Hiding The Homeless In Boise, Idaho

When mentioning the humble city of Boise, Idaho, there are some interesting things that come to mind. Boise State University’s blue astroturf, the incredible mountain biking trails, and the annual Treefort Music Festival all highlight a unique place that Idahoans love to call home. For such a small city, Boise truly has a lot to offer.

Although housing rates are relatively low in Idaho, the city of Boise is making national news for something atypical of smaller cities: a large per capita homeless demographic. The reason that Boise is making headlines isn’t because of the sheer number of people without homes. Backwards laws and police tactics that have been set in motion as of late are the issue. 

I have lived in Idaho my whole life. Now that I reside near the heart of downtown Boise, I’ve become more conscious of the level of homelessness in the city because I witness it firsthand. I see areas near homeless shelters where a high concentration of people are living on the streets. People are literally living within a few blocks of the shelters in many cases.

A community of homeless people frequent an area near the downtown Rhodes skatepark. This has become a source of much local controversy. It stems back to police officers stepping in and posting ‘No Camping’ signs all over the area. I drove by the skatepark almost daily around that time and very regularly witnessed cops citing homeless people and even arresting them at times.

As the situation progressed and the issue of ‘camping’ became a very regular event, something brash began to unfold. When the city determined that the ‘homeless problem wasn’t being solved’ they took an archaic approach.

Out of nowhere, the common ‘hot spots’ for homeless people were suddenly closed off by a series of chain linked fences. This certainly digressed the situation and forced people to live on the streets in areas with less shelter.

Vice recently put out a short documentary, titled Hiding the Homeless, which highlights all of these issues. Reporter, David Enders, says:

“Cities are responding to growing public frustration with a new tactic, legislation designed to hide the homeless rather than help them. Controversial new laws have been passed by dozens of local governments that make it virtually illegal to be homeless.”

Boise is passing laws designed to get homeless people off the streets by criminalizing basic human behaviors. Sitting down too long, sleeping, or even simply sharing food in public all constitute as criminal behaviors under these laws.

Janet Bell, who currently resides in Boise, has been homeless for nearly a decade. Due to the harsh conditions of being homeless long term, she unfortunately lost half of her arm because of an infection. This experience almost killed her. Despite public health efforts that are constantly evolving, homeless populations typically don’t have access to basic healthcare.

Thankfully Bell’s health progressed but soon after she was faced with another challenge: being ticketed for ‘camping’ by Boise police. Although the harsh conditions associated with being homeless can be dangerous, criminalizing this demographic of people is simply not a feasible course of action.

In the Vice documentary, Enders asks Bell the following question:

“What do you think the real purpose of that law is?”

Her response:

“The law? To harass the homeless in hopes that they will go somewhere else. Of course everybody wants to move the homeless, but they gotta be somewhere don’t they?”

Bell and four others are currently involved in a revolutionary court case. This case started locally and quickly reached a Federal Appellate court. The group is suing local government saying their laws constitute as cruel and unusual punishment. This court case’s outcome could very well reevaluate the backwards legislation currently in place. It could redefine the rights of homeless people across America, as cities nationwide are starting to adopt bunk laws related to homelessness.

The anti-camping laws in place are doing nothing more than contributing to the problems associated with homelessness. All forms of stability are revoked with these laws. Homeless people are forced to constantly relocate or face citations and jail time. In turn, they are forced back to the streets when they are released. Irrational arrests are creating a byproduct: more housing barriers!

Furthermore, the shelters in Boise are extremely underdeveloped. The availability of beds to sleep in is only numbered in hundreds while the actual homeless population does not reflect that. The population of homeless people in Boise is constantly hovering around 2000 people, which is pretty staggering considering the city’s small population.

All of these unfortunate circumstances are equating to many people seeking shelter in places like public parks, underpasses, and wooded areas along the Boise River.

Richard Morgan, who has been homeless for six years puts in like this:

“Yeah, well you know I did, I tried that (living in a shelter) when I first became literally out-on-the-street homeless and I could only stand it for about two months and that’s if I drank. That was part of my self-medication for the bipolar and anxiety. And I didn’t like drinking that much so it was easier to move.”

Local police announced that under the anti-camping law they will continue to ticket the hundreds of homeless people living in makeshift areas. Will this segue to more homeless people fleeing to the woods? More than likely.

Not to say that all efforts to get people out of homelessness are completely misguided. Recently several subsidized apartment buildings were built in the nearby Boise suburb, Garden City. Many community organized nonprofits provide meals for those in need, and local Habitat for Humanity branches help people build homes for a fraction of the market price once they are in a position to do so.

Watch the Vice documentary in full and post your opinions and concerns in the comment section.

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