Boise & Garden City

Boise homeless advocates embrace Housing First. But what is it?

David Bieter, Deanna Watson on Housing First Initiative

The Boise mayor and executive director of the Boise City-Ada County Housing Authority talk about their organizations' partnership to address homelessness.
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The Boise mayor and executive director of the Boise City-Ada County Housing Authority talk about their organizations' partnership to address homelessness.

What’s Housing First? As its name suggests, Housing First starts with putting homeless people in homes, and then addressing physical and mental ailments, addiction and other problems that contribute to their homelessness later. It is a money saver for places like Salt Lake City and the surrounding county, which implemented a Housing First model years ago.

What’s the Housing First plan here? Partners announced a plan Tuesday to provide 40 or so apartments for chronically homeless people who live in Ada County. About 25 of these apartments would be in a new building. The remaining 15 would be apartments that already exist as affordable housing.

Where did this idea come from? Over the past year, Boise Mayor David Bieter chaired a series of meetings on housing and homelessness in the Treasure Valley. Participants, including representatives of local governments, businesses, charities, churches and other organizations, concluded that the area’s top housing need was a supply of permanent supportive housing. Housing First is a type of permanent supportive housing.

When will this happen? The city of Boise and the Boise City-Ada County Housing Authority hope to move chronically homeless people into newly designated Housing First apartments this year. The city and the Idaho Housing and Finance Association hope a developer breaks ground on the 25-unit building by the end of this year and opens it next year.

Where would these be? Unclear. The partners in this endeavor want the 25-unit building to be close to basic services, such as public transportation and medical care; on land that’s not contaminated or too close to noisemakers like freeways or railroad tracks; and in an area that doesn’t have a high concentration of low-income and minority residents. The reassigned existing apartments would be scattered around Boise.

Who would qualify for these homes? A team of experts from local governments and private service providers would rank every homeless person in Ada County according to need and willingness. The team would then try to match the neediest and most willing people with homes that suit them best, said Diana Lachiondo, the city of Boise’s director of community partnerships.

What if people don’t want to get off the street? That comes up sometimes. You can’t force people to move into homes they don’t want. But an outreach team would build relationships with homeless people and keep encouraging them to get off the streets and into a stable home, said Wyatt Schroeder, executive director of Charitable Assistance to Community’s Homeless, a nonprofit that provides rental assistance and case management in Southern Idaho.

“Even the folks who don’t want to stay — that’s not a reason to walk away from the relationship,” Schroeder said. “You get to know them, and you continue to work.”

What are the requirements for staying in a Housing First apartment? There’s no rent for most tenants because most have little income, if any. For the needy, there are no time limits on their stay, and no requirements that they stay sober or off drugs. Counseling, case management and other services are offered but not required. Tenants can stay as long as they want if they follow basic rules, such as not destroying their homes or bothering neighbors.

Who’ll pay for the new building? The Idaho Housing and Finance Association, which manages federal tax credits for low-income housing, is contributing around $5.7 million for a single Housing First building. The city of Boise has pledged $1 million.

How many homes does that buy? Hard to say; Idaho Housing has just asked developers to submit proposals. The general idea is a building in or near Boise that contains around 25 Housing First apartments, plus space to provide counseling, case management and other supportive services.

What about the other 15 apartments? The city of Boise and the Boise City-Ada County Housing Authority say they’ll designate at least five affordable homes they own. They hope private landlords will contribute a few units, too. Those could be in multiple places around the Valley.

Who pays for supportive services and things like maintenance? The money could come from a variety of sources. The housing authority is likely to designate some of the housing voucher money it administers to ongoing costs, executive director Deanna Watson said. The partners hope to recruit hospitals and the county government, which spend a lot of money on homeless people’s hospital visits, ambulance rides and jail stays.

How much money does that cost? The latest count puts the number of chronically homeless people in Ada County at around 100. Vanessa Fry, assistant director of Boise State University’s Public Policy Research Center, estimates that population costs local governments and hospitals around $5.3 million a year, the bulk from medical care and jail stays. By comparison, permanent supportive housing for 100 chronically homeless people would cost about $1.6 million annually, Fry said.

What happen to the rest of the homeless population? The partners hope to prove the Housing First concept is doable and fiscally responsible here. If so, they’ll look to expand the program.

I want to help. What do I do? Visit IdahoStatesman.com for information on the initiatives and how to donate money or otherwise get involved.

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