As nighttime temperatures hit freezing, Boise’s homeless population braces for winter

Taya Thornton | The Arbiter

Four out of the first five days in November saw temperatures below 35 degrees Fahrenheit in Boise, Idaho. Two of those days had lows of 32 and 27 degrees. Additionally, KTVB reported that Boise’s homeless population has doubled in the past three years, meaning the number of Boiseans sleeping through freezing temperatures will also increase this winter.

The City of Boise’s website says Boise is facing an “unprecedented” housing crisis due to rising rents and appreciating home values. 

According to the New York Times, the national median asking price is $425,000 with a 10% down payment, which ends up being an additional $1,117 every month. Mortgage rates broke 7%, the highest since 2002 and more than double what most borrowers paid during the start of the pandemic.

“Mortgage rates are sky high, prices are sky high, and there’s no inventory,” chief economist at Moody’s Analytics Mark Zandi told the New York Times. “This may be the worst time in my living history for the home buyer.”

On Wednesday Nov. 2, Boise Mutual Aid Collective posted a video and a series of pictures to Instagram of a sweep that took place on West Cooper Street, where people experiencing homelessness had their belongings and tents thrown away.

The post said that Boise Police Officers “smiled and laughed while watching people desperately try to move their only possessions after a night of enduring severe wind and temperature drops.” The post ended by posing a question to Mayor Lauren McLean, “Who does it help to harass these folks just trying to survive?”

The sweeps take place every Wednesday, according to multiple people who live on West Cooper Street. Eight people who live on the street spoke with The Arbiter about their lives, how they are preparing for the cold and how these weekly sweeps have affected them.

A 24-year-old man who goes by T grew up in Idaho from the age of 9. He moved to Illinois when he was 18, working at Walmart as a lead deli employee. When COVID hit, he lost his job, so he came back to the state he knew best. He has a 5-year-old and a 2-year-old son, who currently live with T’s parents.

“Every Wednesday, they come through and they’ll sweep everything. They’ll bring two different labor details in from the jailhouse or the prison,” T said. “This alley will look brand new by the time they’re done. A really good friend of mine lost her best friend’s ashes because it was in one of her bags.”

A 64-year-old woman who called herself Deb T was evicted from Boise River Park in July. She said she wasn’t present for the latest sweep because she was in the hospital suffering from hyperthermia. Deb was concerned that all of her things would be gone when she got back, but was grateful to a friend that made sure to safeguard her belongings.

A man named James had been disabled from a motorcycle accident, losing his left leg. His mother has Alzheimer’s, and his brother is suffering from methamphetamine addiction.

[Members of Boise’s unhoused population gather on West Cooper Street, which was the subject of a police sweep on Nov. 2.]
Taya Thornton | The Arbiter

“It’s supposed to get colder and colder. It’s supposed to start snowing from what people tell me. I’m a victim of circumstances, and I’m out here. What can I do? Live or die,” James said.

Jason, 36, suffered a brain injury after a car accident in 2006, and his impaired memory made it difficult for him to hold a job ever since. He was evicted from a disabled home near North Boise a year and a half ago.

“I don’t like it that people judge us so much because we’re people too, bro. We’re all brothers and sisters out here. I don’t get the animosity,” Jason said. “The police… were just cruel honestly. They had that arrogance about them like ‘oh yeah, you guys are the trash of our city, get the bleep out of the way.’ I don’t see how that’s being humane, it’s just sad man.”

Mia, which she described as her street name, is a 56-year-old woman born on the Mountain Home Air Force Base. She has eight kids, and had her first child at the age of 12 from a 25-year-old man who she moved around the country with and eventually married for 13 years before divorcing.

She credits him for teaching her everything she learned on the streets. 

“Prostitution, selling drugs, whatever. He taught me all what’s happening,” Mia said. “This has just become the lifestyle I’m accustomed to. I’ve been in and out of prison all my life.”

She talked about the lack of affordable housing and resources for people struggling with homelessness and said the sweeps on Cooper Street have added another layer of stress to her life. Around a month ago, Mia said they were woken up at 3 a.m. for a clean up of the street.

“They come in here, and they’re herding us like cattle. It’s horrible. The only place we got to sleep is Cooper Lane and the alley. That’s the only place we can go.”

West Cooper Street is directly behind the Boise Corpus Christi House. The center provides clothing, breakfast, lunch, showers and other services such as helping people file their taxes. 

A volunteer of 15 years, who went by Mary D, told The Arbiter that the day-shelter never used to have more than 35 visitors on a daily basis. Today, they have an average of 100 to 120.

Nicki Vogel, who has worked for four years at the day and night homeless shelter, Interfaith Sanctuary, told The Arbiter that the shelter has been at capacity as of late. 

“We have to turn people away, which is really awful, especially when it gets cold,” Vogel said.

With the rising cost of living and no public housing program in site, homeless sweeps are set to become a new norm for the growing city of Boise.

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