BOISE — For the first time in eight years, Marcus Ikalap has a permanent address.
Last week, he relaxed on a comfortable couch in the downstairs community room of his new apartment building on Fairview Avenue while cookies baked in the oven and an old sitcom played on mute. Wearing a light-colored suit jacket, a button-down shirt and a baseball cap with large sunglasses perched on the brim, he repeatedly whispered thanks for the change in his circumstances.
“I say ‘thank you’ to the Lord for providing,” he said quietly, before pointing his forefinger skyward.
Ikalap, 64, is one of nearly 50 southwest Idaho residents who have been experiencing homelessness the longest and now have a place to call their own. Built by a coalition of public agencies, nonprofits and other groups, New Path Community Housing is the region’s new solution to the old problem of how to help some of the most vulnerable in the community.
Homelessness is a complex issue, but New Path’s answer is relatively simple: housing. Instead of providing temporary shelter or transitional apartments aimed at getting residents experiencing homelessness to find stability and move elsewhere, the 41-unit furnished apartment building on the western fringe of downtown is a permanent home for those in need regardless of circumstances.
The roughly $7 million project is one of Boise Mayor Dave Bieter’s major accomplishments and the result of a 21-group partnership years in the making. Alongside the Ada County/Boise City Housing Authority, Ada County and both St. Luke’s and Saint Alphonsus health systems, the city aims to make New Path proof that a different way to address homelessness can work in Idaho.
Boise's relationship with homelessness has not always been a smooth one. In December 2015 the Boise Police Department closed down the tent city Cooper Court amid growing public health and safety concerns, sending the roughly 100 people living there to seek shelter elsewhere. The move was controversial with community members who feared it would drive homeless residents into dangerous winter weather.
The city also faced a lawsuit from six residents experiencing homelessness in 2009, claiming Boise's then-policy of ticketing residents for sleeping outside when shelters were full criminalized homelessness. Boise is still in the midst of fighting the lawsuit, after the U.S. 9th Circuit Court in September found the policy in violation of the Eighth Amendment, which bans cruel and unusual punishment. The city appealed and is waiting to hear if the case will be reheard.
The idea of creating housing specifically for the chronically homeless is not a new one. New Path is based on a nationally recognized model called Housing First, which emphasizes housing people before requiring them to meet a list of standards, such as getting a job. The housing-first model says once people have a stable place to live, they'll be better positioned to improve other areas of their lives, rather than asking them to make those other improvements before they're eligible for housing assistance.
Terry Reilly Health Services CEO Heidi Hart, whose company manages the social service aspect of the project, said the goal is to work with residents no matter their situation and help them become healthier mentally and physically.
“One of the things that's different here is other housing systems say, ‘You have to have everything organized and ready to go and then you can be in a house,’ and this is saying, ‘Let’s take you wherever you are and make housing first and foremost a priority and put wraparound services to help you,” she said.
Filling the rooms of New Path was not as simple as picking people out of a shelter and getting them on a lease. Instead, nonprofit Charitable Assistance to Community’s Homeless — commonly known as CATCH — used the newly established coordinated entry system to identify those who have been homeless the longest and have frequent interactions with law enforcement or paramedics.
Called Our Path Home, the coordinated entry system gives people experiencing homelessness a consolidated place to access services. Through the program, those in need of housing can fill out a single application and get on a centralized waiting list, rather than going from agency to agency looking for help. This allows social service agencies to prioritize and create a waiting list designed to assist those with the most critical needs first.
Hart said they analyzed information from the hospitals, Ada County paramedics, jail records and talked with Boise Police Department to find individuals who would be good candidates to live at New Path. She said most of the residents are in need of services, but because they are chronically homeless they end up accessing the help they need in the most expensive and ineffective ways. This includes frequent emergency room visits or stays at crisis centers.
“We were looking for the people we are most worried about, and they are trying really hard to get their needs met in a really fragmented way,” she said.
Part of the reason the city and its partners chose to pursue a housing-first strategy is cost. In February 2016, a grant-funded study conducted by Boise State University found that, on average, 100 chronically homeless people in Ada County cost the greater community $5,346,000 per year. These costs are largely incurred by emergency medical care and transport, as well as overnight shelter accommodations and stints in jail. On the other hand, the study found using the housing-first strategy like New Path to help stabilize those residents would cost the greater community just $1,638,000 per year.
New Path is not the end of this model for the city of Boise. Earlier this month, City Council approved the construction of Valor Pointe, a similar housing facility on State Street for veterans experiencing homelessness. It is expected to break ground this spring.
In New Path’s community room where Ikalap and another resident watched television, a jigsaw puzzle sat out on a table, and a flyer advertised an upcoming screening of “Christmas Vacation.” Outside in a courtyard, rows of bicycles, some with attached trailers, were parked and a few residents stood behind the building, smoking cigarettes and talking out in the cold.
