway house. She could no longer work because of her physical and mental ailments.
In 2010 she got sober. In 2011 she got an apartment and Aajyn came into her life. In 2014, her building sold, her rent spiked and she was homeless for five months. Aajyn came with her to the shelter that time.
Squinting with Lions Club glasses
It is a Sunday afternoon in late September. Foy is in a study room on the second floor of Boise’s main library. She has checked out a laptop. She is about to embark on the activity that fills most of her days: apartment hunting.
It is not easy. She does not have an email account. Her computer skills are rudimentary. She does not know what cookies are. She keeps reaching for a mouse that does not exist. Even with the free pair of glasses she got from the Lions Club, she leans in close to the computer screen and squints.
The Geico gecko pops up, and she laughs. Another ad flashes on the screen, and she reads aloud, “ ‘Support Hurricane Florence relief efforts.’ ” She snorts. “I can’t support myself, are you kidding me? OK, let’s do cheap apartments in Buh-Buh-Buh-Boise. ... Oh, I don’t want this Chrome crap. I’m still right here. What happened? ... Cheap apartments in Boise, Idaho, Idaho, all right, let’s rip and roar here and see what we get.”
On this day, there’s almost nothing for less than $1,000 a month, far out of Foy’s price range. Nampa keeps popping up, but it’s too far from her doctors and her case managers, and buses are hard to come by, and her main mode of transportation is that purple bike.
After an hour or so, she has found one possibility. She takes down the number and plans to call on Monday. She is tired and frustrated.
This is what it’s like to be poor and priced out of your home.
A new apartment?
Halloween rolls around. With the help of a caseworker, Foy has filled out all the paperwork for a unit at Mallard Pointe, a 55-plus complex in Garden City. She recently learned that she is No. 1 on the waiting list, and three studio apartments should come available there in a few weeks.
She is lying on the sofa in the small house Shapiro shares with a friend. Aajyn scampers around the living room. She has been homeless for nearly three months, and it weighs heavily on her tired shoulders. (Shapiro launched a GoFundMe campaign on Nov. 12 to help Foy and Aajyn obtain dental care.)
Foy’s world has narrowed to just two things, and she says them over and over again: “It’s apartment, Aajyn, apartment, Aajyn, apartment, Aajyn.”
She sorts through her backpack. She needs a cigarette. She doesn’t want to leave her dog. But she has to get back to the shelter.
“I can’t stay there any more,” she says. “It’s sucking me up. You lose your inside stuff. You lose your soul. You lose your smile.”