Boise & Garden City

1 year after homeless camp dispersed, Boise shelter reinvents itself with help from BSU

Interfaith Sanctuary Community Choir

The Interfaith Sanctuary Community Choir practices for a performance 7 p.m. on Dec. 7, 2016, which will be part of the lighting of the first Interfaith Sanctuary Christmas tree. The choir consists of community members and guests at Interfaith, an
Up Next
The Interfaith Sanctuary Community Choir practices for a performance 7 p.m. on Dec. 7, 2016, which will be part of the lighting of the first Interfaith Sanctuary Christmas tree. The choir consists of community members and guests at Interfaith, an

Boise State junior Morgan Julsrud works more than one job to put herself through college. One is at Interfaith Sanctuary, the emergency shelter that was, quite literally, caught in the middle of last year’s homeless tent city at Cooper Court.

The 25-year-old works about 20 hours a week as a case manager. She’s one of 10 hired this year — a bold step in expanding onsite services to aid local homeless in getting to safe, stable living situations outside of the shelter.

The Interfaith Sanctuary Community Choir practices for a performance 7 p.m. on Dec. 7, 2016, which will be part of the lighting of the first Interfaith Sanctuary Christmas tree. The choir consists of community members and guests at Interfaith, an

“A lot of it is helping them help themselves,” said Julsrud, who guides clients through a 10-step shelter exit plan. That includes obtaining documents (ID, Social Security card and birth certificate), getting physical/dental/mental health checks, enrolling in health insurance, completing an employability assessment and taking life skills classes.

Case managers are working with all families who stay at the shelter, and any individuals who want the extra help. Staff have identified 89 people who are “chronically homeless,” meaning they’ve lived at Interfaith on and off for five years or longer. These clients have complex issues including physical and mental illnesses, some of which have been compounded by being homeless for extended periods.

Most of the small army of caseworkers are current students or graduates of Boise State’s social work program. But students in other programs at the university are also getting involved as the shelter enters its next phase under new leadership.

Former executive director Jayne Sorrels gives an inside glimpse of the shelter shortly after its 10th anniversary in December 2015.

For more than a decade, Interfaith has been a dependable place for the homeless to have a meal (soup and bread), take a shower and bed down for the night. Interfaith’s leadership now believes it must do more than provide shelter and referrals to guests, who are in crisis and just trying to get through each day.

“We are bringing the services here. They don’t have to navigate help, the help comes here,” said Jodi Peterson, who is now the shelter co-director with Dan Ault, the longtime operations director.

That help is offered, not required: “We’re not forcing them to do anything,” Ault said.

New additions at the shelter include a computerized intake system that allows shelter staff to check people in quickly — and provides more time to work with clients (who now have shelter ID cards). Other projects in the works: a playground, a health clinic and a kitchen.

Jeff Bernsen and Efraim Primero kept things running smoothly at the Interfaith Sanctuary night shelter when this video was shot in December 2015. The facility can accommodate up to 165 people a night.

Ed Keener, a retired Boise pastor, stepped down as the shelter’s board chairman in March; Director Jayne Sorrels resigned soon after. She could not be reached for this story. Keener said Sorrels returned home to New York to care for her aging parents.

The pair were the driving force behind the development of the 11-year-old shelter, which began when local churches provided floor space for people to sleep on and evolved into a stand-alone operation in a 10,000-square-foot building at 1620 River St. Though it was started by local faith leaders, Interfaith has no religious affiliation or programs.

“I just feel totally good about the whole operation and what we were able to bring to the city,” Keener said Thursday.

Ault has been shelter operations manager for six years and was a shift manager for two years prior. Peterson has been involved in fundraising and special projects since the shelter’s inception. Albertson’s executive Andy Scoggin, who served on the board for five years, is now the chairman.

Boise Mayor David Bieter announces the cleanup of Cooper Court a homeless camp Friday Dec. 4, 2105. Residents and concerned citizens speak out about the move.

A year ago, a tent city

Last summer and fall, a homeless tent city grew up on Cooper Court — around the back of Interfaith Sanctuary. On Dec. 4, city officials shut down the encampment, forced out an estimated 135 people who were living there and offered them a night at Fort Boise Community Center and help from service providers.

The ACLU of Idaho called it a “surprise attack on a vulnerable community.”

Mayor David Bieter said the tent city posed significant fire danger to those living there. It also became a hub of criminal activity, and the number one area in the city for police, fire and EMS calls, he said.

Managers of the city’s shelters — Boise Rescue Mission and Interfaith Sanctuary — told the Statesman that there was enough space for all those at Cooper Court to come indoors, though some would probably have to sleep on the floor. Those living in the tent city had myriad reasons for not wanting to stay in the shelters: mental health problems, substance abuse issues, pets they didn’t want to part with and beliefs that the rules are too restrictive.

They scattered to the wind after the tent city was torn down and hauled away. Now, said Ault, many live along the Boise River Greenbelt, in city parks and under bridges. The Statesman learned of two former Cooper Court residents who died in the following months, one of whom was apparently sleeping in a portable restroom.

The night before this Thanksgiving, Ault and Tim Flaherty, assistant shelter director, took food to about 40 people outside the Corpus Christi House day shelter and tried to coax them indoors.

