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  • Writer's pictureAction Idaho

Mayor McLean Finds Allies to Build a Homeless Empire: Part 4

Between the city council and developers who profit from building homeless shelters, Mayor McLean has found enough "housing first" profiteers to abet her plans to build a homeless empire.

Part One of the series introduced to the issues of homelessness. Part Two described the problems of the "housing first" mindset combined with Boise's loss in Martin v. Boise lawsuit. Part Three described first two ways that Boise Mayor Lauren McLean showed her support for the "housing first" approach in an effort to build a homelessness empire. Today's installment concerns how Mayor McLean abetted the building of a large shelter. If we build it, they will come.

For the longest time, the Boise Rescue Mission was the homeless shelter of choice in Boise. It did not embrace the "housing first" approach, in that it required those who stayed in the shelter to be sober and drug free and to listen to a short pitch from the Christian churches that funded it. Homelessness was a symptom of a deeper problem, and they provided help for the homeless without ignoring the deeper issues.

Along came the Interfaith Sanctuary in 2005. The Interfaith Sanctuary brought the "housing first" and nonjudgmental approach, as is seen in testimonials, to the Treasure Valley. As the numbers of homeless increased, the Interfaith Sanctuary knew it had public support for expanding its "housing first" mission.

The very name gives away the game. Jodi Peterson-Stigers, the head of the Sanctuary, is a committed believer in the “housing first” theory of homelessness. “Right now,” she said in a early 2021 interview, “if they are sleeping outside, it’s a good chance it’s because we are at capacity every night. Our entire focus is to identify need and to create access and that’s what this building allows us to do.” Boise local media peddles just such a story too. Our lapdog media never treat the homeless problem for what it mostly is--an issue of mental illness, drug use, and alcohol abuse.

As the Interfaith Sanctuary expanded its numbers, it outgrew its facility (as seen the inset picture). The Interfaith Sanctuary planned to relocate its shelter to the former Salvation Army building on West State Street (the picture below). The Sanctuary was asking to build a 205-bed facility that would be open 24 hours a day. Once the unhoused were in the facility, the Sanctuary promised to help transition them to more permanent housing.

But the Boise Planning and Zoning Commission denied the Sanctuary’s conditional use permit application in early January 2022 (by a five to one vote). Nearly everyone on the Planning and Zoning Commission seems to believe in the “housing first” theory too. They conceded that the Sanctuary is the best solution to the homeless problem, but worried about its adverse effects on the adjacent neighborhoods. “The level of adverse impacts is significant,” said Commissioner Milt Gillespie. Those in the neighborhood are not allowed to be worried about deranged people and drug-addicts haunting their neighborhood, so they used the sanitized language of "secondary effects." The neighborhood already had significant quality of life issues, with parking problems, bad lighting, and general deterioration, according to Boise Police Department study. Property values might suffer. More crime might come to the neighborhood.

The Sanctuary appealed to the Boise City Council (where Mayor McLean has a working majority), which finally voted to override the Planning and Zoning Commission on a 4 to 2 vote. After twenty hours of questions and public testimony, the City Council added thirty conditions to the project to ensure it was safe for the community. It also shaped the operations and set goals for the number of beds. The conditions were proposed by Boise Department of Housing and Community Development. They include a safe syringe disposal, a requirement that the unhoused be moved in and out of the location by the Boise Police Department, and lots of meetings with the residents.

Mayor McLean was elated, but just getting started. “Interfaith sanctuary is an important partner that provides emergency shelter," Mayor McLean said. "I want to recognize that this does not meet our city’s emergency shelter need and so it is really on all of us to advance public-private partnerships and determine how we can best ensure that folks are housed on an emergency basis in this community, emergency shelters are a big part of that. We talk and hear all too often, and with a bit too much vitriol, about the homeless and camps, but at the end of the day, it’s about people, and doing what I know our city can do that other cities haven’t.”

But Boise is doing exactly what other cities have done in combining more homeless shelter than it now needs while leaving its vagrancy laws unenforced.

But this is just the first half of the challenge facing the state of Idaho because there are plans afoot to spread the homelessness problem to the rest of the Treasure Valley and, by implication, to the state as a whole.

Federal policy and Idaho’s reaction to it reveals this broader development. Idaho offers homelessness services through grants provided by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Idaho’s Housing and Finance Association (IHFA) receives a majority of those HUD funds. It aims to relieve homelessness with “housing first” policies like emergency shelters, transitional housing, rapid re-housing, permanent supportive housing and permanent housing. The major causes of homelessness according to the Idaho Housing and Finance Association? Domestic violence, eviction, and loss of income. They never mention drug use or mental illness as the causes of those problems. None of its literature even imagines that many homeless have mental problems or drug addictions.

According to the IHFA, Region 7 in Idaho, mostly Ada County, receives over $23 million in federal funds. Spending such money requires that local agencies forge private-public partnerships to add their own money. Private groups and the IHFA itself pitches in about $15 million in additional funds in Ada County. There are 4,307 homeless in the area.

The plans for Ada County and beyond are contained in the Our Path Home recommendations, the product of Idaho Homelessness Coordinating Committee, a set partners working to end homelessness in Ada County. The report was released in November 2021. The report identifies additional Ada County land inside and outside of Boise for additional shelters and other housing assistance. The report talks of a “pipeline” of “new supportive housing projects toward the goal of “transformational change planning for Supportive Housing” (see p. 4). This would probably include so-called Workforce Housing, a brand of low income housing favored by developers.

Mayor McLean has pledged $10 million for Supportive Housing and land assets. The plan for Ada County is to bring 103 additional Supportive Housing Units onboard per year between 2022 and 2025, with 53 additional Rapid Rehousing units and 61 Diversion units. 5 new projects and shelters are in the “pipeline” before 2025. Homeless shelters are coming to neighborhoods outside the north end.

The U.S. HUD funding that the Our Path initiative actually imagines understates how much Idaho gets from HUD. In 2021, Idaho’s state government received nearly $35 million in HUD grants on homelessness. The Department of Commerce received $8 million in Community Development Block Grant Program to “provide decent housing and a suitable living environment.” IHFA received more than $1 million Emergency Services Grant for shelter expansion and nearly $25 million for the HOME grant to buy and rehabilitate affordable housing. IHFA got an additional $3 million for a Housing Trust Fund to make homes for low-income and homeless families. Nor was 2021 some exceptional year. The homeless funding gravy train has been rolling down the tracks for years at nearly the same clip.

Few love such spigots of federal money more than developers and builders. Just as happened in Boise, they work together with city councils and local activist groups to find places, ease zoning regulations, and add homeless shelters and residences to local communities. The Interfaith Sanctuary has plans to expand operations in Meridian, Nampa and beyond. A homeless empire is coming to the Treasure Valley, whether we know it or not.

Much more remains to be uncovered on the developer side of the equation, of course. Tomorrow's final installment concerns a proposed solution to the coming crisis in the Treasure Valley.

For earlier installments see:

Boise's Approach to Homelessness Threatens the Whole Treasure Valley: Part 1

Homelessness Policy and the Threat to the Treasure Valley: Part 2

Mayor Lauren McLean Abets Homeless Empire: Part 3

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