Two Boise City Council candidates’ comments on Interfaith Sanctuary’s proposal to move to State Street sparked controversy on social media last week.
District 3 candidate Maria Santa Cruz-Cernik and District 5 candidate Katie Fite drew criticism from Interfaith Sanctuary Executive Director Jodi Peterson-Stigers and supporters of the shelter relocation. The two candidates made now-retracted claims against the nonprofit and its project at a candidate forum last month.
Fite alleges social media posts ‘muzzling’ her campaign
In response to a question about the project, Fite, who is running against incumbent City Council Member Holli Woodings, told the crowd at the forum that she had concerns about a “mega-shelter” housing Boise’s homeless community. She also said the city’s eight-week Shelter Better Task Force did not have enough time to find a solution for the location of a new homeless shelter. Fite also claimed members were restrained from studying a wider range of parcels and the concept of locating multiple smaller shelters around the City of Boise.
She also told the crowd Shelter Better task force members were required to sign non-disclosure agreements. This is untrue. Members of the public could watch the meetings live on YouTube, though due to pandemic restrictions could not attend in person.
Members of the task force signed a “partner statement of commitment” agreeing to listen to diverse perspectives, make recommendations that serve the entire city and “commit to evidence-driven approaches,” but it did not restrict speech, according to the text of the agreement obtained by BoiseDev.
Hours after the forum, Fite emailed BoiseDev and posted on social media to clarify her remarks admitting her mistake. Since the forum, she met with Peterson-Stigers to discuss Interfaith Sanctuary’s proposal in greater detail and now says she is undecided on the project. But, she said the “vicious” attacks she received on social media from Peterson-Stigers and other shelter supporters show she is being “muzzled” after speaking out about developers and growth.
“I really do think that my campaign has hit a nerve, and I think the response to my forthright expression of some concerns at the young professionals’ forum and my misunderstanding from someone I trusted about what had taken place with agreements and the shelter provided an opportunity for these attacks on me and they are indeed politically motivated,” she said. “It’s really a bad idea for this to happen at this point in time in our community when tensions are running really high over the shelter over the potential shelter move.”
Peterson-Stigers: ‘These women are dangerous’
At the forum, Santa Cruz-Cernik repeated claims she made at the City Club of Boise forum earlier in the day that Peterson-Stigers had “unresolved issues” at Interfaith Sanctuary’s current facility on River Street. After the forum, she met with Peterson-Stigers and apologized.
Santa Cruz-Cernik told BoiseDev she heard what she said at the forum from a former customer at her hair salon who had lived in multiple shelters in Boise, but she should have talked with Peterson-Stigers before repeating what he said. She said she is evaluating the project and listening to constituents before deciding if she would support it or not.
“I shouldn’t have said it,” she said, noting that the answer came in a follow-up question from the forum moderator she wasn’t expecting. “It wasn’t the right place and the right time. It wasn’t right. I should have conferred with her first, especially with him being my customer. I was mentoring him, so I was hurt, and I was disillusioned, and that’s what it came down to. It was my own personal thing, it wasn’t a business thing or a campaign thing.”
Peterson-Stigers fired back on social media after meeting with both Fite and Santa Cruz-Cernik saying the meetings with both candidates focused on her negative comments and a post from Shelter Better Task Force member and Family Medical Residency of Idaho employee Penny Beach could be deleted. She said she was speaking out due to her “grave concern” about the two candidates for not “taking the time to be informed citizens.”
“These women are dangerous,” she wrote. “Please look to the leaders you can trust when you are deciding who to vote for. Boise has some challenges, but we will overcome them together by choosing leaders who have proven themselves to have the ability to sit with dignity in their roles as City Council Leaders.”
Fite pitches multiple shelters city-wide, but where?
Interfaith Sanctuary sold its River Street building and purchased its State Street building earlier this year. Interfaith has not yet received a conditional use permit to operate the new shelter. If the new shelter is not approved, Peterson-Stigers said the city’s only low-barrier shelter could close.
Fite told BoiseDev this is an opportunity for the city to get more heavily involved in housing the homeless community instead of relying on private nonprofits like Interfaith Sanctuary to carry the burden alone. She pointed to the city’s American Rescue Plan funds as a way to pay for housing solutions.
She reiterated her pitch to build smaller shelters throughout the City of Boise to serve different groups of people experiencing homelessness. This is an idea echoed by many activists who oppose the shelter, and two fellow candidates, who say there should be separate facilities for families with children, those with addiction, mental health concerns, and older adults in multiple neighborhoods.
Supporters of this concept say it would provide better outcomes for the community, but Interfaith Sanctuary and others say it would be prohibitively expensive and would only spark costly zoning fights city-wide. Emergency shelters are only allowed in four out of Boise’s 24 zoning districts currently, meaning any other site would require a rezone to be approved. The Shelter Better task force only found three pieces of land in the entire city that were large enough for Interfaith to relocate its facility, were for sale, and would be appropriately zoned for the use.
