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Struggling to find affordable rent in Boise, this family of 5 lives in their SUV

By Rachel Spacek Idaho Statesman

Editor’s note: This is part of Affording Boise, an occasional series of Idaho Statesman special reports on rising local housing costs. Send tips or ideas to rspacek@idahostatesman.com.

Bonnie and Thomas Lowder start their days around 7 a.m., waking up to cries from their 7-month-old baby, Anastasia. The couple change her diaper and make her a bottle, then pull up the shades on their 2000 Nissan Pathfinder SUV – where they have been living with their three children since late November.

The Lowders move from parking lot to parking lot with Aiden, 10, Elijah, 1, and Anastasia. One recent Sunday night, they were parked at a Boise Walgreens when they were asked to leave.

The Lowder family’s situation is not unique. The Idaho Housing and Finance Association’s 2021 count of people experiencing homelessness found that 321 people were living in vehicles in Region 3, which includes Ada and Canyon counties. The association conducts the statewide “point-in-time” count throughout one day each January.

As people flock to Southwest Idaho and demand for housing outstrips supply, renters are seeing their monthly payments increase. Boise rents are up 1% over the past month and 20% over last year, according to Apartment List. The median rent for two-bedroom apartments is now $1,214 per month, up from $950 two years ago. That has pushed more Idahoans into homelessness.

In the past 10 years, Idaho’s homeless population has increased by 23%, according to the Idaho Housing and Finance Association. “The increase can be mostly attributed to improved counting efforts and rising housing costs in the state,” the association says on its website.

Bonnie Lowder said she is a domestic-violence and child-abuse survivor. Thomas Lowder has a criminal record and a learning disability and is in recovery from an addiction to methamphetamine, he said. He also struggles with PTSD because of his addiction and family history.

They need a place to live.

“Even like a basement apartment would be wonderful,” Bonnie Lowder said. “Two rooms in a basement apartment.”

The Lowder family previously lived with Thomas Lowder’s foster father in Boise but say they had multiple arguments with him. One of his dogs bit Bonnie Lowder, and the family left shortly after Thanksgiving.

They did not plan to live in their car, but the family’s first application for an apartment was denied because Thomas Lowder has a felony conviction and is on probation, he said.

The family sought assistance from CATCH and Jesse Tree, two programs that help with evictions and housing assistance in Ada County. With long waiting lists for CATCH’s housing programs, the family wasn’t able to get immediate help, they said.

Each night, the family parks their car, with three dogs in the back, where they can. Each weekday, Thomas Lowder takes Aiden to school and spends most of the day with the two younger children waiting in a Walmart parking lot for Bonnie Lowder, a Walmart delivery associate, to get done with work. She works from 1 to 10 p.m. five days a week, loading orders into people’s cars. She makes $15 an hour.

Bonnie Lowder takes home $2,000 per month. She said Walmart allows employees to take money out of their paychecks before they are paid. Bonnie Lowder said she constantly takes money out of her paycheck account each time the family needs to shower, pay for gas or do laundry. Occasionally they pay for a night in a motel.

She recently took out $57 to pay for gas. Showers for the family cost $14 each at the TA Travel Center on Broadway Avenue in Boise – they usually all pile into one shower. The family tries to keep their children’s clothes clean after each wear. The two adults have only two sets of clothes apiece.

In early February, the family was running low on food stamps, which they receive on the 10th day of each month. On a recent Monday, Bonnie Lowder was planning to, yet again, pull out money for food.

Bonnie Lowder said that sometimes the family will cook on their camp stove, but they rely mostly on snacks and meals they can microwave at the truck stop.

Homeless shelters a problem for recovering addicts

Thomas Lowder said he has applied to work at Walmart, too. He was still waiting in early February for his background check to pass through Walmart’s employment office.

He has two arrests, in Arizona and Idaho, for possession of methamphetamine, he said. He spent three years in prison in Pennsylvania after he pleaded guilty to an aggravated assault charge in 2011, Pennsylvania court records show. He is on probation until Jan. 12, 2023, for the assault conviction.

The Lowders could try to stay in a homeless shelter for a while. But Thomas Lowder said he fears that a relapse is “waiting to happen in a shelter.” That is why Boise’s only family shelter, Interfaith Sanctuary, is not an option, he said.

Jette Curtis, outreach program director for CATCH, said Thomas Lowder’s fears are rational. Interfaith is a low-barrier shelter, meaning there are people who stay there who struggle with substance abuse, Curtis said by phone. Interfaith offers substance-abuse recovery assistance, Curtis said, but “you are going to be exposed to use.”

After the COVID-19 pandemic hit Idaho in 2020, Interfaith sent all of its homeless families and medically vulnerable guests to hotel rooms at the Red Lion Downtowner, using COVID-19 assistance money from the federal government. The move was part of an effort to socially distance the people living in Interfaith’s shelter.

Interfaith still keeps families in the hotel, but its rooms there are full. Executive Director Jodi Peterson-Stigers said 186 families are on the waiting list, for only 51 rooms.

“As we move someone out of a hotel room, we move someone else in,” Peterson-Stigers said by phone. “Because there are not a lot of places to move people into, it is a struggle.”

