Idaho’s 2nd-largest city has no homeless shelter. Should it? Meridian Press, 1/27/17
A single dad who quit his job in Meridian because of complications with multiple sclerosis has been homeless for three months.
For many weeks, he and his two teenage sons made their Dodge Grand Caravan their home. They removed the middle seat so one boy could sleep on a camping pad and sleeping bag on the floor, bending his knees to fit, while the other boy slept in the front passenger seat.
“I would stay up all night, and my boys would sleep. And I would run the engine to keep my car warm,” said John, who asked to be referred to only as John to protect his family’s identity. His sons go to high school in the West Ada School District.
“The two hardest parts of being homeless,” he said, “have been, ‘When is the next shower and when is the next time I’ll be able to sleep.'”
There are few shelter options in the Treasure Valley for a dad with children, and John said he didn’t feel safe with his boys at any of them.
Meridian doesn’t have a homeless shelter. Residents who become homeless are likely to double up with another family or turn to Boise for shelter and services.
This week, volunteers from across the country, including in Meridian, went out into their communities to count the number of people living homeless. This annual Point-in-Time count, which is required by Congress, influences federal funding for homelessness programs.
During last year’s count, almost 870 people in Ada County were recorded living in a shelter, transitional housing or on the street, said Boise specialized programs manager Stephanie Day.
None of those homeless individuals were counted in Meridian. That doesn’t mean Meridian doesn’t have homelessness, Day said.
“There’s just a lot more that’s available to people in Boise than there is in Meridian,” she said.
Meridian was a small town of 10,000 people just 25 years ago. The city has shot up to 90,000 people, making it the second-largest city in Idaho.
Even with the rapid growth, Meridian Mayor Tammy de Weerd said she does not believe there’s a demonstrated need in Meridian for a homeless shelter, based on input from nonprofits and police.
“We just haven’t seen that need out there,” she said.
Boise — as the largest city in the county with more than 218,000 people — is best positioned to be the centralized hub for shelters and services for the homeless, De Weerd said.
“We partner with the city of Boise, but bringing any efforts over in this area…would dilute the efforts already underway by the agencies and the nonprofits that serve those populations,” she said.
Meridian’s partnership with Boise does not include a financial component, De Weerd said, but Meridian has participated in meetings with Boise and other organizations that are on the front lines of homelessness to discuss solutions. These discussions led Boise to invest $1 million in a new housing complex for the chronically homeless, Boise spokesman Mike Journee said.
Journee said he can’t speak to the need for a homeless shelter in Meridian.
“What I can speak to,” he said, “is the fact that we would love to see other communities with stronger services for those who need it. Because there is need in every community. There’s not a single expert, I think, that would disagree with that.”
One way to gain a better understanding of the need in Meridian is to look at numbers from the West Ada School District. Almost half of the district’s 38,244 students are from Meridian.
Last school year, 471 West Ada students experienced homelessness, district homeless liaison Jeanne Buschine said. Half of those students were from Meridian schools, she said.
These students are those who, for any length of time, did not have a permanent place to sleep at night. They may have been staying in a car, a motel, a shelter or with friends and relatives.
“They just hop around from place to place, and that is so bad for kids,” Buschine said. “You can imagine that feeling of vulnerability of not knowing where they’re going to sleep and where is their stuff and what are they going to do tonight.”
Dan Clark, founder of the Meridian Food Bank, said he sees people every week at the food bank who need shelter.
“People are just failing to admit that this problem is real and it is here in this precious little Meridian,” he said. “And I love (Meridian), but I think we can do better.”
John said being homeless has opened his eyes to what seems to be a broken system. While he and his sons were sleeping in the van in parking lots, they were sometimes asked by Meridian and Boise police officers to move because they were breaking city code.
John said felt he trapped — either stay at a place where he didn’t feel safe with his sons or disobey the law.
“The law has actually pigeonholed me to where I have to break the law just to get sleep,” he said.
As the winter nights got colder, John and the boys moved into a friend’s house in Boise. But accepting the invitation to move indoors exposed the father to the potential of losing his spot on long waiting list for federal housing assistance.
The federal government considers those who are doubled-up as at risk, not as homeless. To categorize them as homeless would overwhelm resources that are already strained, said Lee Jones, the regional spokesman for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD.
“There’s a great deal more need than there is funding for homeless programs,” he said. “Our first and foremost job is to get folks who are on the streets off the streets.”
NOT JUST HOUSING
Representatives from three Boise shelters — the Boise Rescue Mission, the Interfaith Sanctuary and the Corpus Christi House — said they have no plans to expand their homeless shelters to Meridian. The Boise Rescue Mission and the Salvation Army also run shelters in Nampa.
“It costs a lot of money to do that,” Boise Rescue Mission CEO Bill Roscoe said when asked about expanding. “It’s not impossible or even very difficult for someone who’s homeless to come to Boise or Nampa to one of our facilities.”
Shelters play an important role, but a long-term solution for Meridian would be to build more affordable housing, CATCH Executive Director Wyatt Schroeder said.
“You can only end homelessness through housing,” Schroeder said. “So if Meridian’s looking to spend one more dollar on something, I think building more affordable housing is the best investment they can make.”
