Boise & Garden City

Long homeless, a Boise family settles into an apartment as the mayor convenes a housing summit

Tealla and Will Dilka are good at remembering dates.

They recall, without hesitation, the years, months and days that the most important moments of their lives happened.

They met in August 2009. Tealla quit meth that October. Dec. 3, 2009, was their first date. February 2010 was the last time Will Dilka worked regularly. He was his parents’ professional caretaker until he quit following a disagreement with them.

Their son, David, was born Dec. 29, 2012. Tealla, 30, is pregnant again. She’s due this fall.

On Feb. 28, 2013, after a run of bad luck, the family moved into Interfaith Sanctuary, a homeless shelter between the Connector, Americana Boulevard and River Street in Boise.

They got married July 2, 2013, next to the fountain in Ann Morrison Park. Three months later, Tealla landed her job with F.I.L.O. Local Crew, a company that sets up venues for concerts and other events.

On Oct. 16, 2014, they spent their first night in their own home after getting a housing voucher through the city of Boise. The voucher expires October 2016.

Until then, their apartment on the Bench costs them $26 a month. The voucher covers $704, Tealla said. Their monthly out-of-pocket costs are less than a lot of people pay, but covering them is still a struggle. They don’t have cable or Internet, but they’ve decided they need cellphones so that Tealla’s boss can contact her and so that she and Will can get in touch if there’s an emergency. They buy bus passes and give friends gas money for rides. Federal assistance doesn’t quite cover their food bills.

Tealla’s work is seasonal, so there are times when not much money is coming in. Will, 41, said he was diagnosed with emphysema three years ago but hasn’t received disability payments yet. He’s worked here and there, but the disease limits him.

He stands on street corners during the lean times and begs for money to buy things such as toiletries and diapers.

“I get a few people saying, ‘You just want alcohol,’ and all this,” Will said. “Whatever. You don’t know me. You don’t know what’s going on day-to-day in my life. You’ve got to have a lot of nerve to just stand out there and actually look somebody in the face and say you need help.”

Will has family in Idaho. Before coming here, he lived in Colorado. He moved from place to place around the country before that. He was addicted to crack and acid, but he’s been sober for nine years.

Tealla, an Idaho native, said Will told her he’d leave her if she started using drugs again. She doesn’t want to lose him. She yearns for the family to be self-sufficient.

“I don’t see it in my near, near future, but in my future I do see it to where we’re not on Health and Welfare (assistance), we’re not on housing (assistance),” she said. “Next year I want to be able to pay rent on my own without any help.”

More than anything, they don’t want to land back at Sanctuary.

“We’re not going to go back to the shelter. ... It’d be a very, very last resort,” Will said. “Being in a homeless shelter is not living a life.”

SICK AND TIRED

Sanctuary helped the Dilkas survive for almost two years, but they were desperate to leave. Not just because of what being dependent on the shelter said about who they were. They were surrounded by activities they needed to avoid, people they didn’t want to become.

The first few months there, David was sick all the time. He was born prematurely, so he had health complications already. When things were at their worst, Tealla said, people who worked or stayed at Sanctuary pitched in to help.

Will and Tealla were sick, too. Tealla said she had frequent emotional breakdowns, partly from worrying about David. Will said he constantly battled bronchitis and pneumonia at Sanctuary.

For awhile the Dilkas spent their days with other homeless people under the Connector’s 16th Street overpass, an area known as Hobo Hangout. It tortured them to expose David to some of the activities there. Drunkenness was everywhere. Sometimes people smoked meth in front of their son.

“I can’t put my son in this jeopardy,” Tealla said she told herself. “A cop walks up and I’m sitting here in the vicinity, I’m going to get in trouble for being where drugs are being used. CPS is going to get called on me because I’m next to it.”

Tealla admitted she still gets cravings for meth, though not as badly as she used to. Being around people who were smoking it jeopardized her sobriety. So she and Will stopped going to Hobo Hangout. Instead, they took David to Fairview Park during the daytime.

COALITION OF THE WILLING?

Hobo Hangout is the reason many Boiseans know their city has homeless people. Over the past year or so, it’s turned from a place where people loiter in the daytime to a makeshift residence for maybe 40 people. The camp has spilled into the alleys behind Sanctuary and eastward to the 15th Street overpass.

Besides drugs and alcohol, violence is a problem in Hobo Hangout. Some of the people who stay there say fights are common. Some have woken up to find they were beaten in their sleep.

In October, 37-year-old Rusty Bitton was beaten to death near the camp. Scotty Turnbull, 24, was charged with second-degree murder in the case. Turnbull was also charged with battery for attacking a woman about the same time Bitton was killed.

Late last year, as the spectacle of Hobo Hangout grew more visible, Boise Mayor Dave Bieter started putting together plans for a summit on homelessness in Boise. The first meeting, which was closed to the public and news media, took place around lunchtime March 12. Representatives of local businesses, governments and charities met at the Albertsons building on ParkCenter Boulevard and discussed the basics of the problem: the fact that homeless people are in Boise and the challenges of taking care of them.

It was a first step for many into a complex, obstinate problem. Bieter’s goal in future meetings is to inspire a coalition of people that comes up with ways to address homelessness, poverty and the difficulty of finding affordable housing in Boise. The invitation-only meetings are scheduled to take place every six weeks or so until the group starts putting together policy ideas to present to the public.

‘CULTURE SHOCK’

David’s better now that the Dilkas have their own home. Besides physical problems, Tealla said, the toddler started picking up bad habits at Sanctuary, like bullying little girls and throwing things.

“He still throws his little tantrums, but he doesn’t bully the kids anymore,” she said.

