Homeless people sleeping outside has been a big issue for the city of Boise for a long time. The city has passed laws against it and fought in court for years to keep those laws on the books. But over the summer homeless people began doing something new. From hidden camp sites scattered throughout Boise, they’ve gathered together in one place and pitched dozens of tents. And for now, the city is letting them stay.
The alley is known as Cooper Court. It’s pressed up against the freeway connector just west of downtown.
A man in his forties with a healing gash on his forehead paces up and down Cooper Court.
“I don’t understand this,” he says. “I don’t know what’s going on here in Boise.”
The man, who doesn’t want to give his name, seems to be in shock. He says he’s been middle class all his life, but found himself suddenly homeless and penniless two days ago. He’s been sleeping at nearby homeless shelter Interfaith Sanctuary and spending his days in the alley.
He says the people here have been kind to him but he can’t seem to come to grips with the realities of the place, like the lack of bathrooms and the smell that issue creates. But he’s most bothered by the presence of children.
“This is third world right here,” he says. “There’s no reason why an American child should have to live like this.”
Most people driving past probably don’t realize this place is here, though one can catch glimpses exiting the freeway onto River Street or from Americana.
The alley has about 50 tents and makeshift shelters, plus pallets where people sleep under the open sky. In a larger open area behind Interfaith Sanctuary, Robert Anderson cups a cigarette. Anderson is one of the best known people in Boise’ homeless community, though mostly by another name.
“My friends call me stretch,” Anderson says. “I’m 6 foot 7 and no one’s out of my reach. Nothing is.”
Anderson says he’s been homeless for more than 30 years and his life’s work is advocating for other people experiencing homelessness. He says about 110 people sleep in the alley each night (other people estimate between 50 and 100).
He says many have drug or alcohol problems, most have some kind of mental illness. Some people find shelters too stressful, some disagree with the rules and some are just frightened by the bed bugs that sometimes plague the shelters. And Anderson says some aren’t allowed in because of things like criminal records or warrants.
He says the people who sleep outside have been pushed from one Boise location to another until they came together here.
“A lot of us are working and can’t get out of this,” Anderson says. “All these people are just trying to find a place in the community and the community is saying no, we don’t want you.”
But Anderson also says having the camp here isn’t good for Interfaith Sanctuary, a place he says that’s essential to Boise’s homeless. The post office won’t deliver the shelter’s mail anymore and it’s having trouble getting food and other supplies delivered. Anderson says it’s a safety issue for Sanctuary’s guests.
“I mean there’s drugs, there’s alcohol. We had a shooting here about three months ago, right here in the alley,” Anderson says.
Jojo Valdez says when she became homeless three months ago, the alley terrified her. Valdez sits in Corpus Christi House day shelter whose back door opens onto the alley. She says she stayed at Interfaith Sanctuary for two months but she had to sleep apart from her husband and that made her anxious. So they got a tent and moved outside.
“Mostly it’s really mellow,” Valdez says. “In the month I’ve been there, I’ve been woke up three times for fights, for hearing somebody fight. I feel pretty safe out there. Everybody looks out for each other. They kind of look at each other as family.”
That sense of family is something that many people in the alley talk about. Lisa Veaudry calls it a village. Veaudry runs Corpus Christi House. She says the people in the alley take care of each other.
“And it is their own government,” Veaudry says. “There is a set of rules. If somebody comes in and is violent or somebody comes in and steals from somebody, or they’re not behaving the way that the people want them to, they’re ousted.”
Veaudry says even though the camp is creating serious problems for Interfaith Sanctuary, she’d rather it remain in place until a permanent solution is found. She thinks the people are safer and have better access to help there than they did when they were scattered all over town.
Jojo Valdez doesn’t want to lose the feeling of family she’s found in the alley, but she doesn’t want to live in a tent either.
“Us out in Cooper Court, we really do want a solution,” Jojo Valdez says. “We’re not like, ‘oh just leave us alone and let us sleep out.’ We would love somewhere to go.”
Valdez says she wants to get back on her feet and in permanent housing. In the short term she says she’d be satisfied if the city would designate somewhere else they could camp, hopefully she says, with some basic sanitary facilities like porta-potties, as well as access to this part of town where homeless services are located.
But Boise officials don’t want a tent city anywhere in town. City spokesman Mike Journee says that would just be moving the problem.
Journee says there is enough space in the city’s homeless shelters to accommodate the people in the alley. He says the city has no plans right now to force the people to leave Cooper Court, but for health and safety reasons they can’t stay long term.
“We have had calls in recent days about tents catching on fire in that area,” Journee says. “It’s been an untenable situation for a while, we’ve known that. Obviously it’s a complex situation as well. It’s something that we’re looking for solutions to.”
Corpus Christi House’s Lisa Veaudry says she thinks the city is trying its best to solve Boise’s unsheltered homeless problem. But she says it’s difficult and will take time. For now, she says, the camp in the alley is the solution that homeless people have come up with for themselves.
Find Adam Cotterell on Twitter @cotterelladam
Copyright 2015 Boise State Public Radio