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'Build, build, build.' Experts say more housing is key to ending homelessness in Idaho

Colorful multi-storey homes in Daybreak, Utah with a vast cloudy sky in the background.
Jason Finn
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Mental health and substance use issues often dominate conversations around homelessness, but researchers and social workers in Idaho are drawing attention to the housing shortage as its main cause.

Gregg Colburn, co-author of the book "Homelessness is a Housing Problem", visited City Club of Boise to discuss misconceptions around the causes of homelessness.

“There is addiction, there is mental illness, and there's poverty in every community in the nation,” he said.

Yet rates of homelessness vary dramatically. Colburn explained the only difference is housing availability.

“The home of the opioid epidemic in the United States is West Virginia. They don't have a problem with homelessness. That epidemic has ravaged those communities yet they don't have a problem with homelessness,” Colburn said.

“Why? Because housing is accessible.”

This doesn’t mean people should not be receiving treatment for substance use or mental health, Colburn cautioned.

“We have a moral and ethical obligation to treat people who have needs but if we think that we can wave the treatment magic wands and end this crisis, we're fooling ourselves.”

Coburn said housing should come from all sectors of society.

“We need private developers to build, build, build, build. We need local governments to ensure that the zoning and the regulatory framework allows for that construction.”

Data from the real estate company ApartmentList analyzed by Boisedev shows rent in Idaho has increased by 40% in the last three years.

“That's how a lot of people get evicted and end up homeless in the first place,” explained Ali Rabe, the Executive Director of Jesse Tree, a homeless prevention nonprofit based in Boise.

“Our homeless management information System data shows that about 70% of folks who are entering shelters are entering shelters for the first time,” she added.

“We're serving a lot of single parents now, a lot of survivors of domestic violence or others just trying to make ends meet,” Rabe said.

A 2020 United Way report showed more than 40% of renters were housing cost burdened in Idaho.

The overwhelming majority of people experiencing housing instability surveyed cited a lack of affordable housing as “the primary cause of homelessness and the primary circumstance that prevented individuals/families from becoming re-housed.”

Colburn warned Idaho was headed towards a housing crisis, like the ones seen in cities like Seattle or San Francisco, if officials did not address the housing shortage today.

“You have the luxury of a ten year head start and we're kind of the canary in the coal mine,” he warned.

As the Canyon County reporter, I cover the Latina/o/x communities and agricultural hub of the Treasure Valley. I’m super invested in local journalism and social equity, and very grateful to be working in Idaho.