Joanna Sherman knew she was home when she saw the sunflowers.
Even though she did not have the money saved to put down a deposit and first month’s rent on the small, two-bedroom Depot Bench house, she was taken with the unruly patch of bright yellow blossoms and fenced-in yard that would be perfect for her old black lab and young granddaughter to play in. Sherman dialed the number on the For Rent sign wedged in the front garden and hoped for a miracle.
With the help of the understanding landlord and local nonprofit CATCH, Inc., she was able to move in and have a place to call her own for the first time in over a year.
“When I found out I was going to get to move into the house, I just broke down crying,” Sherman, 58, said, while throwing a worn tennis ball for her dog, Santana, in the yard. “It was really emotional for me after being without a place for so long.”
Boise’s rising housing costs are well-documented, but the trickle-down effects of the current boom have an impact on those with no housing at all. In the last year, a nonprofit coalition has been working to better understand Boise’s homelessness problem and prevent those in need from falling further behind the growing market.
Sherman lost almost everything when her rental home caught fire in February 2017. She was working part time, and motel stays quickly depleted the few hundred dollars she received from the Red Cross after the fire. Over the next year, she bounced between friends’ houses and sleeping in her car. Even though she kept working odd jobs most of the time she was experiencing homelessness, she couldn’t save enough to put money down for a home or apartment.
Earlier this year she was directed to social workers at CATCH, short for Charitable Assistance to Community’s Homeless and they enrolled her in the newly formed Our Path Home homelessness response program. The program placed her on a waiting list to receive rental assistance and helped connect her with social services she needed to get back on her feet and under her own roof.
Sherman is one of 67 single adults to be assisted by Our Path Home in its first year. Formed in May 2017, Our Path Home gives individuals and families experiencing homelessness a consolidated place to access services. Through the program, those in need of housing can fill out a single application and get on a centralized waiting list, rather than going from agency to agency looking for help.
Before this change, applicants for services had to fill out separate paperwork with each nonprofit. The disjointed process led some individuals to fall through the cracks, said Wyatt Schroeder, executive director of CATCH. It also made it tougher to comprehensively track homelessness in Ada County.
“Instead of a single case manager at a shelter getting you on 13 different waiting lists, filling out 13 different forms and telling your story 13 different times, there’s no reason we can’t streamline that and centralize it,” Schroeder said.
In the first year of the program, Our Path Home helped 101 families find housing and put another 172 families and 274 single adults on a waiting list for permanent housing. Once on a waiting list, individuals are matched with the services that best meet their needs and the first openings that come available through the different nonprofits.
A change of circumstances
Experiencing homelessness is something Sherman never thought she would face, especially after her two sons she raised mostly on her own had moved out of the house. In the first few weeks after the fire, Sherman did not know what to tell her family.
“We used to do all kinds of things together and when all of this happened I withdrew from my kids,” she said. “Kids aren’t supposed to have to take care of their parents. At the very beginning, I told them I had some place to stay because I didn’t want to be a burden to them.”
During her life, she has worked a variety of jobs to keep a roof over her family’s head, including driving trucks, working as a drug and alcohol counselor, owning her own lawn care business and laying tile and grout. She also is a trained cobbler and repaired footwear in Caldwell for many years before moving to Boise in the late 1990s. The sudden shock of not having the means to support herself was a struggle after so many years of self-sufficiency.
Our Path Home did not hand her the cash she needed to move into her house. Sherman said she had to wait approximately four months, prove she was employed, create a budget and find a place to live in a reasonable price range. This proved challenging when most of the places for a single person she found were topping out at $900 per month, which is out of Sherman’s price range.
Although Sherman got lucky with her home that rents for $725 a month, many people in her position are not so lucky. It’s gotten harder to find housing for people in Sherman’s position as the cost of living in the Treasure Valley has risen, said Women’s and Children’s Alliance Executive Director Bea Black, whose domestic violence relief organization is a part of Our Path Home.
While efforts to centralize the intake process for those experiencing homelessness is encouraging, Black is concerned about the lack of affordable housing units available for those moving out of her organization’s shelter. She hopes that because Our Path Home allows the nonprofit system to capture more complete data on the need for housing, that data can then be used to spur construction of more units in a price range for those in need.
“At least for right now when I look at the housing market, we just don’t have the units for our population because often they don’t have the earnings to be able to afford rent,” Black said.
According to data gathered by the Southwest Idaho chapter of the National Association of Residential Property Managers, the average monthly rent in Ada County in 2017 was $1,170 per month. As of June, only about 10 percent of homes for sale in the Treasure Valley were in the price range of those making $50,000 annually.
Before Our Path Home, local nonprofits relied on the annual Point in Time count for data on communitywide homelessness. This manual count each January, which is required by the federal government, involves volunteers and social workers hitting the streets counting those sleeping without shelter, as well as tabulating numbers from city shelters such as the Boise Rescue Mission and Interfaith Sanctuary.
