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Homelessness on wheels: Boise Police, social workers launch new initiative for those living in vehicles in downtown Boise

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Scott Ruward loves being free. 

With his mixed-breed white dog by his side, he rattles around the streets of Boise and anywhere else he chooses to travel in a decades-old RV. The vehicle, which is likely too old and in disrepair to get into a traditional campground or trailer park, is packed to the rafters with all of his belongings. He doesn’t have access to running water, a bathroom, or an electricity hook up.

But, he’s not camping. Ruward, 56, parks his RV on the outskirts of downtown Boise and moves his vehicle every three days to skirt city parking regulations. According to the dictionary definition, he is experiencing homelessness, even though that’s not how he sees it. 

“I don’t want better housing,” he said, standing on the sidewalk outside his vehicle a few hundred feet from the Connector and an office building. “I always want to be moving.”

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Ruward is one of a growing number of residents experiencing homelessness living in aging RVs and cars in and around downtown Boise. Those living in the vehicles choose to stay there for a variety of reasons. Some want to escape the structure and stressful environment of a shelter and others want to keep their personal items with them. Some families choose to live in vehicles because it means they can stay together, instead of the parents separated as required by shelters operated by Boise Rescue Mission. But regardless of their reasons, nearby property managers and the City of Boise started to receive a wave of complaints about sanitation and loitering about the people who live in the vehicles. 

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As Boise’s rent prices continue to outpace wages the population of Boiseans living in cars or RVs steadily grows. COVID-19 brought the problem into sharper focus. Jodi Peterson-Stigers, executive director of emergency shelter Interfaith Sanctuary, said the virus has driven those who were previously living scattered across the metro area closer to downtown where they can access services. 

“There’s nowhere to go, there’s no library, there’s no place to get a meal, so wherever they were staying before, they’re not now and staying closer to the supportive services instead,” she said. “They can’t be farther away from the services because they’re not welcome in other buildings because of COVID.”

Scott Ruward, 56, outside of his RV in downtown Boise

Breaking the cycle

To try and solve the problem, Peterson-Stigers, housing nonprofit CATCH, the City of Boise and the Boise Police Department partnered to put together a more coordinated effort to make contact with those living in the vehicles and elsewhere unsheltered to try and get them assistance. Called “Street Outreach Support,” the program is as simple as knocking on the door to see what residents need.

Last week, Peterson-Stigers and two of her staffers hit the streets to check on some people living in a cluster of RVs off of 17th Street. In the aging vehicles, they discovered a range of problems. One woman was upset after relapsing back into drug use following a stint of sobriety. Another couple was struggling with getting medical attention and worrying about reuniting with their children. The social workers asked those living in the vehicles if they had proper identification, food stamps or Medicaid to go to the doctor. If not, they could come meet with caseworkers to get help.

“Come on back to the shelter,” Peterson-Stiger said, in an attempt to comfort the woman struggling with addiction. “Relapses happen. We can help you.”

Interfaith Sanctuary is a “low barrier” shelter, which means anyone can stay there regardless of sobriety as long as they are non-violent and follow the rules. A few people Peterson-Stigers met expressed concern walking through the alley on the way to the shelter because it could put them in contact with people using who could convince them to break their sobriety. In response, she encouraged anyone who wants to get clean to come to the front door of the building so they can connect with Interfaith’s new Project Recovery program to help with drug and alcohol use.

Captain Paul Burch, BPD’s captain of community outreach, decided earlier this year the department should take a more proactive approach. Before, officers would go out to the site where people were parked for longer than three days and issue a parking ticket and have a conversation with the occupants about the law. If a vehicle stayed longer than three days it could be towed, but more would pop up in its place. 

“No matter what we did the vehicle just moved,” he said. “When it moved the problems went along with it and then we were back into the same cycle. When we looked at this, I said ‘let’s try to come up with a better solution’.”

‘It’s about keeping them safe’

Getting the residents of these vehicles into housing isn’t simple. Waiting lists for affordable housing units in Ada County are years long, and residents are reluctant to give up their belongings for a chance at going into the shelter system and possibly getting help. Many people living in vehicles have been chronically homeless for years and are experiencing mental illness, struggling with substance abuse and generally distrust the social safety net, according to Peterson-Stigers.

Jeannette Curtis, CATCH’s outreach program director, said she understood the temptation to get residents out of the vehicles and into a shelter, but it might end up making the problem worse. If you remove what few assets the residents have, they could end up leaving the system and worse off than where they started. 

“If you take their vehicles, they could end back up on the street,” Curtis said. “It’s about ‘how can we keep them safe and start working on some of those barriers with them’ instead.”

Some cities along the West Coast, which have been especially impacted by homelessness, operate designated parking lots for people who live in their cars or RVs to park at night. On one hand, this takes the homelessness problem off of the streets and relieves resident complaints. But, the City of Boise’s Our Path Home Coordinator Maureen Brewer called the idea “fraught” with complications. 

“I was at a conference and I heard how Seattle was managing 10 sanctioned encampments and that diverted resources away from the support services and housing they really need,” Brewer said. “We’ve explored options like that because of those RVs and campers and other worldly possessions, but I think in approaching it that way you’re really trying to mitigate the symptoms rather than address the root cause.”

Interfaith Sanctuary Executive Director Jodi Peterson-Stigers, Case Management Coordinator Maranda Jay and Director of Programming Luther Pugh talk with a Boisean living in a camper in downtown Boise.

A private solution?

Peterson-Stigers is hoping for a solution somewhere in the middle. Instead of going for a safe parking place for these homeless residents to go, she wants to find a private property owner who would allow the residents to store their RVs and cars for 30 days while they give living in a hotel room through Interfaith Sanctuary or the shelter a try. While there, case managers could assist them with getting connected to housing, get them on a path to sobriety, or get moving on finding housing. Maybe they wouldn’t want to go back to living in a vehicle. 

“We don’t know what would happen, but we’ve never had these 30 days with them before,” she said. “The reason we’re not attempting this is because all of us are looking for that resource of safely storing these RVs and trailers. This isn’t something Interfaith could take on financially and if you look at what is available for car storage, it’s a pricey option.”

But for now, social workers will continue to try and make contact with those out and about downtown. And Ruward and his dog will continue to set up shop on residential streets and in business districts, moving just in time to avoid a ticket. 

“I don’t like being told what to do,” he said, about his refusal to go to a shelter. “I don’t like being tied down to anyone.”

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Margaret Carmel
Margaret is a BoiseDev reporter focused on the City of Boise, housing, homelessness and growth. Contact her at margaret@boisedev.com or by phone at (757)705-8066.

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