The summer of 2011 has, for many Boiseans, been a delight. Temperatures edging toward triple digits usually nudge citizens toward a sidewalk cafe for iced tea, or a picnic by the lake, or, at the very least, their air-conditioned homes and cars. But the same heat is life-threatening for Boise's most vulnerable population--the hundreds of men, women and children who consider the scorching pavement their living room. For the city's homeless, the few options to keep cool evaporate as day turns to twilight.
The doors to Interfaith Sanctuary at 1620 River St. in Boise swing open at 5:30 p.m. for families and at 6 p.m. for individuals. Seven nights a week, without exception, people pour through Interfaith Sanctuary's doors, drop their backpacks and sprint to a makeshift cafeteria for a drink of water. Children scramble for a pile of used toys and settle in to watch a movie in the cool building. For the homeless, summer is a constant test of survival against Idaho's brutal, high desert temperatures.
"There's just no way to escape the heat," said resident Mary Hone, 28, moving her hand through her short, dark hair. Her tank top revealed tan lines with the distinct signs of sunburn.
Her 1-year-old daughter Jade grabbed at toys in a small chest, squealing with delight and showing off the beginnings of a toothy grin. Mary returned a tired smile. She spent the day at the downtown Boise Public Library, keeping her infant out of the hot weather. She worried about a regular battle against exhaustion and dehydration.
Her husband, Michael David Hone, 45, set aside a walking stick before sitting down at Interfaith Sanctuary, his first seat in hours. A low-brim hat wards off harmful rays to his face, but his arms and legs were dark and weathered from exposure. Michael panhandles nearly every day to support his family. On a good day, he said he makes $35.
"Only made a dollar today," he said.
"I had sunburn on my knees so bad at the beginning of the summer that I couldn't walk," said Michael. He explained that he spends five to six hours a day without shade to accept anything people have to give.
The family first arrived at Interfaith Sanctuary in September 2010 but was familiar to homelessness. The couple described themselves as disabled; each has a long list of ailments that restrict them in the job market. While they receive food stamps and a bed in the shelter as they determine their next move, Mary and Michael expressed a struggle in dealing with the heat on top of their other priorities. Mary covers Jade's stroller with a sheer cloth to keep her out of the sun, but after immediate expenses sunscreen is the last thing on their minds.
"There are more health risks in the summer than in the winter," said Jayne Sorrels, executive director and co-founding member of Interfaith Sanctuary. "It's harder to get out of the sun and the heat than it is to get warm."
Sorrels worried that the homeless don't always understand what they need in the heat, putting them in danger of sunstroke, heat stroke and dehydration.
Interfaith Sanctuary is a resource in the evening, while Corpus Christi Day Shelter, at 525 Americana Blvd., provides a small but welcome retreat from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday-Saturday.
Boise Rescue Mission, which operates the River of Life, the region's largest shelter for men at 575 S. 13th St., was well prepared for this summer's heat. Executive Director Bill Roscoe said the mission's donation center was appropriately well stocked with water.
"We've been doing this for a long time," said Roscoe. "Nothing surprises us."
A January census of the homeless indicated a distinct increase in the number of shelter residents but a decrease in those on the streets. Fewer people may be considered without a place to stay, but the region's shelters have been packed.
While the failed economy has driven more people into homelessness, Sorrels acknowledged that this summer's scorching temperatures pushed even more people into the region's shelters.
"We've been at bed capacity before," said Sorrels. "But we've never been to these numbers, even in the winter time."
Interfaith Sanctuary has 126 beds for the homeless, but this summer's numbers have pushed closer to its building capacity of 155.
In fact, so many people have come to Interfaith Sanctuary this summer that employees and volunteers ask some male residents to sleep outside, under a carport in the back parking lot.
"We know that this is not the solution, but it is what we can do," said Sorrels.
Boise Rescue Mission regularly houses an average of 350 people per night at its three facilities in Boise and Nampa. City Light, the mission's women's and children's home at 1404 W. Jefferson St., continues to see a significant increase in the summer months.
Between June and August 2010, City Light hosted an average of 72 people per night, a previous high. But this summer, guest services director Rosie Dice said the women's shelter was pushed to a new average high of more than 90. Dice said City Light doesn't turn away anyone looking for shelter.
"We work with what we have," said Dice. "We believe that God will keep providing."
Elizabeth Kelly, 54, became homeless earlier this summer after losing her job and being evicted from her house. She now shares a shelter with 95 women, referring to them as "the ladies." Kelly said many of her new roommates at City Light struggle with the heat, particularly those with children.
"I can't even imagine [taking care of a child]," said Kelly. "I just think it would be hard. Just being homeless alone is hard, and I'm an adult."
This summer, City Light has given some residents the option to stay inside during the day, though usually residents are encouraged to leave the building. Additionally children's playtime is planned so that children avoid the midday heat.
Robert Castle, 39, has lived at Interfaith Sanctuary off and on for the past two years. As a single male, Castle said he qualified for very little government assistance. He was fortunate enough to get a job painting houses, and he said he was in the process of saving some money in order to support himself.
"For myself, I'm always set. I make sure of it," he said.
Castle is two tests away from achieving his GED, and then he plans to get his driver's license before starting an undergraduate education.
To beat the heat, Castle said he drinks a lot of water and stays in the shade when possible, but summers in Boise are just hot.
"In the wintertime, you're walking all the time. In the summertime, you just can't travel like that because, yeah, it kills you," he said with a shrug. "You pack the pack, and you're sweating, so you're about dead when you walk from here to [River of Life] for lunch. I'm surprised we haven't had more people collapse."