Boise council hearings on Interfaith shelter begin: officials, supporters, and neighborhoods make arguments

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Boise City Council kicked off its unprecedented full week of hearings to decide on Interfaith Sanctuary’s proposal to relocate to State Street on Monday night. 

Starting at 4 p.m., dozens of people in opposition to and in support of the shelter alike gathered on the third floor of Boise City Hall to start the first installment of public hearings on the nonprofit’s proposal. The proposal, which has been moving toward this vote for nearly a year and a half, calls for a roughly 200-bed shelter at the former Salvation Army warehouse in the Veteran’s Park Neighborhood. 

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IFS’s pitch was not welcomed with open arms by the nearby neighborhood associations. Since the concept became public, nearby residents have raised multiple objections to the shelter. This includes possible safety concerns, proximity to a residential neighborhood, the distance from other social services, and objections to the neighborhood playing host to a shelter when the area already has several housing developments aimed at low-income Boiseans. 

Boise’s Planning & Zoning Commission sided with neighbors in January, denying the application 5-1. IFS promptly appealed the application to the Boise City Council to decide this week if P&Z made an error in deciding to vote the project down.

How would this impact police and fire service?

The evening kicked off with Boise City Council asking a round of questions to city staff department heads who would be responsible for services at the new shelter. 

One of the biggest questions driving the conversation at P&Z was whether or not the shelter would have adverse impacts on the neighborhood, particularly when it comes to public safety. Neighbors repeatedly argued the high call volume shown in a Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design study done in the Shoreline District near Interfaith Sanctuary means the shelter would bring crime to Veterans Park and stretch police resources. 

BPD remained neutral throughout the application process, not advising the city council one way or the other on the project. Chief Ryan Lee testified that it stands to reason that many of the calls currently going to IFS’s current location on River Street would relocate to State Street if the shelter moves. Still, BPD would be able to shift its resources to cover the change by moving where officers patrol. 

Those in opposition to the project have pointed to the city’s investment in a new downtown police precinct and the mothballing of a small substation across the street from the Salvation Army warehouse as a reason to keep the shelter downtown, where officers regularly patrol. But, Lee said most officers work out of their cars and aren’t tied to a specific location to do their work. 

“It’s reasonable to assume if we move (the shelter), we can assume the same call volume or a slight increase, but the impact that would have to service, with officers mostly deploying from patrol, calls could be negligible,” Lee said. 

Boise Fire Chief Mark Niemeyer had a similar viewpoint to Lee. He said most of IFS’s calls are currently answered by Fire Station 5 downtown, the city’s busiest station. Moving the shelter would shift calls from downtown to Fire Station 9, but he said it was a burden the station could handle.

“There would be a shift in calls, and we would see a hit to Station 9’s reliability, but we would also see Station 5’s reliability come up,” Niemeyer said.

He did express concern about calls for minor emergencies going up city-wide, so to help address the spike in calls to Fire Station 9 on top of their other needs, his department will require IFS to have a staff member on-site 20 hours a week to address medical issues. This person would not need to be a registered nurse but would need some other formal medical training. 

IFS makes its case 

Council devoted the rest of the five-hour hearing to hearing from the nonprofit as well as the Veterans Park and Collister Neighborhood Associations representatives. 

Geoff Wardle, IFS’s attorney, said planning & zoning erred on several counts. He said the Planning & Zoning Commission violated Boise City code and state law when they requested a security plan from IFS, even though city planning staff said their application was complete without it. Wardle also argued planning & zoning leaned too heavily on the city’s comprehensive plan, which is not law and does not trump the city’s zoning code. A shelter is allowed in the zoning designation the Salvation Army building currently has. 

Wardle said instead of requiring a security plan upfront as evidence the project won’t cause harm, the city should give the shelter a list of conditions it needs to meet to approve the project and use that list to build a security plan with Boise Police after the fact. 

He said IFS is willing to do almost anything the city asks of them unless it’s to comply with requirements he believes are illegal or go far beyond what any other project has been asked to do. 

“Project opponents have shown an unwillingness to articulate any position other than no,” Wardle said. “This has resulted in a degree of hostility to those who are the most vulnerable in our community that is unacceptable.”

In response to a question from City Council Member Holli Woodings, IFS Board President Andy Scoggin said the shelter would have loved to have waited to buy the Salvation Army warehouse until they had approval from the city. But, because the real estate market is moving so quickly, they could not afford to wait and had to sell their current shelter to get the cash for the down payment and move quickly. 

“None of this could have happened if we said ‘let’s wait a year and a half,’” Scoggin said. “(The Salvation Army) would not have waited.”

Neighbors cheer P&Z vote 

The nearby neighborhood associations see things differently. 

Veterans Park NA Vice President Katy Decker and Collister NA President Doug Drinka went through their concerns with the project during the presentation. Decker cited several academic studies on homelessness and shelters, showing calls for services at emergency shelters in other cities and the distance between those shelters and residential areas. 

Decker also took issue with one of Wardle’s arguments that P&Z made an error due to Commissioner Chris Danley misattributing a quote from an email submitted by a neighbor in opposition to the shelter to the crime prevention study of the Shoreline area conducted by BPD. She said although Danley did misidentify the source of the quote and it did drive the commission toward voting no, it was not an error because there is adequate data in the record to back up the point of the statement.

The size of Interfaith’s proposed shelter is another sticking point for Decker. By analyzing other shelters in peer cities, she said she found others had far more square feet per person than IFS’s State Street proposal. Decker suggested roughly 300 square feet of floor space per person, which would limit the shelter to 100 beds. This is 67 less than IFS’s current location on River Street, which is a fourth of the size.

“The overcrowded conditions increase the likelihood guests will leave the site to find higher presumption of privacy elsewhere and increase the likelihood of impacts to the surrounding area,” Decker said. 

What’s next

Hearings will continue throughout the week until the council hears all public testimony and decides. The only people who may testify are those who testified during the over twelve hours of public hearings during the earlier P&Z process. The hearing schedule is posted here

After the council’s decision is rendered, the losing side may appeal to the Fourth District Court for Judicial Review or, potentially, a step further to the Idaho Supreme Court.

Margaret Carmel - BoiseDev Sr. Reporter
Margaret Carmel - BoiseDev Sr. 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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