Residents of Cooper Court knew change was on the way when they saw Boise police barricade River Street between Americana Boulevard and 15th Street the afternoon of Dec. 3. When Step Up Education Director Lisa Veaudry announced later that evening the police would clear Cooper Court the next day, it only heightened the feeling of uncertainty in the tent city.
"We had no warning about this," she said. "I'm terrified for you."
Cooper Court was the symbol of Boise's ongoing struggle with homelessness, and clearing it has long been on the docket for Boise Mayor Dave Bieter, who listed homelessness as one of his top three agenda items during his reelection campaign. Residents of the tent city woke up the morning of Nov. 19 to written warnings
to vacate the area, and many of them said they had seen the city's move coming.
By the break of dawn Dec. 4, many of the former residents of Cooper Court had packed up their belongings and left, but a group of demonstrators had taken up stations on both sides of Americana Boulevard with signs opposing the city's clearance action. One of them was Leah Pederson, who once experienced homelessness in Eau Claire, Wisc., after serving 13 years as an Army nurse. She has lived in Boise for a year and a half caring for her mother while pursuing degrees in social work and education. For her, the issue of vacating Cooper Court was one of social justice.
"Homelessness shouldn't be criminalized," she said.
That sentiment was common at the rally, where people held up signs reading "Bieter Hates Jesus" and chanted, "Homelessness is not a crime."
Varlan Linnean watched the demonstration, but said he didn't want to take part because someone always "takes control" of the message.
Linnean, who is experiencing homelessness, said he didn't live in Cooper Court but agreed with protesters like Pederson that the city had effectively made homelessness illegal. He added that Boise's continuum of care encouraged dependency on the government, clearing Cooper Court lacked forethought and the city could do more to develop a better spectrum of housing options.
"We're not looking at alternatives," he said, referencing Boise Alternative Shelter Co-Op
's suggestion of building mini-shelters.
At a 10 a.m. press conference at Fort Boise Community Center, Bieter and Boise Police Chief Bill Bones outlined the city's actions regarding Cooper Court. Police officers would close the tent city, offering residents $125 Salvation Army vouchers or offer to tag their property so it could be returned to them after clearing the access road.
Meanwhile, anyone from Cooper Court could go to the police tent on River Street for a hot sandwich and chili while waiting for an airport shuttle to take them to Fort Boise. That's where they could receive basic medical care, pick up clean clothing from the Salvation Army and be paired with social services.
People receiving services at Fort Boise will be able to sleep there the evening of Dec. 4, but city officials said they hope to have completed working with people displaced by the closure of Cooper Court by end of day Dec. 5.
Citing health and safety concerns for people living in Cooper Court, Bieter also declared an emergency situation, granting the city temporary powers to close off the area surrounding the encampment, remove civilians and limit press access.
"It frames the issues and allows some authority," Bieter said.
Bones told the assembled press that closing Cooper Court was a function of compassion rather than enforcement, and allowing people to live in unsafe conditions there was "unfair." Responding to concern that the action was sudden, he said the city and Boise Police Department had given plenty of indications that the encampment at Cooper Court was unsustainable.
"We've let people know we were going to do this," he said.
Meanwhile, at the encampment, Boise police had begun closing off Cooper Court and negotiators worked to remove people from tents and lean-tos.
According to III Percent of Idaho
volunteer Kai Evans, who was helping tag residents' property, those who remained in the tent city were concerned that if they left their personal items behind, they would never see them again. While some residents showed resignation in the face of the police sweep, a man calling himself "Sloan" and others began building barricades against officers built from hunks of rusting metal appliances, old furniture and anything heavy they could find.
"Cops got barricades. Why shouldn't we? They want to be in control of the situation, why shouldn't we be in control of the situation?" he said.
As police closed in around Cooper Court, a trickle of people began to enter the "hospitality tent," to which the press was given access only with the supervision of a public information officer. One former Cooper Court resident making use of the tent was Steven Grooms, who lauded the Boise police for treating him well.
Grooms said he hoped to receive some kind of housing services from the city as a result of the sweep, and that was why he, unlike many other former residents, had gone to the hospitality tent. Grooms said he works in traffic control, and had become homeless while waiting to retire. He said he will "hit the road" when he begins receiving Social Security checks.
"It will be great for me—it'll help me solve some of the problems I have working," he said.