Will and Tealla are still adjusting to life under their own roof. At Sanctuary, they lived in a room with three other families and no walls between them. They had to be in bed by 9 p.m. and out of the shelter by 7 a.m. most days.

Some of those habits have stuck. Breaking them takes time.

“It’s almost like a culture shock,” Will said. “We were used to waking up and seeing just people scrambling everywhere, trying to get ready, trying to get their stuff put up. It was definitely a change to sit down and enjoy a cup of coffee in peace and quiet.”

Living on their own isn’t easy. There are lots of bills. Paying them is difficult because their income is spotty.

Heartache is always just beneath the surface for Tealla, who gave up her first two children for friends to raise. The younger of those two, a girl, doesn’t know Tealla is her mom.

But they keep their heads up. Independence is worth fighting for, they say.

HOUSING FIRST

The Dilkas are the exact kind of success story Garden City Mayor John Evans will be thinking about as he participates in Bieter’s homelessness summit.

Evans believes the people involved in the summit need to work toward a regional solution for homelessness instead of relying on a collection of responses by governments and nonprofits to fill in the gaps. He didn’t offer specific recommendations.

“Need will outpace resources on most things we deal with in government. So, at some point, we’re going to get to a prioritization discussion,” he said. “Those that want to change their circumstance, personally, that’s where my interest lies.”

The Dilkas agree that not everyone who’s homeless wants a home.

“There’s a lot of people that hang out at Hobo Hangout and Sanctuary that have actually stated that they prefer to be homeless,” Tealla Dilka said. “Because they get everything handed to them being homeless. They get their laundry done for them once a week. They get food handed to them.”

The second convening of the summit is Thursday. The “housing first” model is a likely topic in coming meetings.

“Housing first” proponents believe that getting homeless people into homes is the first step to ending homelessness. That sounds obvious, but it’s not.

CAUSE OR EFFECT?

First, defining homelessness is more difficult than you might think. Everyone knows the man who sleeps in the street for a year qualifies as homeless. What about a family that gets evicted and spends a single night in the shelter? How long do they have to stay there to be considered homeless? What about people sleeping on their parents’ couches? At any point in time, a lot more people are on the verge of homelessness or in and out of homes than are typically counted in a community’s homeless population.

Most estimates put the number of homeless people in Ada County between 800 and 1,200.

The city of Boise takes a broad approach to the problem. Its Housing and Community Development staffers think of chronic homelessness as one end of the housing spectrum. They see Boise’s lack of affordable housing as a major factor in homelessness.

Any kind of for-rent housing is hard to find in Boise right now. Cheap housing is even harder to find, since tight supply has driven up prices.

Apartment projects are being planned or built all over the Treasure Valley, but few have opened in recent years. Rent for many of the new apartments will be on the high side for Boise’s market, though an increase in supply figures to soften prices.

The Boise City/Ada County Housing Authority helps some 2,300 people pay rent and utility bills, and the city of Boise rents out roughly 300 homes to low-income people. That’s about it for locally subsidized housing.

Developers here avoid federally subsidized affordable housing projects. To make a profit, they’d have to charge more for an apartment than the people they’re renting can afford, because the federal government limits the income those tenants can earn.

Then there’s the question of underlying causes of homelessness. A lot of homeless people — reliable statistics are hard to find — suffer from mental health problems, addiction and physical ailments, all of which make it harder to get and keep jobs and homes..

Some experts believe the underlying problems have to be fixed before a person can be expected to maintain a home.

Housing first advocates say the opposite. Put the person in a stable home, they say, then get to work on the other problems.

SALT LAKE CITY, OF COURSE

Salt Lake City and its surrounding area are often mentioned as a model of how to address homelessness. Experts there say a lot of work still needs to be done, but there’s no doubt the community has made great strides, partly through embracing the housing first model.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints deserves some credit. The church contributes money, organizes volunteers and runs a welfare program that feeds all kinds of people, not just Mormons. Boise has a smaller LDS congregation than Salt Lake, so it figures the church would have less influence here.

But the church in Salt Lake isn’t alone in attacking homelessness. Chad Ward, an LDS spokesman in Boise and one of the summit invitees, said he went to Salt Lake City two weeks ago to educate himself on what the church is doing there and how that experience might be applied in Boise.

The bottom line: State, county and city governments, housing authorities and the private business community all work together to stamp out homelessness in Salt Lake. Here, Boise city government and the local housing authority are the safety net’s main tenders.

Ward is optimistic Bieter’s summit will change that by building collaboration among public and private groups. The local LDS church wants to be a part of the solution, he said. He did not argue the merits of one policy over another.

“If we can do anything to help our brothers and sisters on the street that are homeless, we’re all for it. You don’t have to guess that,” Ward said. “We do things because we’re trying to follow what we think Jesus Christ would do. And when it gets into political things or even these policy issues and stuff, all of our stuff has to be in keeping with our faith.”

INDEPENDENCE PLAN

It took 18 months for the Dilkas to get a housing voucher. They were lucky. These days, the average wait for a voucher is around five years, said Jillian Patterson, the housing authority’s housing programs manager.

Once they had it, they were given two months to find an apartment. That meant filling out applications, paying application fees, lining up references and a host of other complexities. It’s a lot to ask of somebody who hasn’t dealt with finding private housing for almost two years.

They said some of the families they knew at Sanctuary couldn’t find an apartment before the two months expired, so they lost their spot in line. Their own deadline was near when the apartment came through.

Their cheap rent won’t last. They’re trying to scrape together enough money to get licensed as flaggers on road construction crews. That kind of job would go a long way to stabilizing their finances enough to achieve Tealla’s dream of standing on their own.

The clock is ticking, but for now, they’re just happy to have their own home.

“We’ve been here for almost six months now and it’s still hard to comprehend this is ours,” Tealla said.

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