The growing tent city in Cooper Court has posed problems for city and shelter officials who want to get residents off the street. Meanwhile, a donation drive is under way that some say is counterproductive.
A few weeks ago, Jodi Peterson took her laptop and walked into the center of Cooper Court, the access road behind Americana Boulevard. Surrounded by shredded tents, tarp lean-tos, makeshift shacks and piles of wet clothes, trash and firewood, Peterson opened a Word document on her computer and started asking some of the 100 or so people who have been living in the alley what they need.
"Forty-five people stood in line to tell me," Peterson said. She works under contract for Interfaith Sanctuary doing media events and fundraisers, but this project is all her own. "They were patient, waited their turns and told me what other people in the community needed as well."
After Peterson compiled her list, she posted it on Facebook and asked friends to "adopt" a resident of Cooper Court and honor their requests.
Abel needs a tent and two sleeping bags. Christine needs a tent. Lisa needs a tent and a backpack. Karen, James, George, Jo Jo, Anita and Chriss all asked for four-person tents. Others asked Peterson for tarps, socks, blankets, boxers, shoes, shaving kits, coolers and coats. One person asked for employment.
Of the 40 individual requests Peterson posted to Facebook, 32 were for tents.
The community in Cooper Court, below the high concrete wall of the Boise Connector, grew in the weeks after Rhodes Park was fenced off and construction began on a new skatepark.
As the months have passed, the tent city has continued to expand, wrapping its way behind the businesses and nonprofits on Americana Boulevard: Interfaith Sanctuary, Corpus Christi, the CATCH program, a State Farm insurance office and A2O Fitness. As the number of people living in Cooper Court has increased, so too has the urgency of finding a long-term housing solution—the issue has been covered in the media, parsed in panel discussions, even featured in Mayor Dave Bieter's September State of the City address.
"Between all the discussion over what's the solution for Cooper Court, no one is actually taking care of the people that have set up this tent city," Peterson said. "They need to be medically checked, they need nutrition, they need love. We need to keep them alive. They're human beings."
Peterson said new tents would mostly replace many of the lean-tos and tarp structures currently being used for shelter. However, some people are sleeping out in the open, so their tents would represent an increase in temporary dwellings.
"The lean-tos they've constructed makes it look messier," Peterson said. "they need more space for those shelters. Tents will allow it to be more confined."
The donation drive doesn't sit well with some.
"We totally understand the community's desire to help and to provide support to those in our community that are in need," said Mike Journee, spokesman for Mayor Dave Bieter's office. "In this case, the notion that you're helping a situation just isn't true. By providing more tents, all we do is exacerbate an already challenging problem—one that's not sustainable, healthy or safe for anyone."
Journee said the problem isn't with the kind of temporary shelter people are living in, whether it's a new tent or a makeshift lean-to. He said there are simply too many people living in too small of a space without any facilities, leading to sanitation and public safety problems.
"What would happen if one of those structures caught on fire and a firetruck had to try to get back there?" Journee said. "We're looking at a huge tragedy. We have already had reports of nylon tents catching on fire. ... If this could be solved by people dropping off tents, it would have been done already."
One of the nonprofits hit hardest by the tent city is one devoted to helping the people who live there. Interfaith Sanctuary has suffered a decline in in-kind and item donations—the donation drop-off spot sits in the middle of the encampment. Interfaith staff and volunteers can no longer park on site. Underaged youth are no longer allowed to volunteer at or tour the shelter, and Interfaith had to hire a security guard, which costs nonprofit up to $4,000 per month.
Jayne Sorrels, the executive director of Interfaith, made clear the donation project belongs entirely to Peterson.
"We're not putting out a call for this," she said.
She said being surrounded by the tent city has made it difficult for the shelter to uphold its mission of providing a safe place for individuals and families in need. She said the area isn't often dangerous or violent, but people seeking shelter have to walk through a gauntlet of temptations, including drugs and alcohol.
Sorrels said she knows most of the people in Cooper Court. Most have stayed in the shelter, and just about all are welcome. There's no shortage of open beds. Sorrels said while tents are better than tarp and wood structures, it isn't a long-term solution.
"We're not looking to make their homelessness more comfortable," she said. "We want to end their homelessness. That's what we're focused on."
Peterson said she understands Interfaith's frustration but wants to help what she calls the "shelter resistant" population—those who for whatever reason don't want to stay in one of the city's several shelters.
So far, she's been happy with the show of support. Peterson said 25 of the residents have already been "adopted," but there are still 20 more she'd like to see taken care of.
She delivered a carload of donations to Cooper Court on Oct. 18 and reported on her Facebook page that a group of residents put their money together and bought her a bouquet of carnations. The donations Peterson delivered included sleeping bags, hats, socks and coats, which were received, she said, with "tears and hugs and joy." One man asked her for a broom and dustpan.
"No reason we can't make it beautiful here, right?" he told her.