Families can stay in the hotel rooms as long as they need to, she said.

Single homeless individuals can get housed at Interfaith Sanctuary’s emergency shelter at 1620 W. River St. in Boise.

Bonnie Lowder said she would be willing to split up from her husband – going to different shelters – if he had Aiden and Elijah with him. Thomas Lowder would feel more comfortable in a shelter if he could fill his role as a father, he said, but the other shelter options don’t allow children to stay with their fathers.

Without that option, the couple do not want to separate.

“I can’t separate from my kids,” Bonnie Lowder said on a recent Monday evening at Terry Day Park, off Federal Way on the Boise Bench.

The Boise Rescue Mission requires people to be clean and sober to enter its emergency shelter, but the Rev. Bill Roscoe, CEO and president of Boise Rescue Mission, said the organization doesn’t turn anyone away.

The Rescue Mission requires that men and women separate into different shelters, with women staying with their children.

The Rescue Mission’s City Light Home For Women and Children, at 1404 W. Jefferson Avenue, is a little more than half a mile from the River of Life Rescue Mission for men, at 575 S. 13th St. Bonnie Lowder said she did not want to check into the City Light shelter with all three children. She said she felt more comfortable with Thomas in their car.

“We are in this together,” Thomas Lowder said. “We are not going to split up because the system tells us to.”

Thomas Lowder is responsible for all of the child care when Bonnie Lowder is at work. After dropping Aiden off at school, he changes the baby’s clothes and picks up extra diapers from a storage unit the Lowders rent. He also switches out the children’s toys with ones they have stored in the unit and gets cleaning supplies to wipe down the car.

In the parking lot, Thomas Lowder and the kids hang out and play with their toys. He takes the three dogs out of the car to feed them and give them water. They’ll take walks around the parking lot, and Thomas Lowder will tie the dogs up to the back of their car when he is with the children.

The three dogs, Oreo, Daisy and Cheyenne, make the Lowders feel safer and less anxious. Oreo slept by Bonnie Lowder every night when she was pregnant with Elijah and Anastasia. Bonnie Lowder said Oreo would sleep with her head near her pregnant belly.

Aiden loves the family’s dog, Daisy, Bonnie and Thomas Lowder said. Thomas Lowder is also attached to her because she was with him before he had children or a wife.

“I used to not even be able to be this far away from her,” Thomas Lowder said at Terry Day Park, while he was a few paces from Daisy, in the car.

On days that Bonnie Lowder is off work, the couple take their children to Terry Day Park to play.

‘Bounced around’ homeless services

The Lowders say they have sought help from all of Boise’s rental-assistance and homeless-service providers, but so far they could only get on the Boise City Ada County Housing Authorities waiting list for Section 8 vouchers. That list is up to 2.5 years long.

“It is a Ring Around the Rosie here in Boise,” Thomas Lowder said. “You get bounced from one organization to another, and by the time they are done bouncing you, you have gotten no help. At the end of the day, you are still sleeping in your truck.”

Curtis said CATCH tries not to bounce families from one place to another. When people call CATCH’s emergency hotline seeking housing assistance, they are connected to every system in the area that uses funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“If you are literally homeless – staying in an emergency shelter, in a car, or camp, no running water or electricity, you would be eligible for our programs,” Curtis said. “If you just got a three-day notice of eviction delivered to your door, then we would transfer you to Jesse Tree.”

Ada County has a 0% vacancy rate for its low-income, rent-restricted apartments: There are 2,374 rent-restricted units in the county, according to the Idaho Housing and Finance Association.

Long waiting lists for affordable homes plague the Treasure Valley, Curtis said.

“Long waiting lists are the bane of homelessness and rehousing,” she said. “It is so inhumane to have a humanitarian crisis, and our solution is permanent supportive housing, but you are going to have to wait many years.”

Car or RV is ‘a huge asset when you are homeless’

As the waiting lists for housing become longer, Curtis said, more families are choosing to stay in their cars.

“A car or an RV is a huge asset when you are homeless, and it is hard with little kids, but I would stay in there and not a shelter,” Curtis said. “You have independence, storage for your belongings. If you have a pet along with your family, a car is your best option.”

The Lowders would likely have to get rid of their car if they went into a shelter since there is often no long-term parking, Curtis said.

The Lowders have thought about trading in their SUV for a van or better vehicle to sleep in since hope for an apartment is becoming dim.

Still, they hope. Bonnie Lowder said she thinks she could afford $1,200 a month in rent at the most. She hopes for a three-bedroom apartment to fit the whole family, but would be happy with two bedrooms – one for the boys and one for herself, Thomas and the baby.

“If I were to get into an apartment right now, I would not be able to do the down payment plus the rent for the first month,” Bonnie Lowder said. “I would have to find a way to work with a manager: ‘I can give you the deposit but you are going to have to wait for the rent because I don’t make much.’ “

Despite months without luck finding a permanent place to live, the Lowders seem positive. Thomas Lowder was preparing to call all the apartment complexes on a list he had recently received of places that accepted renters with criminal records.

“We just want to be safe and warm and for the kids to have a bed to sleep in,” Bonnie Lowder said.

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