Idaho Stateman Editorial: Sunday, January 9, 2022
Approve Interfaith Sanctuary and come up with strategy to curb homelessness in Boise
BY THE EDITORIAL BOARD
The Boise Planning and Zoning Commission’s denial of Interfaith Sanctuary’s move to State Street was disappointing.
First, though, commission members are to be commended and thanked for their hard work on this issue. Their effort to ensure everyone was heard over 18 hours of testimony was extraordinary, and their diligence and anguish over their decision were obvious. Even if you disagree with their decision, please do not vilify or insult them.
That said, the decision is problematic and presents a challenge for City Council members, who will be tasked with hearing an appeal, which Interfaith Sanctuary leadership has promised.
The decision to deny this application, based on the reasons given by commissioners, suggests that a homeless shelter of this type — 205 beds, low-barrier, emergency shelter — would not win approval no matter where in the city it is located.
The commissioners based their denial primarily on their inability to come up with conditions that would mitigate what they saw as the adverse impacts of the shelter.
The denial sets a precedent that really says a shelter of this type won’t be approved, whether it’s the Veterans Park area or some other Boise neighborhood.
In many ways, the location on State Street is ideal: close to public transportation, close to employment opportunities, close to shopping. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to find a location that has these amenities and not have neighbors who would bring objections. Because of this precedent, those objections would win the day again.
Boise is at a precarious cliff’s edge when it comes to homelessness. States all over the West are experiencing unmanageable levels of people who are without shelter. Boise is not yet there, but with increased population growth and skyrocketing housing prices, we are not far behind. And for the time being, we are being saved from the fates of other large cities only by the grace of a few private charitable organizations like Interfaith Sanctuary, Corpus Christi House and Boise Rescue Mission — all providing shelter to those who otherwise would be sleeping on the streets and in parks.
To some extent, the debate over Interfaith Sanctuary comes at an ideal time, before we have a problem. Perhaps this will serve as a wake-up call to the community that we need to take action on a broader strategy for dealing with homelessness, lest we become another Seattle or Portland, with tent cities in our public parks and on our sidewalks.
After all, Interfaith Sanctuary’s proposed move is a response, at least in part, to a greater need for services.
The new shelter would serve up to 205 people. The existing shelter can serve 164, though Interfaith now is serving 245 men, women and children by housing some in a Boise hotel.
The need is there, the demand is greater than the supply, and the problem isn’t going to go away.
Interfaith Sanctuary representatives have said they were not able to find another location. They’ve sold their building on River Street, and they’ve said that if there’s no move to State Street, there’s no more Interfaith Sanctuary. That would be a disaster.
Much of the argument against the new location was speculative and frankly over the top, but some of it was empirical, such as police and emergency services calls to the area around the current Interfaith Sanctuary.
What seemed to stick the most with commissioners and what eventually won the day had to do with the adverse impacts that would be brought by a large, 205-bed, low-barrier, congregate emergency
shelter. Some neighbors have argued that this type of shelter is falling out of favor and that other cities are using smaller shelters that focus on transitional housing.
The problem is that even if Interfaith Sanctuary proposed a smaller, high-barrier transitional housing shelter, a low-barrier emergency shelter would still be needed somewhere.
What then? What shall we do with those people who are experiencing homelessness but can’t get into or don’t want to go into a high-barrier transitional shelter?
The Interfaith Sanctuary debate has at least laid bare the desperate need for a comprehensive solution. Programs like New Path community housing and Valor Pointe for veterans experiencing homelessness are a good start, and it’s encouraging that the city is working on expanding those efforts.
We need more housing-first solutions, we need more transitional housing and, yes, unfortunately, we need more low-barrier emergency shelter space in Boise.
Until we have those solutions in place, though, denial of Interfaith Sanctuary’s new shelter will only exacerbate the problem.
On appeal, City Council members should work with Interfaith Sanctuary to come up with detailed security measures, a contingency plan in the event of overflow and conditions that could mitigate some of the anticipated adverse impacts.
And then council members should approve the new shelter, without which the city would see some very adverse impacts.
In the meantime, officials from the city of Boise and Ada County need to work together on comprehensive solutions so that perhaps the State Street location becomes a smaller, transitional shelter; we have adequate low-barrier emergency shelter space in Boise; and we don’t have to be so reliant on charitable organizations to solve the Treasure Valley’s homelessness crisis.
Statesman editorials are the unsigned opinion expressing the consensus of the Idaho Statesman’s editorial board. Board members are opinion editor Scott McIntosh, opinion writer Bryan Clark, editor Chadd Cripe, newsroom editors Dana Oland and Jim Keyser and community members J.J. Saldaña and Christy Perry.