Dawn Whitson, who does breakfast service at a local hotel, gets up at 3:30 a.m. each day so she can be at work on time.
She can’t set an alarm because that would be disruptive to others sleeping at Interfaith Sanctuary, a homeless shelter. So a staff member rouses her each morning.
She’d love to jump in the shower before work, but showering at the shelter is available only at night before bed — and capped at 10 minutes. That’s to help ensure that everyone can get cleaned up before lights out at 9 p.m.
Whitson doesn’t have a car, and public buses aren’t running when she heads to work.
“The route that I take is very well-lit,” said Whitson, 46.
She’s making $11 an hour and said she’s happy to have a job where she feels respected and supported. She’s saving up for a car because she knows that she and her 19-year-old son, who also lives at the shelter, can’t afford rent in Boise.
Some businesses won’t hire homeless people, and those that will don’t necessarily advertise it. Two local employers who recently began hiring guests at Interfaith Sanctuary declined to be interviewed for this story.
Jodi Peterson, executive director at Interfaith, said the stigma of homelessness makes it even harder for people to work their way back to independence.
“The assumption is all homeless people must be bad and have committed terrible offenses to wind up where they are,” she said. “This is so far from the truth, but they worry about the effect of clients knowing that employees are homeless. Fears and suspicion arise when having this information.”
Peterson estimates that about 25 percent of the 164 people who stay at Interfaith have jobs. The Rev. Bill Roscoe, director of Boise Rescue Mission, said about 30 percent of the men who stay there have full-time jobs, and another 10 percent regularly pick up day jobs.
Homeless with 4 kids
Paul Juntila, 39, and his wife, Jessica, 33, sleep in separate bunk beds that are side-by-side in a corner of one of the family rooms at Interfaith. They have a blended family with six children, but two live with other family members.
Their four children, who range in age from 6 months to 12 years, sleep above them and in baby cribs at the foot of their bunks.
Two other families are staying in the bare-basics room, which has no carpet or decorations. Peterson said the main reason for the Spartan decor is to prevent places that could be infested by bedbugs.
The other families in that room are a single mom with four children, a single dad with one child, and a couple with two children.
So there are 11 children in all, from four different families. The Juntila family members have been at the shelter for 14 months.
“There’s days where it feels like, you know, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, and then there’s setbacks when that light gets very, very smaller,” Paul Juntila said. “It’s like, OK, I’m going to regroup and try to figure this out again.”
He tore the labrum in his shoulder while moving equipment on a job about 18 months ago in the Seattle area, and said now he’s in pain all the time. He and his family moved to the Boise area because they were having trouble paying their $1,700-a-month rent and because his father was being treated for cancer at the Boise VA Medical Center.
The surgery he needs to fix his shoulder will be covered by workers’ compensation. That’s scheduled for June 18. Recovery is four to six weeks, and he’ll have to wear a sling.
In the meantime, he’s working full time for the city of Boise, doing park maintenance at Morris Hill Cemetery.
Juntila got the job on his own, not through a work program that the city set up with the shelter a few years ago. That seasonal program with the city has proved to be a success: A dozen people from Interfaith are currently working for the parks department. Those jobs pay $9.25 an hour, above the state’s minimum wage of $7.25.
After he recovers from shoulder surgery, Juntila is hoping to get back to doing construction work. He used to have a commercial driver’s license and would like to drive a truck again, working as close to home as possible.
While he’s at work during the week, Jessica, who has a seizure disorder, cares for their three youngest children: Raylan, 4, Jaxson, 18 months, and William, 6 months, at Interfaith. Their 12-year-old, Sofia, is a sixth grader at Garfield Elementary. The family receives a variety of support services at the shelter, and the kids attend preschool there.
The crush of debt
In late 2017, the shelter began allowing families with children to stay inside during the day on weekdays, but on Saturdays and Sundays everyone has to be out of the building by 8 a.m. That’s because the shelter doesn’t have the funds to staff the building on the weekends. Peterson said she is trying to raise the $30,000 needed annually to cover that.
So the Juntila family typically does laundry, runs errands and hangs out in the park. One of the family’s biggest assets is a vehicle: a 2005 Ford Excursion.
Paul Juntila is earning $11 an hour, and said he’s saved about $400 for an apartment. The family’s debt is about $8,000.
“There’s other people that are here who have a lot more (debt) than that,” he said.
Those numbers sound almost insurmountable. Fortunately, a charitable group has offered some help: $1,500 toward the family’s last portion of their $8,000 of debt or $1,500 toward a housing deposit.
Juntila, who is out the door for work as early as 5:30 a.m. five days a week, said there are many days when he’s tired and mentally exhausted. He’s hopeful that his family can find a three-bedroom apartment in the Treasure Valley for $800 to $900 before the end of the year.