‘The easy thing to do is say you’re against things’
When asked how Fite would house the Interfaith Sanctuary guests displaced by the shelter potentially closing, she said the city should use land owned by the city or in urban renewal districts to build tiny homes with on-site supportive services. She initially suggested undeveloped land the city owns near the Boise Airport, but she said that land wasn’t feasible after BoiseDev asked about the airport noise regulations in the area that prevent residential development.
Instead, she proposed using part of downtown Boise’s former fire training facility to build the tiny home development. This is currently on McLean’s radar for affordable housing, but no specific plans have been drawn up. Other solutions to house the homeless community she pitched included a safe parking area for people who live in their cars to use, home-sharing, or land for mobile home parks as a way to house the homeless community.
Because there is an active application for Interfaith Sanctuary, Woodings has declined to weigh in on the project aside from affirming her support for a low-barrier shelter in the City of Boise. As a longer-term solution, she said the city should look toward expanding permanent supportive housing projects like New Path Community Housing and Valor Pointe.
Fite is also frustrated that her comment on Beach’s post on her personal Facebook page criticizing her was deleted, while a post from Woodings was left up.
“The easy thing to do is say you’re against things; the hard thing is to work together and be for something,” Woodings wrote under Beach’s post. “I take a lot of pride in consistently showing up to do the latter and listening to all the folks involved. I also appreciate you reaching out to share your perspective – that’s what civic engagement is all about!”
MacMillan’s ties to anti-shelter activists
Greg MacMillan did not respond to an email or a phone call from BoiseDev to talk about his position on the Interfaith Sanctuary project. But, he has spoken out in support for smaller shelters throughout the city during his appearances at candidate forums during the election.He said the city would have to use some taxpayer money toward a solution, but ran out of time before he could add more details.
“The homeless population is not a homogenous group,” he said during a forum held in Northwest Boise last week. “There is a variety of homeless populations with different issues. There are families, those with addiction issues, those with mental health issues, and veterans you need to think about. You can’t bring and expect all of them to go under one roof. It sounds like a good idea in the sense that we’ll bring them all together and we’ll have opportunities within that shelter to help them out, but there’s the idea of taking a family and putting it in with other groups with different needs is not the best solution in the first place.”
Some voters in District 3 have also received campaign emails supporting MacMillan from a group called Boise Neighborhoods. The Facebook page for the group was renamed KatyDeckerforboise in August before being changed back to Boise Neighborhoods in early October. Decker is the Vice President of the Veterans Park Neighborhood Association and has been a staunch opponent to the Interfaith Sanctuary project.
Kate Lovan Oden, who MacMillan is paying for campaign consulting, lives at the address listed at the bottom of Boise Neighborhoods emails.
District 1 candidates still reviewing the proposal
Laura Metzler and Luci Willits, who are campaigning for the open seat in West Boise, are undecided on the project.
Metzler said she supports Housing First to help address chronic homelessness by providing housing and supportive services to help stabilize residents and find the assistance they need. As far as Interfaith Sanctuary’s specific project, she is declining to weigh in until she can fully explore the proposal if elected.
Willits said addressing homelessness is an important issue for her, but because the project is not in her neighborhood, she has not taken a position on it yet. If elected, she plans to dig into the topic, better understand “all facets” and hear from stakeholders.
What about the other District 3 candidates?
Lisa Sánchez, in the race with MacMillan and Santa Cruz-Cernik, followed Woodings’ lead and declined to weigh in on the matter because the city is currently considering it.She said it would be a “disservice” to the district to discuss her thoughts on the matter now and risk having to recuse herself from a vote later.
Also running in District 3 against MacMillan, Sanchez, and Santa Cruz-Cernik, Nicholas Domeny also agreed with MacMillan that the city should have multiple smaller shelters throughout the city for people with different needs. He likened it to the public school system where students can attend different schools depending on their interests, like the technical school or the Frank Church High School.
“I don’t believe it’s very wise to keep everybody in the same spot,” Domeny said at a candidate forum in Northwest Boise. “If you get too many people with the same ideas in the same location, they may not strive for something better. To keep people in multiple spots would give them the best opportunity possible to help them reform and continuously push them to do better, but if you put them all in one giant building, I think we can agree that wouldn’t really work.”
District 5 waiting to weigh in
Crispin Gravatt, running against Fite and Woodings in District 5, expressed support for the project at the Boise Young Professionals forum, but this week said he is declining to weigh in because the application could come before him if he is elected as a council member.He did, however, express his support for low-barrier and emergency shelters in the city.
Steve Madden, also running against Fite, Woodings and Gravatt, said he is opposed to the project after meeting with the Veterans Park Neighborhood Association. He said Interfaith Sanctuary did not take enough of their input in developing the proposal, and because the neighborhood was not involved enough, he would have to vote no.
“For Interfaith Sanctuary to think they can move in and not think they have to talk to the people that live there, it’s way out of line,” Madden said. “Those people deserve to be notified and have their objections if they have them be listened to. Interfaith Sanctuary is just a group, they’re not a government authority. They can’t force citizens into doing anything, and I don’t like that they’re sneaking around trying to make this thing happen.”