Boise Weekly

Applying the Lessons of Eugene to Housing Boise's Homeless

Harrison Berry Nov 20, 2015 11:59 AM
Harrison Berry
Andrew Heben answering questions about Eugene's Opportunity Village—that city's pop-up community for people experiencing homelessness.

Three-quarters of the way through Andrew Heben's presentation on pop-up communities for homeless people, someone in the back of the room asked if any representatives from the city of Boise were in the audience.


"We can speak very candidly," Heben said, drawing laughter from the 170 or attendees who turned out Nov. 19 to Cathedral of the Rockies.

Heben helped establish Opportunity Village in Eugene, Ore.—a neighborhood of semi-permanent, low-cost mini houses that has transitioned 65 percent of its 85 total residents into permanent housing since it opened in 2013.

In Boise, homelessness has been an increasingly high-profile issue for City Hall, which has approached the problem with a mix of policies: from controversial sit/lie and anti-camping ordinances to its new Pay for Success program and the as-yet-unveiled Your Front Door program.

Heben was in Boise to discuss the potential for another solution along the lines of Opportunity Village.

"What I'm talking about is bridging the gap between people living on the street and conventional housing," he said.

Heben's presentation was made possible by Boise Alternative Shelter Co-op (BASC), which has advocated for a similar community as an alternative to Cooper Court, the homeless encampment near shelters Corpus Christi House and Interfaith Sanctuary that has grown to more than 100 people living in tents on an Ada County Highway District-owned street adjacent to the I-184 Connector.

Harrison Berry/Jessica Murri
One of the warnings handed out to campers at Cooper Court Nov. 19.
The morning of Heben's talk, people living in Cooper Court received written warnings from Boise police that they were camping in violation of city ordinance and could be prosecuted.

Heben said sweeping people out of Cooper Court without providing an alternative space would do little to achieve the city's goal of reducing homelessness.

"What it comes down to is a battle for space," he said. "The city can remove a camp but [the camp] can just go someplace else."

By contrast, Opportunity Village provides private space, bus passes for residents, restrooms and shower facilities, Internet and limited electricity at low cost—about $3 per night per resident. It's a model other cities including Madison, Wisc.; Portland, Ore.; and Ithaca, N.Y., have riffed on and modified depending on their needs.

Jodi Peterson, self-described volunteer coordinator for Cooper Court, said something similar could work in Boise.

"There's about 40 people [at Cooper Court] who could move into a place like this and make it work," she said. 

Many such pop-up communities encountered initial resistance from city leaders, but, Heben said, when it became clear maintaining services and extending care to an established community would be cheaper and easier than dealing with a tent city, they changed their minds.

While Heben noted cities' past opposition to pop-up communities, he said his presentation at Cathedral of the Rockies was the first time no official representatives had attended.

George Prentice
Tents at Cooper Court.

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