Left to right: Boise/Ada County Homeless Coalition President Barbara Kemp, Boise Police Chief Bill Bones, Boise Community Partnerships Director Diana Lachiondo, Ada County Commissioner Rick Yzaguirre
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Public defender Kevin Rogers
Boise Police Chief Bill Bones has no specifics to share when addressing the situation at Cooper Court, a tent city that has grown up within sight of downtown homeless shelter Interfaith Sanctuary.
"There is a search for answers. One of our biggest struggles that we have is we have shelter space," Bones said.
BPD efforts to coax people out of Cooper Court and into nearby shelters has met with some success, and while Bones said he will take a "multi-pronged approach" to the encampment—which could include law enforcement action—he gave no hint as to when or what form his strategy would take.
"It can't be the new normal," he said, referring.to the situation at Cooper Court, where sanitary conditions are poor and drug and alcohol abuse is widespread. "It's unacceptable as a community to not take an active step and allow that to grow into a greater health and safety [risk]."
Bones made his remarks In front of a crowd of approximately 130 people who gathered Oct. 8 at the Boise Public Library for a panel discussion on homelessness. He was joined by Ada County Commissioner Rick Yzaguirre, Boise Community Partnerships Director Diana Lachiondo and Boise/Ada County Homeless Coalition President Barbara Kemp.
Moderated by Boise Weekly News Editor George Prentice, the panel focused on outlining homelessness services in the City of Trees and explaining new and upcoming avenues available to those seeking to leave homelessness and challenges stakeholders face in implementing possible solutions.
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There was a full house in the auditorium at the Boise Public Library.
Following high-profile homeless encampments such as Cooper Court and, last summer, below the I-84 Connector over Americana Boulevard, concern about homelessness has spread throughout the community and drawn calls for swift action. According to Bones, the people currently in Cooper Court are "the core of people in the most desperate need of help. We have an ongoing and growing health and safety issue. It's a problem."
"We have to look at some interim options," Kemp said.
Solutions are few and far between. Panelists and the public wrangled with treatments like a pop-up community proposed by Boise Alternative Shelter Cooperative, a group that has been working with a class at the University of Idaho to come up with low-cost, semi-permanent housing designs. BASC representative Lois Morgan said there are significant hurdles to building such a community by winter.
"What we need is land. We need money. The problem is where we can put [the housing units]," she said.
The students presented their designs Sept. 28 at the University of Idaho Water Center in Boise.
[image-3]Discussion attendees also heard about Pay for Success, a program that uses public funds to reimburse private entities for implementing homelessness programs—but only after they are proven effective. At the center of that program is Lachiondo, who said high-rolling organizations, including Goldman-Sachs, have invested in Pay for Success programs in other cities, including Salt Lake City.
"We can't do it alone," Lachiondo said. "I want to know that my resources are going to programs that work."
Homelessness may be seen as an urban issue, and the burden of funding and administering local solutions like Allumbaugh House and emergency shelters can fall on municipalities, counties and stakeholder groups. The state of Idaho, however, has had a role to play in the issue as well. It has kept the minimum wage at the federal minimum of $7.25 per hour, refused to expand Medicaid and blocked attempts to implement inclusive zoning in Ketchum and McCall.
Inclusive zoning requires developers of housing units to dedicate a certain percentage of their units to affordable housing.
"If you're looking to state government for a solution, it's not going to happen," Yzaguirre said.
On a local level, the Ada County Jail continues to carry much of the urban burden of homelessness. Currently, one in eight inmates there are homeless, and Yzaguirre advocated for increasing access to mental health services to help keep chronically homeless people out of the legal system and into programs that would help them regain control of their own lives.
He noted that while Ada County has few active resources to help people out of homelessness, the issue "touches us in so many ways," from its impact on the jail to regional crisis centers.
The United States has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, and Idaho has the third-highest incarceration rate in the country.
During a question-and-answer period, public defender Kevin Rogers asked the panel where the legal protections for people experiencing homelessness are, citing Boise's public camping ordinance as an example of a contradiction in policy that has, according to some critics, criminalized homelessness.
"Boise has an ordinance that allows people to sleep during the day, but not at night," he said.
Rogers opened the door for panelists to explore homelessness as a phenomenon beyond Cooper Court and the county lockup. Topics included affordable housing—Boise has 300 such housing units—but Lachiondo told the audience the term can be misleading, since by one definition, "affordable housing" can mean rent is at or below one-third of a renter's gross income but by another, it can mean rent is at or below the mean rent in a city.
"Often what people mean when they say 'affordable housing' is 'workforce housing,'" she said.
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