Interfaith Sanctuary’s new development and program director Jodi Peterson (center), joins JoJo (left) and Kelly (right) at home at Emerald House, a response to Cooper Court.
The living quarters are tight at what has been dubbed "Emerald House," with seven adults living under one roof, and sharing a bathroom, kitchen and living room. Given the cramped conditions, JoJo and Kelly—two of the residents—were anxious to move the tour of the home into the back yard.
"Isn't this nice?" asked JoJo, smiling, a fresh load of laundry drying on the line behind her. "And to think that we call this home. It's really something, hmm?"
The contrast is stark from August 2015, as tensions began rising around the rapidly spreading downtown tent city that would come to be known as Cooper Court. JoJo, Kelly and their five housemates—all of whom are chronically homeless—lived in Cooper Court, even though the controversial encampment was anything but a place to put down roots. As the tent city grew, so did frustration and anger as Boise engaged in a public debate over what role, if any, the city should take in caring for the scores of men and women who spent their days and nights in Cooper Court instead of in a shelter.
"It seems like a dream now," said JoJo. "No, it was a bad dream."
She said she was remembering the drizzly December day when Boise police barricaded the perimeter of Cooper Court, and removed all of its residents. Boise officials insisted there was ample space in the area's shelters, while advocates of the homeless argued the multiple reasons why many of the chronically homeless struggled with staying in near-capacity shelters at night, which they were kicked out of at sunrise.
What some people may not know is at the same time, an equally intense debate was boiling up inside the walls of Interfaith Sanctuary, the shelter just steps away from Cooper Court.
A Change at the Top
Interfaith Sanctuary provides around 165 beds for men, women and children.
"I think it's fair to say that the Interfaith board of directors was split," said Jodi Peterson, a former nine-year volunteer at Interfaith, now the shelter's development and program director. "Some believed that we should be better neighbors, but there were some people saying that the population of Cooper Court was dangerous and we should stay away. And frankly, I believed them at first."
Everything changed for Peterson on Sept. 10, 2015.
"That's when Curtis and I were driving back to Boise from McCall," she said, referring to internationally known Idaho musician Curtis Stigers, who is also Peterson's fiancee.
Stigers had performed at a benefit concert and Peterson said they were bringing some extra water bottles back from the charity event.
"I know a bottle of water sounds so simple, but we were warned to stay away and not bring anything over to Cooper Court. That just felt wrong," said Peterson. "What I saw when we brought them water was a group of really sick people, yet they were taking care of one another."
Peterson said because she was a contract employee, supervising a once-a-week music program for Interfaith Sanctuary, the shelter's management didn't stop her from bringing more donations to Cooper Court, including food, sleeping bags, tents and clothing. Over the next three months, as Cooper Court gained in notoriety, so did Peterson as she regularly advocated for the tent city's occupants via her Facebook page.
When Cooper Court was swept by city officials on Dec. 3, 2015, Peterson was vocal about her fears of what might happen to its former residents.
"And then, that night, a woman saw me on TV and somehow she got a hold of me and said, 'I think I can help. I have a house,'" said Peterson.
That house turned out to be what is now known as Emerald House. Residents have asked for the exact address not be disclosed.
In the meantime, Interfaith Sanctuary was reeling from its internal debate over Cooper Court. The split led to the April 1 resignation of the shelter's longtime director, Jayne Sorrels, and Peterson said the board asked her to step in and "settle things down a bit."
"Eventually, it evolved into a new full-time position for me, and now I'm the new development and program director for Interfaith," she said. "I didn't know I would be ready for that, but here I am."
Among the other bridges in need of rebuilding, she said, is a working relationship with the city.
"There was a time when the mayor was a bit mad at me, but that was at the height of Cooper Court," said Peterson. "I know in my heart that the mayor wanted to do the right thing, but had no idea how to do it. It was a difficult time."
"The best alternative is to get someone in a safe, clean place to live first," said Bieter. "Only then can you get to the root causes of homelessness."
Bieter added the city would begin soliciting requests for proposals from area nonprofits and caregivers to provide services for 25 to 30 housing units. In particular, he said, the project would be geared to address the chronically homeless, defined as individuals with a disabling condition who have been continuously homeless for a year or more or have had at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years.
A second prong of the initiative, dubbed "Housing First Scattered Sites," would call for up to 15 existing homes to be used as permanent housing while CATCH and Terry Reilly would provide much-needed services to the residents.
"Creating Housing First options is an investment in breaking this reactive cycle and a step toward proactive efforts that will save money and lives," said Bieter.
The mayor didn't know Emerald House could be a part of a "housing first" solution. Few people knew of the anonymous donation from the woman who called Peterson to say she had a home to donate.
"I've been very quiet about this," Peterson said. "We wanted to do this right and not scare anybody away. You may remember that we had a possible solution last winter from a local RV park, but the media attention scared them off."
That plan was to allow as many as 20 chronically homeless individuals to stay for at least a few months at Boise Riverside RV Park in Garden City. When the idea got a fair amount of Idaho media attention, the owners said too many of the park's other occupants worried about the controversy, so the plan was scuttled.
"So, we've taken this step by step, beginning with rental agreements," said Peterson.
A volunteer from Concordia University Law School helped craft rental agreements with special "opt-in behavioral clauses" that require Emerald House tenants to treat themselves and each other with respect. The model, Peterson said, came from similar agreements used in Eugene, Ore.-based Opportunity Village, a tiny-home community for the homeless.
"Our Emerald House tenants have promised sweat equity. They're keeping up the house, they're gardening, making any necessary repairs," said Peterson. "Next, we needed mentors, and we've had a number of social work students from Boise State University."
Additionally, Peterson said, social workers have been coming by the home to link up Emerald House tenants with food stamps, Social Security benefits, medical assistance and even job coaching.
"We're pretty excited," said Peterson. "One of our Emerald House tenants just secured a construction job. It will be his first job in some time."
As for neighbors, the residents said they've had nothing but positive reactions because, for the most part, they said things were so quiet at Emerald House. A quick survey of the neighborhood indicates the house is surrounded by about 70 percent commercial and 30 percent residential.
"It's a rather perfect neighborhood for our purposes," said Peterson.
But Emerald House is a long way from perfect because, Peterson said, each of the residents is still wrestling with his or her demons.
"It's fair to say that Emerald House will be here for a while," she said. "And the folks living there? Well they'll be better..." Peterson took a long pause before finishing her thought. "You know what? It'll be awhile before they're all better. But hey, we've already seen what the alternative looks like, haven't we?"