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City changes course, says task force won’t help decide location for Interfaith shelter

A task force set up to study Interfaith Sanctuary’s proposal for a new shelter location shifted gears in its final meetings.

At the end of August, the leadership of Boise’s Shelter Better task force decided that the group of nearly 20 stakeholders would no longer review specific sites for a new emergency homeless shelter, nor would it vote on a preferred alternative.

Instead, the task force will prepare a report with general recommendations on community engagement and emergency shelter best practices for Boise’s Planning & Zoning and Boise City Council to review as they consider Interfaith Sanctuary’s proposal for an expanded shelter on State Street.

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In January, the nonprofit announced it would buy the former Salvation Army warehouse on State Street to renovate into a larger shelter with beds for 200 guests, a commercial kitchen, day shelter and other areas for programming. The nearby Veteran’s Park Neighborhood Association immediately opposed the project, citing concerns over property values and the potential for crime committed by some residents of the shelter.

Interfaith Sanctuary sold its River Street building and purchased the Salvation Army shelter earlier this year prior to its the city of Boise approving the new shelter.

What happened with the task force?

Further meetings between Interfaith Sanctuary and frustrated neighbors continued through the spring, including a redesign of the project to reduce the number of beds, but tensions remained high. McLean announced a pause on the project at the beginning of June so the city could convene the Shelter Better task force to come back with a “proposed solution and an agreement around better shelter,” noting that the solution could end up being the State Street warehouse.

But, at the seventh meeting of the eight-week task force on August 26th, task force chair Courtney Washburn, McLean’s Chief of Staff, told the members that the taskforce is not “empowered” to make decisions for Interfaith Sanctuary or the City of Boise.

She said there has been a growing “unease” with several members of the task force that they did not have enough information to vote on a preferred shelter location in only eight weeks, and the task force could not deliberate any longer.

“Again, I can’t make the timeline go any further and I’ve heard you that you’re not comfortable with the information you have at making some of these decisions,” Washburn told the task force after a few members expressed confusion at the new direction. “Pieces of properties are complex. I’m not a zoning nerd or nor do I understand most of this, and I know who does and it’s the folks who are in the decision-making space in this area.”

Frustration from members on both sides

In the meeting, Interfaith Sanctuary Board Member Rabbi Dan Fink was not pleased with the idea that the task force is walking away from a specific direction.

“I think we make a mistake by walking away from unease,” Fink said. “There’s a desire and I understand it politically because nobody wants unease, but leadership means stepping into the unease and giving us direction.”

Katy Decker, a task force member and vice president of the Veterans Park Neighborhood Association, is also frustrated with the task force’s process. She said the city should have anticipated that the task force couldn’t compel Interfaith Sanctuary to change their project proposal and that members weren’t equipped to evaluate sites for development from the beginning. 

She and other neighborhood activists opposed to Interfaith’s project, also repeatedly called for a totally different shelter model, like smaller sites throughout the city. That sort of alternative hasn’t been permitted to be studied or discussed in the task force meetings because it’s been solely focused on Interfaith Sanctuary’s proposal. 

“I understand they’re trying to record the effort that’s gone into this over the last 8 weeks, but the task force isn’t equipped to make such a general report because from the beginning all of the discussion has been curtailed around the proposed Interfaith Sanctuary site and their operational constraints,” she said. “So now we’re making general recommendations for shelter in Boise and we know people have been interested in scatter site models, but we haven’t had any readings or discussions around it at all.”

City spokesperson Lana Graybeal said the recommendations will help guide the final decision.

“This team has been invaluable in workshopping and ultimately presenting their recommendations for how we serve our most vulnerable residents,” Graybeal wrote in an email. “The final report they produce will be used to guide community decisions around our emergency shelter response as it folds into Our Path Home’s strategic plan for ending homelessness in Ada County.”

Few options for alternative properties

One of the biggest charges of the task force was to do a “land scan” to study available parcels where the shelter could be located and vote on an option. At the August 26th meeting, broker Sam McCaskill, who also helped Interfaith Sanctuary find the State Street property, presented his findings, but there wasn’t much for the task force to evaluate.

Of the properties within Boise city limits, three acres or less, and in one of Boise’s four zones that allow for an emergency shelter, only a handful of properties remained. Of those, almost all of them had come under contract since the task force started looking, except for a site owned by Ada County Highway District on Front Street next door to Terry Reilly Health Services and a site at 1250 Vinnell Way, which is tucked behind the Overland Road Walmart near the freeway.

There was no in-depth discussion of the merits of either parcel.

McCaskill said the Vinnell site is listed with a national broker and the price isn’t publicly available, which he said is an indication that it is a high price out of Interfaith Sanctuary’s budget. He has also been unable to contact the agent that is selling the property to even inquire if they would be interested in selling.

He said there is such high demand for sites that fit Interfaith Sanctuary’s criteria that they are often bought within days of sale or never hit the open market. For example, he noted the site of the Symposium bar sold for $5 million an acre.

“The financial situation is difficult,” he told the task force. “The hardest part of it is finding a property or a property owner willing to sell that fits the parameters. The search has been very creative, both from industrial, office buildings, all the way down to the dirt and I think that no doubt the property value for State Street has gone up. There’s a lot of demand for buildings like that.”

Is State Street the only option?

Interfaith Sanctuary Executive Director Jodi Peterson-Stigers said the few options that the land scan turned up confirmed all of the due diligence her nonprofit did before purchasing the building for the project. She hoped the task force would help everyone in the community come together and realize the State Street site with its history of Salvation Army family services on the site made it the best option, but she said the process hindered that collaboration.

“Interfaith has done a lot of work to believe (this project) is the right thing, but we wanted other people to be a part of the process so us seeing and learning together could show this made sense, but I don’t think we got there,” she said. “I don’t think the task force allowed us to get there.”

Decker isn’t so sure there aren’t other options. She said the city shouldn’t have limited the criteria to only the few zones in the city allowing a shelter already if it has a conditional use permit. If they looked at properties in neighborhoods where a shelter wasn’t already allowed, it could open up more possible sites.

“If we can rezone for housing, then why can’t we talk about rezoning for properties that we can use for a shelter?” Decker said. “I don’t know why that is the hold up there.”

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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