They’re working with Our Path Home, or CATCH, a local public-private partnership that helps homeless families get into stable, safe housing. They’re on a list of families waiting and have been told it will be three to six months before housing is available.
“Trying to work your way out of the hole of being homeless is extremely hard.” he said. “Just because somebody is homeless doesn’t mean they’re the person begging for money for alcohol or drugs. There are people who have jobs who are homeless who are trying to help provide for their families. You would never know, if you had met me (working) at the cemetery, that I’m a homeless person.”
Challenges to getting back to work
Most job applications require applicants to list a home address. Many Boiseans who are homeless get their mail at the Corpus Christi House day shelter, which is next door to Interfaith.
Local hiring managers are familiar with the day shelter’s address.
“They’re outed by just having that address on their ID,” said Luther Pugh, case manager supervisor and employment specialist at Interfaith.
One employer the shelter worked with previously expressed very general concerns about potential hires.
“They kind of tiptoed around,” Pugh said. “One of the reasons they gave us for some of our guests not qualifying was ‘due to their appearance.’
“If they’re going to meet with us about a partnering or agreement, they do make a point to say, ‘We expect them to be dressed and ready, and we expect them to be on time,’ ” Pugh continued. “We say, ‘Of course.’ ”
Aaron Littleton, maintenance supervisor at InteFrame Components, said the Nampa truss manufacturing business needs workers and is willing to give people a second chance. They’ve been working with the Boise Rescue Mission to identify potential job candidates.
“We treat everyone the same,” Littleton said. “It doesn’t matter if they’re on work release or homeless.”
Littleton, a U.S. Marine who has done international humanitarian work, said he became more sensitive to the many challenges faced by the homeless in his own community last year, after he found out that one of the employees at InteFrame was living in his truck.
“I listened to his story of what it was like to get bounced out of parking lots every couple of hours. He could not get a good night’s sleep,” Littleton said. “He used his first paycheck to get a hotel room, so he could sleep.”
He said he saw an almost immediate change in the way the man looked after getting just a couple of nights of rest. That employee now has his own side business.
Two-person lawn maintenance business
There’s usually more than one reason that families end up homeless. Some of the most common reasons are loss of a job, mounting debt, health issues, and addiction to alcohol and/or drugs.
Boise native Kelly Clausen, 35, said she got debilitating carpal tunnel syndrome and was unable to work until she had surgery. She got behind on her bills.
There were also serious issues in the house where she and her fiance, Salvador Jimenez, 51, lived. Clausen said someone at the house was sexually abusing one of her two daughters, who are 12 and 10. The family didn’t have enough saved for a place of their own, so they moved into the shelter in December. In January, Clausen was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes.
For the past four years, the couple have run their own business: Sal & Kelly’s Lawn Maintenance. They go where the work is, and sometimes that’s in Nampa or Caldwell. They’re usually out the door at 7 a.m., drop off the girls at schools on the west side of the city, and start work about 9:30 a.m.
The most difficult thing is ensuring that their girls get fed before bed. They’re often too late for the free dinner that’s offered at the shelter at 5 p.m. They are not usually back from work until about 6 or 7 p.m.
“We stop at a gas station or whatever place that can take our food stamps, and we buy sandwiches, cold-cut sandwiches,” Clausen said. There’s no kitchen at the shelter where they can prepare to-go meals, or any meals.
They make themselves available to customers six days a week. Sunday is a family day, though they do make exceptions when “in dire need of money.” On Sundays, they take their girls fishing and go to local parks.
They get new clients through word-of-mouth, recommendations, the NextDoor app and a Facebook page. They do residential yard care: grass mowing, tree trimming and hardscape installation.
“We’re an honest family. We love working family-based,” she said. “We like to give satisfaction to our customers.”
They have two vehicles: a 2007 GMC Sierra, which has all their equipment. They lock the smaller, expensive tools, like the blower, in the cab of the truck at night.
Their other vehicle is a passenger car. It’s stuffed with almost everything else that they own. That’s where their black-and-white dog, Petey Panda, sleeps at night.
Clausen said they have about $3,000 of debt, and she estimates that they need to save about $3,000 to be able to move out of the shelter. They’ve got about $500 saved so far.
Clausen and Jimenz expect to be at Interfaith at least three more months, depending on what they are able to work out with their credit counselor. They’ve had unexpected setbacks, including losing some of their lawn equipment in a storage unit fire; they did not have any insurance.
And the wet weather this year — now the second-wettest on record — hasn’t helped.
“Yesterday and today, we’ve been doing catchup with our clients,” Clausen said Tuesday, noting that if you’d like to hire them, they can be reached at 208-807-8159.