Boise & Garden City

Ada County homelessness summit yields ray of hope

State Sen. Lori Den Hartog, R-Meridian, said she believes state government has a role to play in addressing homelessness.

That’s good news for people who deal with homelessness through local governments or charities, even though Den Hartog is reluctant to throw state money at the problem and is wary of tax exemptions aimed at reducing it.

If nothing else, knowing there’s at least one sympathetic ear in the Legislature is a success story for this year’s homelessness summit put on by Ada County, the cities of Boise and Meridian, the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare and the Boise City Ada County Housing Authority.

Den Hartog attended a summit community meeting May 21. The idea of the public meetings is to provide education and encourage input for a series of invitation-only meetings attended by government, business, church and nonprofit leaders.

State government hasn’t done much to address homelessness. The city of Boise and the housing authority handle most of the network that channels federal money to things such as housing vouchers. The city also operates about 300 of its own low-income rental homes and contributes some general fund money to keep homelessness programs going.

Den Hartog said the state government could educate and advocate for more and better homelessness programs, helping local communities and groups work together and share expertise.

“Boise may have the capacity to at least recognize and address the issue to some degree. We have other cities, where they don’t even know where to start,” she said. “The powerful thing that I took away (from the meeting) is no one group can solve it. ... It takes this whole community effort.”

The end of Hobo Hangout

Over the past eight months, the city of Boise has gradually cracked down on a small homeless camp — known to locals as Hobo Hangout — under the Connector on either side of Rhodes Park.

Though only a few people regularly slept under the bridge, dozens hung out there during the day, partly because it’s close to homeless shelters. It became the most visible sign of homelessness in Boise.

It was also a hive of illegal and unhealthy activities. The worst moment came in late October, when Rusty Bitton, a 37-year-old homeless man, was beaten to death. The man accused of killing Bitton is scheduled to go to trial in November.

At first, police officers warned Hobo Hangout’s residents that they were in violation of Boise’s law that prohibits camping in public spaces. Then they wrote tickets for people who kept breaking the law. In recent months, with a project to overhaul Rhodes Park looming, the city removed the last campers. A few were arrested for multiple violations of the public camping law, city spokesman Mike Journee said.

Two weeks ago, the Boise Fire Department hosed down the sidewalks. Last weekend, the city put up temporary fences.

Meanwhile, the alley between the Connector, 16th Street and River Street is home to a homeless camp that’s grown as Hobo Hangout shrank. The homeless people who inhabit the area say emergency service providers have warned them that the tents along the alley could be a dangerous obstacle for their vehicles.

Journee said the city is monitoring that camp as well, though there are no imminent plans to break it up.

“Our posture hasn’t changed at all on this,” he said. “Public health and safety are our primary concern.”

Housing first

Den Hartog, who spent several years as a grant administrator for Meridian, knew about homelessness long before she went to the May 21 meeting.

She was happy to hear that the city of Boise isn’t asking government to do everything. She also has become a believer in the “housing first” model, which advocates putting chronically homeless people in homes as the first step in addressing their problems, such as addiction and other mental health complications.

Often, the housing authorities or governments that own those homes also provide supportive services to the people that live in them. The approach has been shown to save money for hospitals, law enforcement agencies and other groups because chronically homeless people often make expensive trips to emergency rooms and jails.

“People have all these issues but we can’t solve them all,” Den Hartog said. “But if you get them in a home — in a stable environment — I think you can affect long-term change. And I think that’s more powerful than trying to say, ‘OK, we first have to fix the addiction problem before we can get you in housing.’ ”

Boise is working with local hospitals and Ada County — as well as, potentially, the housing authority, Health and Welfare, and other cities — on a collaboration that would bring a housing first model to the Treasure Valley, Boise Director of Community Partnerships Diana Lachiondo said.

It estimates the total yearly savings from housing a single chronically homeless person is $12,800 to $48,200. But the city is reluctant to build a bunch of free housing on its own dime because it would cost millions, and Boise would receive only a fraction of the savings from the new approach.