It’s hard to hold the pieces of your life together when you don’t have a stable home, he said.
John, the homeless father of two teenagers, said being homeless requires an exhausting amount of planning for everyday tasks — like making meals, washing dishes, showering and sleeping.
While living in the minivan, they stored their food in two tubs in the back of the van, along with pots, pans and two portable stove tops. They would cook wherever they could find an outlet, usually at church pavilions and Kleiner Park.
“It was kind of weird because other people would come by and wonder what the heck we’re doing,” John said. “And we’re sitting there, and it’s cold and windy.”
John washed dishes and his hair in the park bathroom sink. The boys showered at friends’ houses. They carried enough clothes in the van for two to three days and kept the rest in a storage unit. Every few days, the family would visit the unit to swap out clothes.
“I have a much better appreciation for the plight of the homeless,” John said. “It’s a lot harder — most people think it’s lazy, but you really have to work hard at it.”
That’s why CATCH uses a housing-first approach, which is to people find housing and then work with them in areas such as employment and parenting and addiction recovery.
“Once you’re stably housed, that’s the best time to start working on your risk factors,” Schroeder said. “But you’re not working on them alone. So it’s housing first, but it’s not housing only.”
CATCH helps about 200 homeless families in the Treasure Valley get into a home each year. One year after moving in, 86 percent of these families are still in the same home, Schroeder said.
“The reality is, housing first works,” he said.
A challenge, however, is finding enough available and affordable units to rent in Ada County, Schroeder said.
In the third quarter of 2016, the county’s rental vacancy rate was 2.6 percent, or 114 vacant units, according to the Southwest Idaho Chapter of the National Association of Residential Property Managers.
By comparison, the national rental vacancy rate during that time was 6.8 percent, the U.S. Census Bureau reports.
HIGH DEMAND, LOW SUPPLY
Housing vouchers, funded by HUD, are available to help low-income residents pay rent.
But the vouchers are tough to come by. There are about 1,800 people on the Boise City/Ada County Housing Authority’s waiting list for the housing choice voucher program.
CATCH also has a waiting list of more than 30 families, Schroeder said. John’s name was No. 30 as of early December, according to the school district. Affordable housing communities — of which there at least four in Meridian — typically have waiting lists too, Schroeder said.
Low-income apartment units have been proposed for downtown Meridian, but the project has yet to secure the necessary tax credits. The developer — VCD, LLC —presented the idea to the Meridian City Council last summer in partnership with a nonprofit called The Housing Company.
Boise is using almost $6 million in tax credits to build a housing-first facility with 40 living units and support services for the chronically homeless. The tax credits were awarded through the Idaho Housing and Finance Association. Boise has committed $1 million toward the project.
Additionally, CATCH and other community partners are working to streamline the process of helping people who are homeless. This effort, called Coordinated Entry, aims to create one phone line and one walk-in center, run by CATCH, where homeless individuals can turn for assistance.
“Right now, you have somewhere around 30 different waiting lists, and so a family is having to tell their story 30 times to hopefully resolve their housing crisis,” Schroeder with CATCH said. “Isn’t once enough?”
Another initiative is called the Neighborhood Stabilization Project. This involves the purchase of distressed homes, which are then refurbished and sold to low-income households. The project is funded through the Boise City/Ada County Housing Authority.
So far, 19 of these homes have been sold in Meridian, according to the housing authority.
The city of Meridian also awards Community Development Block Grants each year, funded through HUD. These grants have gone toward efforts such as hunger relief and down-payment assistance to help low-income individuals with housing.
John and his sons are still staying with a friend in Boise because it’s too cold to sleep in the van, John said.
“We’re still trying to get me a place,” he said.
Not wanting to burden his friend, the family stayed at the Candlewood Suites on Christmas Eve.
“It was nice. We didn’t have a tree or anything, but we had a nice Christmas morning,” he said. “I was able to cook a Christmas dinner.”
John is working a part-time gig through March. He said his M.S. makes it tough to remember things, limiting his work options. But he hopes to start making money soon by selling a board game he designed called Wizards Estates.
“I’ve been designing games my whole life,” he said.
John remembers when he used to sit in his living room and a news story would come on T.V. about a new law related to homelessness. He didn’t think much of it at the time, he said, but now he has a new perspective.
“Any legislator who wants to make laws that govern what homeless people can or cannot do should themselves be homeless for one month,” John said. “Because I don’t think they really understand what they’re doing.”
Anger and frustration have been prominent emotions for John and the boys over the past three months, he said. Even simple things like having access to their stuff has been a challenge. With their outdoor geared buried in storage, the boys dropped out of Boy Scouts. They didn’t protest, John said, but he knows this whole situation has been hard on them.
A positive part of all of this, John said, has been the support from social workers at the school district, case workers with CATCH and staff at his doctor’s office.
During the holidays, he and the boys received gifts and clothes from the school district and from a Catholic church. Staff at John’s doctor’s office presented him with a Wal-Mart gift card, which the boys used to buy Christmas gifts for each other.
John doesn’t think his story — as unpredictable and unexpected as it’s been — is unique.
“My guess is that there’s a lot more people in this town living out of their cars than one might think,” he said.