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Ada County decision to decline homelessness dollars sets off row with Boise’s mayor

March 16, 2023 Updated Fri., March 17, 2023 at 6:46 p.m.

Tents are set up in November along Cooper Court, an alley frequented by people without homes because it’s close to Interfaith Sanctuary, Corpus Christi House and CATCH, which all provide services to people experiencing homelessness in Boise.  (Sarah A. Miller/Idaho Statesman)
Tents are set up in November along Cooper Court, an alley frequented by people without homes because it’s close to Interfaith Sanctuary, Corpus Christi House and CATCH, which all provide services to people experiencing homelessness in Boise. (Sarah A. Miller/Idaho Statesman)
By Ian Max Stevenson Idaho Statesman

BOISE – Boise Mayor Lauren McLean is criticizing the Ada County Commission for declining to spend federal funds on emergency housing for people experiencing homelessness, saying that puts Boise at risk of becoming another Portland.

The row is part of an ongoing debate between the city and county leaders over what resources should be committed to helping unhoused people.

The dispute is coming to a head as federal funds to provide the resources start to run out.

On Tuesday, the three-member, all-Republican commission declined the Democratic mayor’s request for additional money to pay for rooms at the Red Lion Hotel Boise Downtowner for people who are in need.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, money to pay for hotel rooms – primarily for families with children, medically fragile people and seniors – had been provided by a series of federal programs.

The temporary lodging at the Red Lion has been run by Interfaith Sanctuary, a nonprofit Boise shelter.

The city initially asked the county to help fund the rooms until 2024.

In December, the commission instead authorized $697,600 of federal money with a deadline in April, the county’s chief operating officer, Steve Rutherford, said at Tuesday’s meeting.

On Wednesday, the commission notified McLean that it was declining the city’s request for more money.

McLean said the county’s decision would cause suffering.

“The decision made by the County Commission to deny funds for housing at the Red Lion means families will be pushed out onto the streets, with no roof over their heads and nowhere else to go,” Mayor McLean said.

“Decisions like these, actions like these, are what will turn us into another Portland, where tent cities are rampant.”

Commissioner Ryan Davidson said at Tuesday’s meeting that the commission was “firm” about its time limit in December.

He said that would give the city “enough for them to find new funding or a more permanent solution.”

He added that “we’re paying hotel rates to shelter people who should be in a proper facility. I don’t know if it’s sustainable that much longer.”

County says city fails to provide some information

At Tuesday’s meeting, Rutherford said the county had requested “additional information” from the city after the commission’s December decision, which “wasn’t forthcoming until very recently” and didn’t include some of the information the county said it had asked for, including “how fast they’re matriculating people through that program.”

In an email in February, which a spokesperson for the mayor provided to the Statesman, McLean told Commissioner Rod Beck how the hotel was being used.

There were then 49 guests in 25 rooms, seven rooms for staff members, and 25 vacant rooms, she wrote.

Fifteen of the guests were “medically fragile,” 34 were from 10 families and a number of people were on a waitlist.

McLean said that was because “Interfaith hasn’t wanted to offer shelter to families until there is certainty about funding.”

For two years, Interfaith, located on River Street, has been moving forward with a plan to relocate its shelter to State Street.

In her email, McLean said she expects the completion of the new shelter – which will include 22 beds for medically fragile people as well as beds for people in hospice and for families – to render the Red Lion hotel rooms unnecessary.

Beck suggested Tuesday that it is not necessary to spend more money on the hotel rooms for that long.

“I’ve done a little checking myself, and I think there’s lots of openings available in other areas for the people that are (at the Red Lion) now,” Beck said.

In an email, county spokesperson Elizabeth Duncan said Beck was referring to openings at the Boise Rescue Mission’s shelter and Interfaith.

In a letter Wednesday to McLean, the commissioners said that they “do not believe it is fiscally responsible to pay over $2 million additional dollars to fund hotel stays while waiting for Interfaith Sanctuary to become operational at their new State Street location.”

Interfaith says it has no available beds

Like Interfaith, the Rescue Mission provides overnight shelter. But in the past, some locals have stayed at Interfaith after being kicked out of the Boise Rescue Mission, which has more rules and is Christian-affiliated.

More than 15 years ago, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals stopped Boise from contracting homelessness services with the Rescue Mission, ruling that the mission’s Christian programming violated individual religious rights.

In an interview, Jodi Peterson, the executive director of Interfaith, said there are no beds available at her shelter. She said she and her staff had a feeling of “impending doom” last year, knowing that federal funds were running out to help the specific populations staying at the hotel.

She said she was “hopeful” when the commission first got involved, but that there has been a communication disconnect.

“I think we need to have direct communication with the Ada County commissioners,” she said. “I think we have to talk about our work … If the commissioners were sitting at the table with Interfaith more often, they would be better able to understand.”

‘Shocked and deeply dismayed’

McLean said she was outraged that the commission denied the requested funds.

“I am shocked and deeply dismayed that the Ada County commissioners have, once again, refused to invest in temporary, emergency shelter for unhoused families with children, leaving the city of Boise solely responsible for addressing countywide issues,” she said.

She added that she would “make sure that these families remain housed and off our streets” by finding a way to keep them at the hotel.

Interfaith’s plan has been besieged by neighborhood opposition. A lawsuit against the shelter is ongoing. But it has won approval from the Boise City Council, and McLean said she expects the shelter to be built by March of next year.

“Families and children need safe shelter while they work with trained staff to transition into permanent housing with the services they need to be self-sufficient,” Maria Weeg, McLean’s spokesperson, said in an email. “(Interfaith) is at capacity at their congregate facility, and (Boise Rescue Mission) cannot accommodate families with parents of both genders.

“Those shelters also have additional barriers which for a variety of reasons prevent clients from utilizing them.”

The Rescue Mission has an overnight shelter for men and a separate shelter for women and children.

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