Regular police patrols are preventing the homeless from setting up tents or sleeping outside near Interfaith and Corpus Christi House. They are forced to move along.

The whole experience led to many of the changes implemented at Interfaith this year.

“The Cooper Court population taught us a lot about what needs are not being addressed with our chronically homeless,” Peterson said. “Our STEP program addresses those needs and tackles them one step at a time.”

Ault said, in general, the homeless are treated like they’re invisible.

“We try to remind people that being kind is the best thing we can give them,” Flaherty said.

Key new support from BSU

Interfaith Sanctuary has always had connections to Boise State.

Will Rainford, former director of BSU’s School of Social Work and now a dean at The Catholic University of America, was one of the movers-and-shakers behind Interfaith. Ault is currently finishing up his master’s in social work at BSU.

Over the years, social work students have completed learning hours and field practicum requirements at the shelter. Other disciplines got involved as individual faculty and Interfaith staff made connections. Earlier this year, a meeting organized by BSU President Bob Kustra gathered all those existing efforts into a more formal collaboration.

“He was excited to see how this partnership would allow his students to gain real-life experience,” Peterson said. “The guests are receiving really valuable services from these students right at the shelter.”

A group of five engineering students have since spent weeks researching and designing security improvements to the shelter’s entry/exit system.

The students have met several times with shelter staff to get a feel for its operations, and now they’re trying to resolve some design issues, said Carol Sevier, a lecturer/coordinator in the College of Engineering. The students will create a construction schedule and budget.

“It’s a really good example of integration of community and university activities,” said Sevier.

An office at Interfaith is going to be converted by the nonprofit Friendship Clinic into a small health clinic. In January, Boise State nursing students will be doing health assessments of shelter clients, and later, those studying to be nurse practitioners might also provide care.

Denise Seigart, associate director of undergraduate and MN/MS nursing programs, moved to Boise from Binghamton, New York, with her husband in 2014. She knows Interfaith Sanctuary from having volunteered there with members of her church.

“I had ulterior motives. I wanted to get to know the facility, and I wanted my students to be able to do more there,” Seigart said.

No more federal funding

Interfaith leaders looked at other successful shelters around the country, including The Road Home and Mary Grace Manor, both in Salt Lake City, and The Pine Street Inn in Boston. They adapted ideas from those shelters for their new intake system, health clinic and 10-step plan for caseworkers/clients.

Interfaith can house up to 164 people a night, and about 1,000 different people stay there each year. The shelter has accommodations for men, women and families with children, and there are dorms for each of those groups. There are no limits on how many nights a person may stay at the shelter, as long as the person follows the rules and does assigned chores.

The shelter is funded primarily by private donors, foundation grants and events. Those who’d like to give a little each month can now sign up online to give recurring donations.

With the increase in staff from 11 to 16 full-time equivalents (plus four unpaid interns), the budget rose from $800,000 last year to about $1 million.

Government funding made up just 15 percent of the overall budget last year. The board and staff decided this year that they would stop taking federal funding altogether because of the strings attached, Ault and Peterson said. Combined with the staff increase, it’s an additional hurdle for the shelter, but “Boise has many generous and caring people and institutions ... and those generous contributions have been increasing as our services have increased,” Scoggin, the board president, said Friday. He credited the hard work and talent of Peterson for “tirelessly” telling the shelter’s story in the community.

If it had kept the federal dollars as an emergency shelter, Interfaith would have to “unhouse” — or kick out for 30 days — any clients who have stayed at the shelter 90 days or longer. Also, it couldn’t have any case managers, whom Ault and Peterson view as critical.

“It’s about our caseworkers every day building relationships with clients,” Ault said.

And the shelter is now trying to promote such connections between clients, too, as many feel they’ve become part of a community at Interfaith. Once, former residents who’d moved on to long-term housing were prohibited from returning to the shelter to see friends. Now they’re invited back to provide encouragement and support.

“That peer’s voice and story is so much more powerful than us saying, ‘It is possible for you to move out of this shelter,’” Ault said.

Katy Moeller: 208-377-6413, @KatyMoeller

Three ways to get involved

Volunteer jobs: greet guests, serve soup, do laundry, answer phones, hand out toiletries and make lunches for those with jobs. Shifts: morning shift, 6:45 a.m. to 8 a.m.; evening shift, 5:15 p.m. to 9 p.m.; and swing shift, 9 p.m. to midnight. Also, the Idaho Diaper Bank pick-up every third Tuesday of the month. Trainings held twice a month. Contact Mark Henry, volunteer coordinator, at or 208-473-2651.

Donate: Mail to Interfaith Sanctuary, P.O. Box 9334, Boise, Idaho 83707. Give a one-time or recurring donation online at

Events: Treelighting at 7 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 8. Bring an ornament for the tree that reflects your faith tradition. Community choirs will perform, including the Interfaith Sanctuary Choir.

7:30 p.m. Dec. 21, 22 (doors open at 6:30 p.m.). 11th annual Xtreme Holiday Extravaganza at Boise’s Egyptian Theatre. Holiday variety show for all ages hosted by Curtis Stigers and Jodi Peterson, with all proceeds going to Interfaith Sanctuary (biggest fundraiser of the year). General admission: $35 for balcony and $50 for floor. For reserved seats (front rows): $135 for balcony and $150 for floor seats. More info:

Related stories from Idaho Statesman