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Homelessness in Boise: A growing population facing a growing cost

Photo courtesy of Jason Armond

According to the Boise Homeless Coalition, the National Coalition for the Homeless estimated that 44% of people experiencing homelessness nationwide are employed. It is assumed that folks without homes are often unmotivated or unsafe to be around, but that is not the case.

The homeless population often struggles to find work because of the obstacles they face on the street. Obstacles include lack of access to the Internet, transportation, less experience in the workforce and mental health issues, to name a few. 

A January 2021 report from Optum Idaho’s Dr. Dennis Woody says an estimated 45% of Idaho’s homeless population is dealing with mental health problems ranging from schizophrenia to anxiety, with 20 to 25% having serious and persistent mental illness. 

“Living with the stressors and trauma of homelessness can increase symptoms of mental illness, particularly if there is no treatment,” as stated by the Boise Homeless Coalition.

Searching for protection in the streets

Lily Lynette is 19 years old and has been on the streets for almost two years since moving to Boise. Lynette was born at a homeless shelter in San Diego, California, but later moved to Meridian, Idaho, with her adoptive parents at the age of 18. She was convinced by family members that she would be safer in Idaho, but after almost two years with no consistent place to call home, Lynette thinks otherwise. 

“I don’t really feel like it’s super safe here,” Lynette said. “You have got to know who you’re talking to and use a little bit of street smarts to know who you are around.”

Individuals like Lynette are exposed to many different elements when it comes to living day-to-day. She and many others have been introduced to drug paraphernalia and untrustworthy groups of people, which has contributed to her feelings about living without a true home. 

Corpus Christi House runs as a day shelter but their main objective is to help individuals get into other overnight shelters like River of Life, Interfaith Sanctuary or City of Lights. 

Since coming to Corpus Christi, Lynette has received her own bed at Interfaith Sanctuary, another local shelter nearby. She was lucky enough to obtain a bed in the shelter within two days, and has felt more supported. 

In response to this newfound support, Lynette established her own “street family” with other individuals without homes who have entrusted her to reciprocate support and protection. 

“I didn’t really look for [a family], necessarily, but over time I met people that would call each other their grandma and when I would come by and hang out with them, I started becoming part of their family and now I’m one of their street kids,” Lynette said. 

With a strong and functional street family, Lynette feels more secure in Boise, where she spends most of her time. However, there is a feeling of uncertainty when it comes to the rest of Lynette’s friends and acquaintances who are still left to their own devices on the streets of downtown Boise. 

Starting in 2022, local law enforcement enacted a series of “raids” or “sweeps” on West Cooper Court, where a majority of the homeless population resides when they’re not utilizing public shelters during the day. Officers and other enforcement officials have stripped these people of their basic human rights and their belongings in an attempt to clean up the city. 

Lynette and many of her close friends have experienced these sweeps and oftentimes are forced to start over when everything they own is taken away from them.

“They’ll give you a ticket for camping,” Lynette said. “When you’re just trying to survive on the streets.”

A different kind of home

Duane Paris works as the Corpus Christi site coordinator. He is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the shelter, as well as organizing staff and volunteer scheduling to ensure that the shelter can run smoothly during its normal hours of operation.

According to Paris, the shelter sees about 90-100 guests each morning for breakfast and visitor numbers vary throughout the day. Oftentimes, the shelter’s population will increase based on the weather conditions. 

“It’d be safe to say about 80% of our guests are men and about 20% of women,” Paris said. “We see some young adults — that’s probably 20-30% of our demographic and then we have a good range of people in their 30s to mid 40s, early 50s.”

One of the largest issues observed by Paris and his team is the discrepancy between groups who are seeking shelter but are burdened with emotional or mental issues caused by drug and alcohol problems, and those who are simply seeking shelter after recently becoming homeless. 

[Photo of a group of tents in Los Angeles, California.]
Photo courtesy of Jason Armond

The conflict between those without homes and law enforcement officials is a never-ending battle, meaning these sweeps should come as no surprise. Paris and his team work hard to keep their guests happy and safe. However, when law enforcement feels the need to involve themselves, they do not hesitate to do so.

These folks in and around shelters like Corpus Christ are expected to keep their surroundings clean in order to police sweeps but in some cases it is unavoidable. 

“I do announcements every Friday before lunch of what’s going on in the community, and I ask the community to make announcements of things that they know are going on,” Paris said. 

This is often when the sweeps are mentioned.

An uncertain future for Boiseans

Throughout 2022, there was a lot of discussion about the City of Boise purchasing what used to be The Phoenix, a small building near Cooper Court. However, on Dec. 14, 2022, it was announced that Mayor Lauren McLean and her administration had backed out of the purchase due to a supposed lack of state grant funds. This building was planned on being used for another shelter, to ease the stressors of overcrowding at the pre-existing shelters downtown.

CATCH is an organization that works closely with people experiencing homelessness and connects them to those who can provide them with housing. Similarly, Our Path Home is a public-private partnership working to end homelessness in Ada County. 

Both CATCH and Our Path Home will continue to lease office space in the building until February 2023, but it will no longer be used as a warming shelter. 

With this roadblock to expansion for the homeless population, there is a much needed discussion about next steps as we enter the thick of the winter months in Idaho. 

“This is the underbelly of society, and we welcome them with love and try to work with them and work with their conditions,” Paris said. “And that’s what we’re just here trying to do, you know, ease the burdens. We’re not judgmental.”

With many down on their luck due to life’s unforeseen curveballs, it’s difficult to maintain feelings of optimism and hope for these people without homes.

Every person on the street has their own story to tell. From being a part of a worldwide outlaw motorcycle club, Hell’s Angels, to ending up on the streets of Boise — or even coming from a successful background of working as a software developer in the Silicon Valley to living day by day at a women’s shelter.

The moral of the story is that we are all people who are sometimes dealt unlucky cards, but it’s how we turn those cards around that shows our true character.

People like Duane Paris are the reasons why these folks without homes are able to survive on a daily basis. 

“Everybody’s looking at you like, you chose to be there but no one has chosen to have this lifestyle,” Paris said. “Circumstances have led to that so let’s build them up and build their confidence and give them some hope. That’s really what our mission is: love and hope.”

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