Residents of Cooper Court began stirring around 6 a.m. Friday, after it had been confirmed the night before that the city of Boise was evicting them.
Brady Hester hadn’t slept since 11 a.m. Thursday, he said. He was too anxious. He said he has been homeless long enough to have seen two sweeps of tent cities already, in Denver and in Portland. Each time, he said, he’s had to buy new gear to get by. And every time, he’s frustrated by how municipalities handle tent cities.
“We’re being violated,” he said.
On Friday the city of Boise also opened Fort Boise Community Center, a Parks and Recreation property at 700 Robbins Road, to residents of Cooper Court, a homeless camp around Interfaith Sanctuary between Americana Boulevard, River Street and the Connector. City spokesman Mike Journee said they would be allowed to stay there through Saturday afternoon.
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By about 5 p.m. Friday, police had fenced off all of the tents. Everyone left voluntarily and no one was arrested, Journee said.
Those who’d taken up residence in Cooper Court were told they could access their belongings — whatever they didn’t relinquish to police in exchange for $140 vouchers at the Salvation Army — over the weekend.
Alina Lovell, 24, and her boyfriend, James, 31, said they had access to a van that they could live in. They planned to park it at one of the local truck stops.
Lovell said she’s been homeless on and off her whole life and suffers from mental health problems and severe anxiety. She’d like to become a licensed cosmetologist and get back on her feet for her 5-year-old daughter, now being cared for by her sister.
“In order to take care of her, I need to take care of myself,” she said.
Mayor Dave Bieter, Police Chief Bill Bones and other city officials said they hoped to connect the homeless with people who could provide counseling, housing and other community services.
About two dozen of at least 135 people living at Cooper Court rode city shuttles or caught rides to the community center. A city spokesman said fewer than half of those at the community center planned to spend the night there.
Cat Wheaton, one of numerous concerned community members who showed up to lend support to the homeless, said she was astounded that the city’s plan didn’t appear to go beyond Saturday.
“There’s no resolution to this,” said the 24-year-old, who works busing tables. “Everybody have a happy holiday.”
GET UP, GET OUT
Protesters claimed the sidewalks along Americana just before 7 a.m. Friday. They waved signs challenging the city’s move, and the group grew to as many as 50. Among other things, they chanted “housing is a human right.”
Michaela McQuillan, a student at Boise State University, held a sign that read “Let’s end homelessness not hide it,” and criticized how the city handled the controversial move.
“I’m really disappointed they didn’t involve the community in this conversation,” she said.
Protesters dispersed after police enacted road closures that kept traffic out of sight of the group around 8 a.m.
Bieter said the city had declared a state of emergency in the area.
We would be happy with an empty lot to put our tents on. We really would.
JoJo Valdez, spokeswoman for Cooper Court community
Police blocked off the River Street exit of the Connector, and the streets around Interfaith Sanctuary were blocked as well. Hospitality tents were set up in the middle of River Street, where the homeless were invited in for food and medical care.
Many were referring to them as “Tents of No Return.” A homeless advocate told Boise Deputy Chief Eugene Smith that some thought the tents were a trap and that people were getting arrested inside.
“How can you help people if they’re scared of you?” said Laura McRoberts, who nevertheless praised the police. “They won’t allow you to help them.”
Yellow police tape was put up to control access to the area. Members of the media were required to have escorts. Journee said that was needed to give security and privacy for the homeless.
It first appeared that some living at Cooper Court were not going to go without resistance. At the entrances, they erected barricades out of pallets, tents and other materials. But the police were able to easily walk through and hand out flyers about resources available at Fort Boise. They also cleaned up debris and spoke to residents.
Teams of four to five police officers calmly and methodically went from tent to tent. They spoke with people about what items they wanted to keep, giving them duffel bags for things they wanted to take and receipts to come back to get the things they couldn’t carry.
Tents that were relinquished had “BPD” painted in black on them. Large holes in some of the tents were evidence of fires that had occurred.
Shortly before noon, ACLU of Idaho put out a news release criticizing the city’s actions as “a secretive, surprise attack on a vulnerable community.” The group slammed officials for “forcibly evicting and processing human beings.”
What we saw today in Boise is government at its most shameful... The city cannot spin its way out of the cruel bottom line: Today it destroyed a community using totalitarian tactics.
Leo Morales, executive director of ACLU of Idaho
“Government should be open, transparent and democratic. ... The planning was done behind closed doors, to intentionally keep the broader community out,” Executive Director Leo Morales said. “We have seen this kind of government displacement before in American history, and it has always been shameful.”
Bones and Bieter said they didn’t release information about the Cooper Court sweep to the public because it was a complicated operation, with some 300 people involved, and details were still being worked out just hours before it began.
The right lane of the eastbound Connector will be closed through Saturday at the River Street exit. In addition to a block of River Street closed Thursday, closures will include Americana from Shoreline Drive to Front Street.
Bieter said 13 organizations, including homeless shelters, charities and mental health providers, offered care and services at the community center. It will be open through Saturday. Available there are hot meals, showers, a change of clothes, bus and taxi passes, food vouchers, referrals for counseling and housing services, and cots and bedding.
The Idaho Humane Society will take in any pets belonging to Cooper Court residents and care for them for free for up to two weeks while their owners resettle.
“This is about getting people into services, getting them into a safe environment,” Bones said. “The easy answer, and it’s happened in many cities, is to put some walls up and hide that. It’s really easy for us to do.”
But residents and protesters said the city’s plan to set people up in institutions would not help the homeless.
Those living at Cooper Court said they had different reasons for staying in tents instead of shelters. Some have dogs. Some have substance abuse or mental health problems. Some don’t want to comply with shelters’ lists of rules.
JoJo Valdez, a spokeswoman for the Cooper Court community, said everyone set up in tents had something in common: the desire for independence.
“We want to be in charge of our own lives,” she said. “We want to be our own bosses. We’re adults.”
Even so, they wanted that independence within a supportive community. The Cooper Court community had known for a while it would have to move, she said, but they wanted to do it together.
“We are a family,” she said.
City officials said a range of concerns arose at Cooper Court, including the number of people living in such a small area, difficulty of access for emergency vehicles, and the dangers of fire or carbon monoxide poisoning as people try to heat their tents. They said at least two tents have caught fire recently.
City officials had hoped cold weather would encourage people to leave without further intervention, Bieter said, but that didn’t happen.
Every effort is being made to be calm and remain compassionate.
Boise Mayor Dave Bieter
But the message was firm: “Ultimately, there’s no choice,” Bones said. “You have to leave today.”
McRoberts, who volunteers at Cooper Court, said she was relieved Boise police didn’t initiate an impound of homeless people’s belongings.
“They’re not trying to bust anybody, you know, they’re really just trying to help,” she said. “I mean, that is something I’ve been able to see and it’s been really very soothing.”
But she said she was disappointed the city didn’t tell residents of Cooper Court they were being moved until Thursday night.
“They could have given them a week. What was wrong with that? They could have given them three days. It wouldn’t have hurt. It would have helped,” McRoberts said. “Instead you had a bunch of terrified people here overnight.”
Dispatch calls regarding Cooper Court