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Neighbors, Interfaith Sanctuary hold Q&A meeting on shelter proposal

A second meeting meant to calm tensions about the possibility of a newly expanded homeless shelter on State Street didn’t go very far in reassuring skeptics.

On Wednesday, Interfaith Sanctuary held a virtual neighborhood meeting with nearly 300 community members about the nonprofit’s proposal to bring a “reimagined” shelter to a former Salvation Army warehouse along State St. The project garnered harsh criticism from nearby neighbors since the shelter’s announcement last month, with residents raising concerns about loitering, crime, and adding more social services to an already low-income neighborhood.

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This meeting is the first step in Boise’s planning and development process. Next, the shelter would submit its application for approval which would then move to the Planning & Zoning Commission later this year.

Director says current shelter sold

Interfaith Sanctuary Executive Director Jodi Peterson-Stigers kicked off the meeting answering frequently asked questions about the project and reassuring neighbors she planned the shelter would not diminish the quality of life in the neighborhood or tank property values. After her presentation, residents submitted often pointed questions about the shelter’s impact on the area for nearly four hours.

She acknowledged the shelter would make some impact and bring changes to the neighborhood, but she said the staff will focus on addressing problems and that the new shelter model will make issues easier to handle.

“We will have a 24/7 phone number and if there’s something you need handled, we are there to address it with you,” Peterson-Stigers said. “We have time before the shelter is ready to move in and we can kind of work together to come up with that communication. We’re not going to leave the problems outside the shelter on you. The outside is as important to us as the inside.”

The current shelter along Cooper Court in Boise. Photo: Margaret Carmel/BoiseDev

Peterson-Stigers said her organization sold the current shelter on River St. to another buyer, and that the buyer will lease the building back until they can move into the new State Street shelter. She did not answer a text message Wednesday night asking about the identity of the buyer. Ada County property transfer records do not show any recently recorded sales involving Interfaith Sanctuary.

When asked during the question and answer session what the shelter’s plan was if the State Street proposal was not approved, she said the organization did not have “a great answer” at this time.

So, how would it work?

Peterson-Stigers said the expanded shelter would include 278 available beds, up from the 164 in the current emergency shelter on River Street. The shelter will set aside 112 of the beds for families experiencing homelessness and 34 for those with medical needs. Another 36 beds will be “incentive beds” for guests who are stably employed or flourishing programming, which will include a more private space for guests to store some belongings.

The final 96 beds will be for the general homeless population of single adults and are open to anyone, regardless of if they are participating in programming, as long as they follow the behavior rules of Interfaith Sanctuary.

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If the shelter can move to the new location, Interfaith Sanctuary will open as a day shelter. This means any guests who stay there can also spend the day in the shelter or in the yard behind the building. Peterson-Stigers said the goal is for a “totally secure” shelter with ten-foot fences along the back and gates to ensure guests’ safety and to keep them on the property and not impacting the neighborhood. She will be applying for a variance to allow for the taller fence height.

The shelter will provide three meals a day for guests at the day shelter, but she said this will not be widely advertised and they only have the resources to serve those who are staying there. She also said day shelter services will not be available to people who do not wish to become a guest at the shelter due to space and resources.

Across social media in recent weeks and multiple times during the meeting, neighbors raised questions about the presence of sex offenders in the shelter. Peterson-Stigers said they do not permit sex offenders to stay, because families with children also live at Interfaith Sanctuary. Anyone with a sex crime on their background check will immediately move to another shelter in downtown Boise if they try to check-in.

Questions about ‘well-intentioned’ project

Many neighbors did not appear convinced.

Meeting attendees expressed alarm at the project’s proximity to a residential neighborhood, the Greenbelt and busy State Street. They took issue with Peterson-Stiger’s assurances that Interfaith Sanctuary “be a good neighbor” and questioned what her exact plans were to address their concerns about people experiencing homelessness in the area.

Some residents requested Peterson-Stigers pay homeowners if their property values declined due to the shelter as compensation.

“Jodi is a wonderfully well intentioned person and it might work out fine, but it might not,” Paul Geile said. “I hear the word ‘promise,’ ‘promise,’ ‘promise,’ but what happens when this thing becomes unmanageable? If the problems persist, our neighborhood will pay the price for that for a very long time.”

They peppered Peterson-Stigers about questions of funding, the possibility of camping and drinking in the nearby Willow Lane Athletic Complex and Veteran’s Park. They also repeatedly asked her why the project was being “rushed” and why Interfaith Sanctuary wouldn’t pull out of the project when there was so much opposition.

Several residents came to the meeting with studies they read about adverse impacts emergency shelters had on crime and property values. They expressed concerns about losing value on their homes and a rise in vandalism and theft in the area. In response, Peterson-Stigers said her research found shelters with the biggest impact on the area did not include staffing or programming.

But, she said this proposal would use staff 24/7 and include meals and programming to keep residents from needing to wander the neighborhood and commit “crimes of survival.”

A pause is ‘not acceptable’

Throughout the night, Peterson-Stigers told concerned residents they chose to keep pushing ahead with the project because the pandemic meant they were now serving more people experiencing homelessness than they could hold at the River Street shelter without extra room in nearby hotels. When the emergency funding paying for the rooms to enable social distancing ends, she said it would be a backslide.

Interfaith Sanctuary Executive Director Jodi Peterson-Stigers

“The pause in our line of work is not acceptable because that pause puts people at risk,” Peterson-Stigers said. “It puts human beings at risk and being out on the street and back in their cars and a pause is not appropriate for the job that we have.”

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The Veteran’s Park neighborhood is one of the lowest income census tracts in the City of Boise. It is already home to Valor Pointe, a permanent supportive housing complex for veterans experiencing homelessness. Mary Katherine Torres said she was frustrated with some of the ways the neighborhood’s opposition has been characterized as intolerant when in reality they have already been home to a population with a range of incomes and backgrounds for years.

“This neighborhood does a significant amount for those that are in need and I would ask you to give us our due credit and stop with the PR verbiage that casts us in a NIMBY light,” she told Peterson-Stigers.

Over and over, Peterson-Stigers pushed back on how those in attendance have been talking about people experiencing homelessness who live in her shelter. She said there are a lot of misconceptions about the behavior of her guests and she had hoped attendees would be more open-minded.

“We work really hard to keep people safe and we’ve had to manage a lot of different ideas and opinions about our homeless.” Peterson-Stigers said. “Some are true and some are not and I think we need to be able to open up the conversation about all the different people who find themselves homeless and who deserve to live in a neighborhood. It’s not PR, it’s our job.”

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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