Adaptation & Collaboration: The Boise community is working together to navigate the pandemic

The year 2020 has commonly been described as ‘unprecedented;’ synonymously defined as bizarre, remarkable or unparalleled. But this quaint anecdote definitively fails to truly encompass the loss and tragedy felt in the country and around the world this past year.

There have been 563,980 COVID-19 deaths and counting in the United States alone, as reported by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Unemployment rates hit a record high in the nation, peaking at 14.8% in April 2020, according to the Congressional Research Service. 

And as of December 2020, more than 11 million people were “significantly overdue” on their rental or mortgage payments, putting them at higher risk of losing their housing to foreclosure or eviction in the following months, says the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. 

“A collective suffering. A collective sacrifice. A year filled with the loss of life — and the loss of living for all of us,” as President Joe Biden said in his speech on the anniversary of the coronavirus pandemic shutdown. 

The coronavirus pandemic has brought many obstacles both physically and mentally to people around the state of Idaho. Boiseans specifically have seen a needed increase in housing aid, mental health help and food assurance. The Interfaith Sanctuary, a privately-owned shelter and support services organization located in downtown Boise, and Boise State, among other programs, have been working in the Treasure Valley to bring relief to citizens and students. 

Boise State’s student assistance

With the suddenness of the pandemic shutdown last March, many students across the country were forced to immediately vacate their residences with little to no warning, including Boise State students living in on-campus housing at the time. 

According to the #RealCollege survey, 14% of students in the United States were affected by homelessness and 48% were affected by housing insecurity in 2020.

Before the pandemic, student researchers reported that the housing shortage around Boise State campus and in downtown Boise, and the lack of transportation options from surrounding areas, had been some of the biggest challenges for students with financial struggles. 

The Boise housing crisis was even further exacerbated during the pandemic as rental prices jumped up to 9.4%.

In response to housing and other resource insecurity issues, the Boise State Office of the Dean of Students seeks to assist students in any way possible.

“We are in the process right now of starting the conversation of what does subsidized housing look like for university students?” said Megan Quinn, graduate intern with Dean of Students.

While details on these potential initiatives have not been made public, the Dean of Students continues to provide support to students in other ways, such as the Student Emergency Fund. 

According to the Boise State website, “The Student Emergency Fund provides short-term financial assistance to Boise State University students who are in danger from withdrawing during a semester due to unanticipated, temporary financial hardships resulting from emergency or crisis situations (e.g., accident, illness, death of a family member).”

The Student Emergency Fund grants up to $400 to eligible students only once in their academic career. Since the start of the pandemic, the Dean of Students has seen an increase in the number of students utilizing the emergency fund.

“This emergency fund has been going on for a couple of years now. But it’s just become a lot more marketed and a lot more student awareness has come to the application than ever before,” Quinn said. 

According to Michelle Tassinari, the outreach and prevention case manager with the Dean of Students, the department believes that the students applying during the pandemic have different needs than students who applied before. 

“It’s folks that are experiencing hardship, maybe for the first time. We had a pretty significant increase [in applications],” Tassinari said.

Food & mental health resources

In addition to the emergency fund, the Office of the Dean of Students also hosts a food pantry that is available to all students, no questions asked. 

According to Tassinari, the food pantry has been expanded since the start of the pandemic to accommodate an influx of student needs. Hygiene products, herbs, produce and more shelf-stable products are available.

“[The items in the pantry] kind of just help bring some normalcy to the food that you might be getting from a food pantry, but also just increase access to healthy options for students,” Tassinari said.

In 2020, three in five students nationwide reported struggling with basic needs insecurity

In 2021, 28% of Boise State students reported being food insecure at some point within the last 30 days of the survey.

With resource insecurity, the threat and effects of COVID-19, many students and Idahoans have reported struggling with mental health over the past year, approximately 35% of students nationwide reported struggling with anxiety

Along with medical and fiscal challenges, the pandemic has also ushered in a wave of mental health struggles. A weekly study conducted by Kaiser Family Foundation found that an average of 34.6% of Idahoans were reporting symptoms of anxiety and/or depression during the pandemic. 

A 2020 health report showed that 30.4% of Boise State students reported being diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, 25.2% reported being diagnosed with a depression disorder and 7.1% reported being diagnosed with insomnia.

Many symptoms of these mental health issues can be exacerbated by isolation, fear and loneliness.

