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Wood River Valley officials discuss emergency solutions to uptick in homelessness

A person in a purple winter jacket holds a paper bag filled with produce at the Hunger Coalition in Bellevue. Their face is not shown.
Courtesy of The Hunger Coalition
The Hunger Coalition says more people are seeking food and other services now than during the previous spikes it saw earlier in the pandemic.

As the primary food bank in the Sun Valley area, the Hunger Coalition has long had a window into the valley’s inequality.

It’s known when some of the people it serves are living in their vehicles. It’s known that as winter approaches those ten or so people a year scramble to find a warm place to stay. It’s often helped them find beds in shelters in Twin Falls or Boise because Blaine County does not have one itself.

That was before the pandemic, which exacerbated the valley’s housing crisis and brought more than two times as many families to the Hunger Coalition’s food distributions each week.

Last year, the number of people seeking services at the nonprofit had begun to level out. But starting this spring, it was counting volumes of people it hadn’t seen before.

“What we’re seeing this year is far above what we saw in the pandemic,” said Brooke Pace McKenna, the co-executive director of the Hunger Coalition, during a county-wide housing meeting this week.

McKenna’s organization, plus others such as the Blaine County Charitable Fund and St. Luke’s Center for Community Health, have been detailing to elected leaders over the past an uptick of new families in the valley facing homelessness.

Many are coming and filling jobs left open by a workforce shortage, non-profit leaders said, that exists in part due to long-term residents leaving the valley after they can’t find housing.

The organizations estimate about 500 new families are in need of food and other services and that about half are from Peru, some of whom are seeking asylum in the U.S.

Twenty to 40 new families could be sleeping outside and about 100 new unhoused students are enrolled in the Blaine County School District.

“Because we already had a housing crisis, we are now looking at a humanitarian crisis, because these people don’t have anywhere to land,” McKenna said.

At this week’s meeting, Connelly asked elected leaders to prioritize solutions ranging from securing hotel rooms in the tourism-based community to making space for RVs and tiny homes on city land.

She said keeping 60 families warm through the winter could cost anywhere from $1.6 to $4.7 million.

Some local leaders said they needed more time to talk about the proposals with their city councils and shared the work local governments are already undertaking to address the ongoing housing shortage.

“Yes, I think we need emergency solutions,” said Martha Burke, the Mayor of Hailey. “The financial end of it is staggering to me – just, you know, our budget is so small.”

Ketchum’s city council voted to dedicate $250,000 to emergency solutions last week. Mayor Neil Bradshaw said he reached out to Gov. Brad Little’s office for funds and staffing to assist people new to the valley. Little’s office did not respond to a request for information Thursday.

McKenna, meanwhile, invited elected leaders to volunteer at the Hunger Coalition.

“Once you have seen what we’re seeing, you can’t unsee it,” she said.

Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen

Copyright 2022 Boise State Public Radio

As the south-central Idaho reporter, I cover the Magic and Wood River valleys. I also enjoy writing about issues related to health and the environment.