This year, volunteers in Ada County counted 121 individuals who were sleeping outside. This number is on par with 111 counted sleeping unsheltered in 2017 and 125 in 2016, according to the city of Boise’s website. While this count has been the norm for years, Schroeder with CATCH said gathering data year-round is more reliable than the annual snapshot.
“Personally I’m really skeptical of that number,” Schroeder said. “The survey changes every single year, the methodology changes almost every single year. Snow two days before affects the count. To me it’s an interesting trend line, but it’s difficult to translate how true to reality it is.”
This method of counting does not capture those like Sherman, who never went to a shelter because she wanted to keep her dog with her, preferring instead to stay in her car or on friends’ couches.
With the more accurate picture of what homelessness looks like in Ada County, Schroeder was able to calculate the resources needed to end the wait for housing for the 172 families on the waiting list as of May in Ada County.
“No community has ended family homelessness, and we could be the first,” he said. “It would cost $1.2 million for us to hire seven case managers we would need and to give the rental assistance, which is on average $4,700 per family (for five months), to serve every single one of those 172 families to end homelessness.”
Alongside efforts to streamline services through Our Path Home, the city of Boise, the Idaho Housing and Finance Association, Ada County and other community partners will open a housing development this fall for those experiencing chronic homelessness.
Called New Path Community Housing, the project will have 41 housing units as well as supportive social services for those who have been homeless for at least a year, or on at least four separate occasions in the last three years.
The development, at 2200 W. Fairview Ave., will follow the nationwide policy of “housing first,” which prioritizes moving those experiencing homelessness into places of their own as soon as possible alongside supportive services instead of keeping them in temporary shelters.
The project is being paid for with $500,000 in HOME funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, $6 million in low-income housing tax credits from the Idaho Housing and Finance Association, $200,000 from Ada County for social services, and $1 million from the city of Boise’s general fund. St. Luke’s Health System and Saint Alphonsus Health System also contributed $250,000, and the Boise City/Ada County Housing Authority will provide an estimated $4.5 million in housing vouchers over 15 years.
The process to identify those who will move into New Path is underway, and the Our Path Home program is being used to find residents who are the most affected by chronic homelessness. According to Boise’s director of community partnerships Diana Lachiondo, these individuals often are struggling with mental or physical health issues that make their experience with homelessness difficult to help and costly to the community. Lachiondo is running this fall as a Democrat for Ada County commissioner against incumbent Republican Jim Tibbs.
The aim of the New Path program is to provide some of these most vulnerable residents with the social services they need to find stability while living in a setting where they have personal autonomy. Lachiondo said helping those residents find stability is both the right thing to do and will help the community save money that would be spent on emergency medical costs and other crisis services.
“Some of them are going to become more self-sufficient, but some of them will need some of those resources in a long-term fashion, so it’s still going to cost us money,” she said. “We just didn’t see the money before because it was costing us in the (emergency room), or through the jail process, or through the paramedics.”
In February 2016, a grant-funded study conducted by Boise State University found on average that every chronic homeless person in Ada County cost the greater community $5,346 per year. These costs are largely incurred by emergency medical care and transport, as well as overnight shelter accommodations and stints in jail. On the other hand, the study found using the housing-first strategy to help stabilize those residents would cost the greater community $1,638 per year.
The Housing First strategy has been federal policy since President George W. Bush’s administration and has seen widespread success across the country in reducing the numbers of Americans experiencing chronic homelessness.
Juneau, Alaska, is still struggling with homelessness, but residents in its 32-unit housing-first community have seen steep drops in contact with police, visits to the emergency room and transports by paramedics in the first six months of the community’s operation, according to KTOO. Madison, Wisconsin, opened a housing-first development, which has since helped 48 adults and over 100 dependents find shelter. It has also drawn criticism from residents after three large-scale fights have been reported and police calls to the property have jumped for disturbances, domestic issues and noise complaints, although the majority of those problems have been because of guests and visitors, not the residents themselves, according to the Wisconsin State Journal.
While some may push back against housing-first policies, especially in the cases of chronic homelessness, Schroeder said it is important that the community does not underestimate the abilities of those who have experienced homelessness.
“To survive on the street you need resilience, you need to be able to triage a situation, and you need a certain brand of loyalty,” he said. “There’s a way of tapping into those strengths without judging people for it, instead of being focused on saying ‘you don’t have,’ ‘you’re not yet’ or ‘you aren’t.’ ”
Sherman was surprised at first to learn there were services for a single woman like herself without a young family. While homeless, she assumed that because she did not have children, she had nowhere to turn. CATCH’s assistance felt like an unexpected gift.
After months of being without a place to call home, Sherman is determined to keep paying the bills and not lose her house. Her hope is now that she’s found a permanent place to live, she can get close to her family again and make use of her kitchen and yard. It’s only been a little while, but she said it feels like home.
“Sometimes you just get that warmth in your heart and in your soul and you know somewhere is the right place to be,” she said, watching the sunflowers wave in the breeze. “It’s just meant to be.”
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