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Campaign to end family homelessness in Ada County on track after COVID-19 delay

A little over a year ago, the City of Boise embarked on an ambitious goal to effectively eliminate family homelessness in Ada County by 2025.

So, after a year of unexpected economic upheaval and the worst pandemic in a century, how’s it going?

The pandemic delayed the effort by a few months, but it’s not because of a lack of support. Boise’s Senior Manager of Housing and Community Development Maureen Brewer said there is still substantial interest from the philanthropic community, but the unexpected impact of the pandemic slowed the rollout of the capital campaign to fund the public-private partnership. 

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

The influx of federal relief dollars to help with homelessness prevention also meant the group could take more time to make a detailed plan to address family homelessness in a new way.

“There’s an urgency for every family that’s on the street and we feel that deeply,” Brewer said. “Don’t take (the delay) to mean we’re not working super hard and fast, but we need to take a minute to take stock of what we have money coming in for and what are the eligible uses.”

The group has not yet made the call if they will move their goal to reaching functional zero from 2025 to 2026 because of the delays.

How do you “eliminate” homelessness?

The goal is for the number of families experiencing homelessness in Ada County to reach “functional zero.” That would mean just as many families are being housed as are becoming homeless so there is no waitlist for help. The plan is to achieve this by ramping up investment in prevention, case managers and rental assistance to help get residents back under a roof of their own. 

Over time, Brewer said the plan is to first invest more of the funds into helping those who are without a place of their own get into housing. Then, eventually pivot more resources to preventing homelessness as they made their way through the backlog.

To make it happen, the City of Boise, Ada County and a variety of organizations working to address homelessness are putting together a capital campaign with plans to raise $8.4 million. Boise and Ada County already voted to chip in $2 million and $500,000 respectively. The rest would come from private donors. 

Once the full economic implications of the pandemic hit and the most vulnerable Ada County residents became even more exposed to falling behind on rent and eviction, Boise officials and other organizations involved paused their work on the family homelessness project to deal with the rapidly spreading pandemic.

CATCH Executive Director Stephanie Day said the waitlist for families experiencing homelessness has boomed since COVID-19 hit Idaho. Prior to 2020, CATCH usually had around 150 families in a shelter or living in their cars at any given time. Now, that waitlist has ballooned to around 235 families.

Even with the increases in demand for help, Day said her organization was able to make an impact this year with additional case managers and more focus on the issue from the public. She is optimistic that with community support the campaign will successfully make an impact once it gets off the ground.

“It’s definitely not been a great year for homelessness in the community, but we know what we need to do and I think we can get it done,” she said.

[COVID spreads in Boise homeless shelters: one Boise Rescue Mission guest and staffer dead]

Reimagining the system

Once the network of groups working on homelessness found a rhythm in the new normal, Brewer said they wanted to wait to launch the public campaign until they had made the best use of the aid coming in from the federal relief packages. Those funds, which included millions for rental assistance through the Idaho Housing and Finance Association, need to be expended by a certain date.

In the meantime, Brewer said providers have been meeting weekly to work on redesigning the homelessness response system to rethink how to ensure those experiencing homelessness don’t fall through the cracks. Although the campaign is focused on families, the changes made by the committee will also help adults looking for assistance.

Our Path Home, the private-public partnership working to address homelessness in Ada County, contracted with consulting firm Agnew Beck to work with the executive committee of nonprofits on the plan. Wyatt Schroeder, former Director of Community Partnerships for the City of Boise and Executive Director of homelessness nonprofit CATCH, is working on the project for Agnew Beck.

DBD Group, a consulting firm for nonprofit and faith-based organizations, will lead the fundraising under contract with Ada County. 

The players at the table include CATCH, eviction prevention nonprofit Jesse Tree, the Women and Children’s Alliance and Boise Public Schools. The school system has been active on preventing homelessness by raising money through its foundation to help pay rent and utilities for families in need to prevent eviction, busing students from homeless shelters and offering other support through its Community Schools in low-income neighborhoods.

Deputy Superintendent Lisa Roberts said the school’s inclusion in the partnership brings their significant experience serving families where they are to the table.

“We can say ‘that sounds like a good idea but I don’t think it will work because of this’,” Roberts said, about the discussions on how to help families. “We just have so much experience meeting the needs of our homeless students that I think that is the strength we need.”

More housing

All the money in the world can’t help homelessness if there aren’t places available for those in need to rent.

A major part of the planning process for the capital campaign is not only focused on raising money for social workers and rental assistance, but also to find ways to increase the number of units open to extremely low-income Ada County residents.

[‘There’s no affordable housing’: Essential workers face big housing challenges in Idaho resort community]

The plans include looking at ways to build more units, but there’s only so much local governments can build on their own, she said.

“….There’s also an acknowledgement we can’t build our way out of it with projects because we don’t have a housing land trust at the state level,” Brewer said. “We just have limited tools to bring those types of units to the market.”

Brewer said part of the planning process is to work with the nonprofits on the executive committee to come up with strategies to address the shortage, which could include relationships with landlords, incentives to create “dedicated units” for those experiencing homelessness and connecting the program to the projects underway by the City of Boise to build more affordable housing through its land trust.

CATCH has already started trying out some of these solutions during the pandemic. This includes signing bonuses for landlords who agree to house their clients, a damage fund to reimburse landlords if there are issues with the apartment after a tenant moves out and vacancy payments to a landlord if a family moves out early and there is a gap before a new family can move in.

“With our programs the hope is at least we’ve got support so we’ll have all of these financial incentives so (landlords) aren’t losing out in the market if they keep their rents reasonable and there’s support from case managers,” Day said. “You’re always taking a risk when you rent to someone, but at least if you take a risk with us then there’s support.”

Margaret Carmel - BoiseDev reporter
Margaret Carmel is a BoiseDev reporter focused on the City of Boise, housing, homelessness and growth. Contact her at [email protected] or by phone at (757)705-8066.

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