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Neighbors, Interfaith Sanctuary director hold tense discussion over proposed State St. shelter

The prospect of a newly expanded Interfaith Sanctuary coming to State Street is not welcome news to many nearby neighbors.

On Wednesday night, the Veterans Park Neighborhood Association held a meeting with roughly 100 attendees to hear a presentation from the emergency shelter’s executive director Jodi Peterson-Stigers about what she wanted to bring to the area. During the hour and a half long question and answer period, residents shared fears about disruption to the neighborhood from the multi-million dollar project, which one person dubbed “a mega-shelter.”

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Residents shook their heads and some cried out of frustration and anger at the possibility of the empty Salvation Army warehouse near Willow Lane Athletic Complex housing potentially over 200 people experiencing homelessness in their neighborhood. They raised concerns about trash, loitering, the proximity to nearby playgrounds, and growing the concentration of low-income residents into the area.

A new way to house the homeless

Interfaith Sanctuary currently operates out of an old warehouse on River Street in downtown Boise, but Peterson-Stigers said the shelter is bursting at the seams. She did not say exactly how many beds the new shelter would contain or how many families with children versus single adults would stay there, but the plan for the larger space would be to offer a more sophisticated way of housing people.

Peterson-Stigers said plans for the new “dream shelter” include open dorms for emergency stays, as well as more private spaces for employed residents or doing well in programming to stay. It would also include a dorm for families with children and a special area to house seniors with medical needs so they can receive medical treatment in the shelter, which is not possible now in the shelter’s current layout.

“Our mission is to serve the most vulnerable first and this building identifies families with children and the most medically fragile at the center,” she said.

After several testy questions from the attendees about the number of guests they hope to house, Peterson-Stigers said the plan is not yet final. Full details will be available during the formal neighborhood meeting required by the City of Boise on February 10.

‘I see garbage, I see filth, I see crime’

Attendees peppered Peterson-Stigers with questions throughout the meeting about the various operations of the shelter and how it could impact the neighborhood. They asked about the possibility of Willow Lane Athletic Complex becoming a gathering spot for those experiencing homelessness under the influence, when guests had to leave the common area behind the building for the night, and who would be welcome to eat meals there.

Tonya Kuhn acknowledged people needed assistance in Boise, but expressed anger at the possibility of the shelter drawing blight to the area near her property.

“I live across the street from Willow Park,” she said. “How are you going to prevent me from opening the blinds in the morning and seeing vehicles lining the streets? I see the old RVs in front of my face, I see the homeless people in an extremely small park. I see garbage, I see filth, I see crime.”

This neighborhood is one of the lower-income areas of the city. It is already home to the City of Boise’s permanent supportive housing project for veterans experiencing homelessness, Valor Pointe. Some attendees also objected to the project location’s close proximity to several bars and strip clubs, which they said would be detrimental to anyone struggling with addiction to live near.

Valor Pointe Project
Valor Pointe is a permanent supportive housing project for veterans experiencing homelessness on State Street. Courtesy of the City of Boise.

Peterson-Stigers admitted there might be challenges if the city approves the project, but suggested creating a neighborhood advisory committee so residents could easily share their concerns and find solutions. She also proposed creating a phone tree to hand out to nearby residents so they knew who to call in order to resolve issues, like a mental health emergency or litter.

Neighbors gearing up for a legal fight

Pete Barnes, treasurer for the neighborhood association, and others said putting the shelter in their neighborhood would only serve to pack low-income residents of Boise into one neighborhood and leave other higher-income neighborhoods untouched.

In response, she said Interfaith Sanctuary saw the site as an ideal location because of its size and former use as a place to serve low-income Boiseans through the Salvation Army, not because she wanted to “lump” all low-income people in the same area.

She said the organization looked at two other locations. One of them was the hotel they are currently housing families in, which she said did not meet their needs, and another more “isolated” location in an area further away from residential neighborhoods, but it wouldn’t work for their mission because of its isolation.

“I think it comes down to how differently we see this population,” she said to the neighbors. “Putting (people experiencing homelessness) into an industrial area doesn’t help change their condition and we’re in the business of helping change people’s condition. Our focus is that. That’s what we do.”

After hearing from one last resident who was crying in anger over the project and Peterson-Stiger’s potential impact to the neighborhood, she signed off.

“I’m on this call tonight to answer questions, but based on the comments you don’t want the answers,” Peterson-Stigers said. “I hope some of you were open-minded and could hear me, but based on the comments I think I have a lot of work to do and I will keep trying to do that.”

Neighbors discussed strategy for fighting the new shelter at length after her departure. The Veterans Park Neighborhood Association board voted to create committees to research the issue of homeless shelters and their impact on residential areas, as well as start fundraising for legal representation to fight the project.

Barnes later told BoiseDev the neighborhood association has not yet taken a formal vote on whether it will take legal action.

McLean and the City of Boise not involved

Interfaith Sanctuary operates independently with private donations. They do not accept any funds from the City of Boise, the State of Idaho or the federal government for day-to-day operations.

The City of Boise is currently contracting with Interfaith Sanctuary to operate a day shelter in the former Foothills School of Arts and Sciences through the winter. The city is also using CARES Act funds to rent hotel rooms for families with children and medically at-risk Interfaith Sanctuary guests to allow them to social distance during COVID-19 with the goal of preventing an outbreak in the city’s homeless community.

Although the city and the shelter are collaborating on those other projects during the pandemic, this new shelter project is not something the local government is involved in. Emails between Interfaith Sanctuary and the City of Boise officials, including Mayor Lauren McLean, obtained by BoiseDev show no communications showing the city is involved in the project at all beyond being told about it.

There was also no indication in the emails what McLean, or any other city officials’, opinion on the project is or if they had already decided they would support it.

When asked about the project Wednesday during a press briefing, McLean said the city values it’s partnership with Interfaith Sanctuary, but she did not comment on the merits of the project.

“In terms of deciding whether a shelter ought to be in one place or engagement in the decision making an organization may have done, we had no part in it,” she said. “This application comes before the city and we too are waiting to see the plans proposed and how they believe they are appropriate for the neighborhood and intend to provide services.”

Boise engaged on homelessness in recent years, but with a focus on permanent supportive housing over building new emergency shelters. The city’s current public-private partnership hopes to reach the waiting list for housing services for families experiencing homelessness down to zero in the next five years. That initiative is focused on prevention and housing those in need quickly, instead of looking to create more shelter beds.

Margaret Carmel - BoiseDev senior 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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