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Blaine County organizations say disaster declaration is needed for "humanitarian crisis"

Rachel Cohen
Boise State Public Radio
Andrea Ruiz, a warehouse assistant at the Hunger Coalition, packs snack bags for local schools at the Bellevue headquarters in 2020.

In the Wood River Valley, a long-standing housing crisis is colliding with a recent increase in immigrants arriving from countries such as Peru, leading to what local leaders say is an unprecedented rate of homelessness.

Nonprofits that noticed an uptick in people needing food and shelter last fall are continuing to sound the alarm, as winter temperatures and the heart of the tourism season force people into sometimes unsafe housing situations.

“As many as 100 individuals, many of them children, have been living in substandard housing without access to heat, electricity or running water,” Brooke Pace McKenna, the co-executive director of the Hunger Coalition, read from a letter at the Blaine County Commissioners’ meeting this week.

Her organization, plus five more, including the Blaine County School District and the St. Luke’s Center for Community Health, are asking city and county elected officials to declare a disaster. That would send a message to the state, they said, and would help mobilize a response.

Following similar requests last fall, the city of Ketchum and Blaine County agreed to contribute funds to house people in hotel rooms, an effort spearheaded by the Blaine County Charitable Fund.

But late last year, about 30 people who had been staying in hotels temporarily had to leave, as those rooms were already booked for guests. County staff, elected officials, nonprofits and churches set up a temporary shelter staffed by volunteers. The county called the response a success.

The situation could repeat itself very quickly, though, as nearly 50 people could again lose their temporary housing on Jan. 21. It’s not yet clear if another temporary shelter will be set up and who would take charge. In the letter, the organizations said they’re nearing a “breaking point.”

“It’s time for Blaine County elected officials to respond to the emerging humanitarian crisis in our community by declaring a disaster and providing the requisite leadership and resources needed to address these life-safety among our at-risk and vulnerable populations,” Pace McKenna continued.

Though the commissioners have not officially considered the disaster declaration request, Emergency Manager Chris Corwin said the situation likely wouldn’t meet the federal disaster definition under FEMA because it’s not tied to a specific event like a fire or a flood.

“These folks are homeless because they arrived here, not because they were here and then lost their homes due to cold weather,” he said.

The county could declare a disaster under state code, which would allow it to spend funds more freely for a week and could include some cost-sharing with the state. The governor’s office would need to sign off on that request.

Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen

Copyright 2022 Boise State Public Radio

I cover environmental issues, outdoor recreation and local news for Boise State Public Radio. Beyond reporting, I contribute to the station’s digital strategy efforts and enjoy thinking about how our work can best reach and serve our audience. The best part of my job is that I get to learn something new almost every day.

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