Back in the ’80s, when the causes of homelessness were mostly thought of as a choice, an addiction to drugs or alcohol, or just bad luck, the efforts to reduce the incidence of homelessness were mostly addressing these causes. The approach taken to end homelessness was a system of emergency shelter/transitional housing progressions.

This system moved homeless individuals through different “levels” of housing, whereby each level moves them closer to “independent housing” and then to their own apartment in the community. Most of the supportive services were set up so people could move through this system. The expectation was that over time this system would reduce the overall numbers of homeless people.

Working with this model, the City of Boise, along with the generosity of the Boise community, opened Community House to serve single men, women and families. The demands of the growing population of homeless people and the cost of the services needed to serve them eventually led to its closure and the sale of the property by the city to the Boise Rescue Mission, a shelter for men only. After Community House closed, Interfaith Sanctuary was opened to serve the ever growing numbers of homeless in the city. Boise now has three overnight shelters: Interfaith Sanctuary, for single men, women and families; the Boise Rescue Mission, for men only; and City of Light, for women and young children. It has one day shelter, Corpus Christi House, a hospitality house serving anyone who comes to their door.

A TBR Homelessness Colloquy
This article is part of a TBR series on homelessness in Idaho. New articles, including more on Housing First, will appear throughout the week.

There is also one temporary daytime family shelter, Pioneer Center, a city-operated day shelter for families with children, open during the winter months only. In addition, CATCH is a private agency that finds sponsors to house homeless families. There are other agencies in the city, both city run and private, dedicated to helping addicted and abused people but not necessarily homeless (not covered in my observations). You can learn more about any of these agencies by contacting the Boise/Ada Homeless Coalition.

For this system to work, it is necessary that a flow from the street to permanent housing is maintained. This requires that there are enough affordable housing units available. Also, to give it sustainability, it is necessary that there are jobs available so that the people who have been housed do not fall back into homelessness. Neither is now present in Boise, especially after the bubble burst of 2008. Shelter living does not make stable, long time employment feasible. In spite of all of the efforts of the service agencies and the millions of dollars spent, the numbers of homeless increased to a point where the overnight shelters became overcrowded and people began sleeping under the overpass on Americana and eventually in Cooper Court.

This was not only happening in Boise but it was happening throughout the country. Government agencies and service providers in the country began looking for alternative ways to solve the problem of how to reduce the number of homeless and especially the chronic homeless. What they came up with is a program called Housing First. Housing First moves the homeless individual or household immediately from the streets or homeless shelters into their own apartments and then provides services as needed.

Housing First approaches are based on the concept that a homeless individual or household’s first and primary need is to obtain stable housing, and that other issues that may affect the household can and should be addressed once housing is obtained. This approach has the benefit of being consistent with what most people experiencing homelessness want and seek help to achieve, which is why I believe it deserves our support.

Homelessness is not cheap. Hospitalization, medical treatment, incarceration, police intervention and emergency shelter expenses make homelessness surprisingly expensive for municipalities and taxpayers. The good news is that many of the cities in the country that have already adopted a Housing First strategy report that it has reduced the numbers of homeless on their streets and have even reported a savings in public funds.

Our federal governmental agencies and our Boise City government are committed to a Housing First system, while our state legislature appears unconcerned as yet; our county is still taking the position of “wait and see.” For Housing First to work all of these government agencies  need to be on board because it will require a redistribution of the homeless funds that now go to support the present emergency shelter/transitional housing progression.

What is now needed to make this happen is that we, the public, need to do all that we can to let our elected government representatives know that we are watching their decisions and how they spend our homeless funds and what outcomes are produced. They need to know that we care.

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.