|Would you find room for this family? "Nativity" by Carl Bloch
Do we give what we want, or what they need?
My husband and I gave each other an early Christmas present this year: a weekend “staycation” at one of our favorite Boise boutique hotels. After we checked in, surveying the chic modern décor with approval, we decided to take a Linen District walk.
A few blocks later, we ended up at what was left of Cooper Court.
Cooper Court was a tent city for the homeless that sprung up last summer in the alley behind Interfaith Sanctuary and the Corpus Christi day shelter on 16th Street. Now the days have turned cold, and city officials, rightly concerned about sanitation and possible fire hazards, had decided enough was enough. The tent city had to come down.
The city had evicted the residents the day before, and now the street was blocked off, monitored by friendly and courteous Boise City police officers who were assisting residents in moving or storing their belongings.
One young man—he looked barely 18—with curly red hair tucked beneath a baseball cap and fear in his eyes approached us. “I don’t know what to do,” he said, gesturing at the alley. “I don’t have anywhere to go.” He explained that he was unable to stay in one of the shelters because of his arrest record, and he couldn’t go to another one because, “they just treat us like animals.” A police officer approached him, addressed him by name, and asked if he could help.
As we turned the corner, my husband, who usually only cries at movies featuring dogs and/or football, burst into tears. “He was such a nice young man!” he exclaimed. “It’s just wrong.”
Walking back to our hotel in silence, we passed an elderly couple sitting beneath the freeway overpass, huddled together for warmth. In most cases, entering the shelters would mean they would have to separate: Aside from Interfaith Sanctuary, Boise doesn’t really have a solution for people like them.
The irony of the situation was not lost on us. While my husband and I certainly are not wealthy—we are both employed as adjunct college instructors—we live in a comfortable 1800 square foot home in a safe, friendly neighborhood. And here we were, just minutes from home, enjoying a weekend in a luxury hotel, while blocks away, more than 100 people were wondering where they would spend this and many more nights, hoping it wouldn’t snow.
Many of my friends erroneously thought that the city had created an alternative for the residents of Cooper Court. But the city’s shelter was temporary—one night, and a hot shower. The city was prepared for 200. Only 15 people took them up on the overnight offer. The cost to taxpayers for this operation? More than $100,000. That’s a lot of rent money. Meanwhile, Ron Winegar from the Boise Police Department admitted that the city doesn’t really have a long term solution.
Many of my friends donate time and money, like I do, to organizations that work to help and house the least fortunate in our society. But what surprised me when Cooper Court closed down were the reactions on social media from these kind, compassionate, well-meaning people. “There is plenty of shelter space,” they said. “These people are just choosing not to take advantage of the many things we have offered them.”
The truth is, it’s not that simple. The shelter rules are onerous; there is no sense of autonomy or personal space. My friends who have spent nights there tell me that you are reminded—constantly—how “grateful” you should be for a bed and some heat, despite all the strings it comes with.
Aside from Interfaith, which has limited space, the shelter system doesn’t help families. It sometimes doesn’t help people with felonies. And it really doesn’t help people who have serious mental illness.
I’m not discounting the many volunteer hours and dollars people have given to help the homeless in our community. Nor am I saying that a tent city is a good long term solution to our obvious problem of homelessness.
What I am saying is this: To those who say, “There’s room in the inn” or “They should be grateful for what we give them,” here’s something to think about this Christmas season. Are we giving what we want to give, or are we giving what they need?
Acclaimed Boise musician Curtis Stigers and tireless homeless advocate Jodi Peterson have announced an additional show for “The Night Before the Xtreme-Unplugged” on Saturday, December 19 at the Egyptian to benefit the Corpus Christi day shelter and those displaced from Cooper Court. You can purchase tickets here.