Interfaith Sanctuary hearings continue this week, ignite old debates

Interfaith Sanctuary .jpg
Posted at 12:38 PM, Apr 20, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-20 14:38:04-04

BOISE, Idaho — Discussion on whether Boise's Interfaith Sanctuary — the city's largest emergency homeless shelter — will move to State Street is back before the city council this week during public hearings.

Interfaith Sanctuary (IFS) is a nonprofit organization operating in Boise for over a decade. Its former emergency shelter on River Street offered child care and adult services, case management support, food, and housing for individuals dealing with homelessness.

In early 2021, IFS purchased the vacant Salvation Army site on West State Street to expand shelter capacity and services. According to our partners at the BoiseDev, the facility would hold approximately 200 beds and have extra space to increase support programs.

Interfaith Sanctuary

However, residents in nearby neighborhoods quickly opposed the project, voicing their opposition in a series of Boise Planning and Zoning Commission meetings earlier this year.

In January, commission members denied the IFS conditional use permit in a 5-1 vote. Their reasoning aligned with neighbor's concerns, including a lack of security mitigation measures.

Related: Interfaith Sanctuary pausing application process on proposed State St. shelter

Interfaith appealed the decision, leading to this week's debate that highlighted many of the same arguments from both sides of the discussion.

Neighbors' significant concerns from Tuesday, respectively:

  • Potential impacts on public safety and a lack of planning by IFS to mitigate impacts
  • Proximity to residential areas and a nearby elementary school
  • Proximity to other housing developments designed for low-income earners
  • Impact on property value
  • Distance from services like public transportation and the Boise Police Department 

Related: What is next for Interfaith Sanctuary after conditional use permit denial

Mayor Lauren McLean started Tuesday's meeting asking speakers to be respectful, reminding them that "at the end of this, we all have to go back to living together."

Bruce Moore, a neighbor, said he had previously served as an executive director for a housing authority "long ago and far away" and regularly worked with homeless organizations.

He said those "far away" organizations reported that 60% of their single male residents were felons. Moore said he was "unsuccessful" in finding the number of felons residing in Boise homeless shelters.

"We can all agree that a city is made better by helping those without housing through no fault of their own," he said. "This proposal before you would impose high ongoing costs to vulnerable neighborhoods to shelter felons."

There is no publicly available data showing Interfaith Sanctuary houses felons of any kind, nor how many are in IFS' care.

According to the nonprofit's website, IFS does not discriminate based on race, gender/sex, religion, national origin or other factors.

Related: Resources for people experiencing homelessness in Treasure Valley, how close they are to capacity

It does have rules against bringing drugs, alcohol, and weapons onto the property. Interfaith is a low-barrier shelter with minimal requirements to stay, only requiring that residents do not steal, damage property, act violently or bring in prohibited items.

"This does not make the city a better place," Moore said. "If this project is approved, no small child will be as safe as currently. No young mother with a baby will feel safe in a park or the greenbelt. No bike will be as safe on a front porch."

One of the few speakers who favored IFS's conditional use permit, Jennifer Thornfeldt, said Tuesday that she had lived near the shelter for two years.

"My home base is River Street and is the main thoroughfare between River of Life and Corpus Christi," Thornfeldt said, referencing two other Boise emergency homeless shelters in the downtown area.

1203 Local Homeless 01.jfif
People at the former Cooper Court homeless camp, cleared out by the city of Boise in 2015.

Thornfeldt estimated she had roughly 4,000 opportunities to experience living in a neighborhood with hundreds of homeless individuals. That 4,000, she said, was calculated by adding together the number of dog walks, mail checks, putting trash outside and other daily activities that required Thornfeldt to step outside her River Street home.

"I have not seen one needle, condom, human waste, or the like in my walkabouts," she said. "Nothing has been stolen from my garage or my front porch, despite opportunities to do so.

"While out walking my dogs, I have not been catcalled, whistled at or approached," Thornfeldt said. "My gorgeous teenage daughter hasn't at either."

Testimony continues through Thursday. If there are individuals still signed up to testify after Thursday, City Council will conclude testimony Monday evening. All hearings are scheduled from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Testimony is limited to people who already spoke during the planning and zoning commission process. Information on how to testify or how to watch is available here.

Hearings are broadcast live on the City of Boise's YouTube Page. In-person attendance is limited. The council will hear virtual testimony via Zoom.

The council will either overturn or affirm the planning and zoning commission denial following testimony. Still, the losing party could appeal the decision again and hand it over to the courts.