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How A Tent Camp Changed The Ways Boise Reacts To Homelessness

Adam Cotterell
Boise State Public Radio
Boise police in Cooper Court the day they cleared it in December 2015.

The alley known as Cooper Court wraps around Interfaith Sanctuary homeless shelter near downtown Boise. For much of 2015 the alley was packed to bursting with tents, makeshift shelters and the people living in them who preferred the streets to staying in shelters. That camp was one of the biggest local news stories of 2015. Police eventually cleared it, scattering its residents. In the most recent episode of our podcast Some of the Parts, we caught up with residents of that camp to find out where life had taken them since their eviction.

If you listen to that podcast episode you might get the impression that the camp had no long-lasting impacts because the lives of its residents haven’t changed much since it was shut down. But the tent camp did put things in motion that could create long-term changes for homeless people in Boise.

The tents in Cooper Court made things difficult for the shelter. It also generated tension among shelter leaders about how they should respond. After the alley was cleared, Interfaith Sanctuary’s long-time director stepped down. Jodi Peterson is now Sanctuary’s co-director. In 2015 she worked with Sanctuary part-time on things like fundraising, but on her own she worked with people in the alley.

“It was almost as though what Cooper Court was, was a living class on who our homeless are and what they need,” Peterson says. “And beyond that when Cooper Court was broken up, seeing what happened to that group, where they ended up, it was a huge determination for what we would do within our shelter walls.”  

Sanctuary used to be mostly just a bed for the night, now Peterson says they’re trying to make it more of a full service agency meant to get people out of homelessness. They hired 10 case workers and started internships for Boise State social work students. And they created a program where they try to guide their clients to independence.

“We don’t just send them to the DMV with a check for $10,” Peterson says. “We go with them. We don’t send them to the hospital in an ambulance, we go with them to see if we can get better care. And maybe a more appropriate place for them to be. You have to really be an advocate for people who can’t take care of themselves.”  

Peterson says Sanctuary also now brings other service providers to the shelter like health care workers and people who can sign the guests up for drug treatment programs.     

“Those kind of things have made a huge difference in the success we’re seeing for the guests who have been at the shelter,” Peterson says. “We have 89 guests who have lived at the shelter for over five years off and on. Because they just weren’t getting what they needed to be successful outside the shelter.”

A few blocks from Sanctuary the Boise Rescue Mission operates the city’s largest shelter, the men-only River of Life. The rescue mission’s director says the tent camp didn’t have much of a long-term impact on its operations. He says when the police cleared the camp, the mission offered to forgive all past misconduct that had gotten people banned. But very few former Cooper Court residents relocated to the mission.

Cooper Court did have an effect on the Boise Police Department according to Zack Powel, an officer with the bike patrol. In 2015, Powel and other bike cops were in the alley for hours every day answering calls or just checking in to prevent potential trouble. He says the experience changed how they see homelessness.

“I think we’re more apt to address it in the sense that we recognize that there are a lot of homeless people that need service and so we need to help them with this,” Powel says. “So we as a police department have to kind of adapt.”   

The Boise bike patrol did outreach-style policing with the homeless before the tent camp. They’d talk with people, try to develop relationships. But Powel says since Cooper Court it’s become a lot more. He says it’s almost like cops are becoming case managers for the people living on the streets, doing things like helping them navigate the social security bureaucracy or the Boise bus system.   

“I do like doing it,” Powel says. “It’s exhausting. I’m the first one to tell you this case management type of community-outreach policing, it’s difficult. It’s not like you can be done with a call and maybe you never see these people again. I mean you’re a part of their lives.”

Though they do still give tickets for sleeping on the street, because camping is illegal in Boise.  

About two months after the police cleared Cooper Court, Boise’s mayor announced a new project to permanently house chronically homeless people. It’s based on the housing first or permanent supportive housing model. In housing first, a homeless person gets an apartment and services to help keep it, without the usual prerequisites like getting sober or having stable employment. City spokesman Mike Journee says city leaders wanted to do something like that before the camp sprang up in Cooper Court.

“That’s something we’ve been working on for years now,” Journee says. “What I would say Cooper Court created is a greater awareness in the community about homelessness. And as a result of that, our effort to create a housing first project got better traction in the community. Different kinds of people coming together in order to create the coalition that’s going to build this housing first project.”

So Cooper Court didn’t create Boise’s housing first plan, but it definitely sped it up.

Boise and a host of partners last fall announced they’d break ground on a 40-unit housing first building this spring. Journee now says that will likely happen in late summer or early fall. If the project is done right and the facility provides the kinds of services that are supposed to go with housing first, 40 units could really make a difference . . . or at least a dent in homelessness in Boise. A dent because there are still maybe a few hundred people in shelters and on the streets who might benefit.

For more local news, follow the KBSX newsroom on Twitter @KBSX915

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