While University Counseling Services is able to help students with direct counseling and crisis intervention, the Office of the Dean of Students also provides wellness resources to students on their website

In order to help students feel seen, valued and cared for, Dean of Students also hopes to safely get student life and campus events back up and running in the fall to encourage community and involvement among students.

“We are in the midst of planning for next year’s format and what that’s going to look like, especially what student life is going to look like on campus,” said Ryan Vilfer, a case manager with Dean of Students.

Adapting to accommodate community needs

Following the shutdown and continuing with the progression of the pandemic, many businesses and organizations were forced to close their doors or, at the very least, limit their interactions with the public. 

Photo courtesy Interfaith Sanctuary; Illustrations by Alieha Dryden

However, Interfaith Sanctuary, a privately-owned shelter and support services organization located in downtown Boise, was determined to continue serving the local community. 

Throughout 2020, people experiencing homelessness were considered among the most vulnerable population.

In response to COVID-19, Interfaith Sanctuary had to make some big adjustments to protect the health and safety of their guests. According to Executive Director Jodi Peterson-Stigers, Interfaith Sanctuary went from utilizing a single warehouse dorm-style housing unit to opening up four different shelters. 

With help from the City of Boise and an emergency task force put together by Mayor Lauren McLean, Interfaith Sanctuary created a hotel housing program, with specific spaces and accommodations for seniors, “medically fragile” guests, families with children and even COVID-positive guests.

“They are not required to leave the building during the day. They don’t have to navigate the streets all day long until the shelter reopens, so they’re improving in their quality of life and their health,” Peterson-Stigers said. “[For] the families, it’s much less traumatic to experience your homelessness as a family unit in a private room where you’re able to at least be a family at the end of each day.” 

Interfaith Sanctuary currently serves about 140 adults in an emergency shelter; 62 family members, with 37 of those being children, in the hotel housing program; and 16 people in the senior and chronically ill unit. 

According to Peterson-Stigers, Interfaith Sanctuary has a partnership with Family Medicine Residency of Idaho in which the clinic provides medical rounding, while the sanctuary is responsible for nutrition, case management and other supportive services.

“Interfaith Sanctuary serves any homeless person no matter where they are at,” Peterson-Stigers said. “If they are unsheltered or are staying in any of the shelter systems and they test positive for COVID-19, we house them in this hotel program.”

Along with COVID-19 response and other medical care, Family Medicine also created a mobile vaccine clinic that was administering the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine to Interfaith guests and residents. Peterson-Stigers believes that almost the entire population of people struggling with homelessness in Boise were, or had the opportunity to be, vaccinated by the month of April.

In addition to the hotel housing program, Interfaith Sanctuary’s fourth shelter is a day space, fondly known as the “cooling shelter” in the summer and the “warming shelter” in the winter. 

Before temporarily closing for remodeling, the day shelter was serving about 180 guests daily and doing weekly onsite COVID-19 testing with Crush the Curve. The day shelter location included a computer library and meal services for guests. 

Through the donation of a commercial kitchen food trailer and collaborative partnerships with Create Common Good and Life’s Kitchen, Interfaith Sanctuary now helps to facilitate the distribution of around 6,000 meals a month. 

“There’s a lot of agency that supports our homeless, aside from shelters. There [are] so many churches and organizations that do like special lunches, they do friendship feeds. They do all kinds of stuff and all of it shut down [with the pandemic],” Peterson-Stigers said. “Suddenly, we had a much bigger responsibility to make sure that anyone who was unhoused and needed a meal, Interface Sanctuary had to come up with the ability to make sure people were fed.”

Interfaith Sanctuary staff have had to completely reshape their approach to supporting the struggling community. But through community participation and donations, the sanctuary has been able to provide the care needed to Boiseans experiencing homelessness. 

“We had so many of our community members make us masks, so we have never been without masks,” Peterson-Stigers said. “We have never been without sanitizer, and that’s not because it’s been easy to access. It’s that people have worked hard to ensure that we have what we need for the homeless population.”

Interfaith has also received help from Central District Health (CDH), Idaho Health and Welfare and United Way. The sanctuary has been happy to collaborate and partner with several other organizations including Boise Rescue Mission, Continuum of Care and more. 

“Yes, [the pandemic changes] were necessary, and Interfaith was honored to be part of the graceful service, but it’s been really hard,” Peterson-Stigers said.

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