BW Video: Boise Gathers for Community Forum on Homelessness 

"It can't be the new normal. It's unacceptable as a community to not take an active step and allow that to grow into a greater health and safety [risk]."

Boise Police Chief Bill Bones had no specifics to share in addressing the situation at Cooper Court, a tent city that has grown only feet from the Interfaith Sanctuary.

"But 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, he gave no hint as to when or what form his strategy would take.

"It can't be the new normal," he said. "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' remarks were in front of a standing-room only Oct. 8 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, considering new avenues available to those seeking to leave homelessness and challenges stakeholders face in implementing possible solutions.

Bones said 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. 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.

"We need land. We need money. The problem is where," she said. 

Attendees also heard about Pay for Success, an innovative program chronicled in the Oct. 7 edition of Boise Weekly. According to the model, private investors step up to fund large-scale solutions for a community's most significant social needs. Only when success is reached, do taxpayers repay the funders.

"We can't do it alone," said Lachiondo."

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.

"But 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 burden of urban 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 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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