On the wall of the community room was a white sign that said, “How are you doing?” with blank sticky notes waiting for residents to write messages. Nearby, a social worker pulled fresh cookies off a baking sheet and offered them to one or two of the residents who had come through.
Kendra Lutes, Terry Reilly clinical supervisor, said the goal is not just to be a place for residents to lay their head at night. She and the other staff members want to build a community within the walls of the new apartment building and help give residents a feeling of home and stability. Last week they held the first floor meetings, where residents on each of the four floors met with each other to discuss how they wanted to live together and ways to respect each other’s needs.
“A bad day would be seeing people coming in and going up to their rooms and knowing there’s something we can do with them and they’re not seeking us out,” Lutes said.
Residents do not just get a roof over their head and furniture with which to begin a new life; they also have access to Lutes and her staff for help with medical needs, navigating food stamp paperwork, drug and alcohol counseling or other needs as they come up. However, this is all optional.
Aside from abiding by traditional rules of apartment living, such as paying rent, there are no participation requirements for New Path residents. So far Lutes said staff has been able to help residents with a variety of things, and she hopes that continues.
Starting soon, Lutes and her staff of a social worker, two peer support specialists, a case manager and a housing specialist will be working on activities to help residents to get to know each other and settle in to the new home. This will include peer support groups, arts and craft sessions, a large community meal for Christmas and other activities. Ultimately Lutes hopes to see the residents form a committee to help make decisions on how the building should be run and what sorts of programs they will have.
Although there are only 41 units, there are close to 50 residents because there can be roommates. Roommates do not have to be married or in a relationship; they can simply be friends who wish to live together. Children under 5 are allowed to live at New Path with a parent, as well, but there are currently only single adults in the building. The size of the one-bedroom units prohibits older children, according to Lutes.
Terry Reilly is providing the social services, but the building itself is managed by Tomlinson & Associates and has a live-in property manager to help with broken appliances, malfunctioning door locks and other issues that come up. Lutes could not say whether this manager has a background in social work.
Hart said Terry Reilly is working closely with Tomlinson to develop rules for residents and how the building should be managed. There are still questions remaining surrounding overnight guests and other policies, plus learning the division of labor of whether the property manager or the social work staff should respond to different problems.
“Partnerships are like a house of cards, and everybody has to find their role in this,” she said. “... I think that will take a good six months.”
Residents can come and go as they please with special key fobs that unlock the door and keys to their apartments. The question of visitors is still being worked out between Tomlinson and Terry Reilly, mostly because of the complication of the lack of enforcement after 5 p.m. A security guard does rounds outside of the building all night on weekdays and patrols the inside of the building on weekends, but that is a subcontractor and not a social work staff member.
Some of the residents of New Path may be addicted to alcohol or illegal substances, but they are still allowed to live in the building. Lutes said illegal drugs are prohibited just like any other apartment complex and would constitute a lease violation, but the goal is harm reduction. Depending on the situation, a resident would not be immediately kicked out of their housing if they are caught with a prohibited substance, but instead staff would work with them to develop options including getting sober or not using the drug on site.
Hart said all of this is in flux right now as staff works together to figure out how best to address issues.
“It’s a low-barrier entry into the housing, and I think it’s going to take a little bit of time, honestly, to determine when is it an eviction and when is it something we can work with,” she said.
WHO PAYS AND WILL IT WORK?
The project is being paid for with $500,000 in HOME funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, $6 million in low-income housing tax credits from the Idaho Housing and Finance Association, $200,000 from Ada County for social services, and $1 million from the city of Boise’s general fund. St. Luke’s and Saint Alphonsus health systems also contributed $250,000, and the Boise City/Ada County Housing Authority will provide an estimated $4.5 million in housing vouchers over 15 years.
Each resident has a housing voucher, which is tied to the unit and cannot be taken anywhere else in the community. Residents pay rent depending on their income, which Lutes said ranges from $0 to around $200 per month.
New Path has been touted by the city and other organizations as a big achievement, but the data will show whether it has had the desired impact. According to Hart, researchers from BSU's Idaho Policy Institute will be analyzing data to see if the residents who were housed saw a decrease in use of expensive crisis services and contacts with the criminal justice system. She did not have a timeline on when the first reports would be available, but she expected that information should be available at the end of 2019.
“(The study) is looking at things like frequent utilization of the hospital or ER, touches with law enforcement,” Hart said. “The idea is that those that are negative should be trending down and those that are about stability are trending up.”
Theresa McLeod, St. Luke’s director of community relations, said the hospital system wanted to be a part of the effort because of the success of the Terry Reilly-managed Allumbaugh House that provides detox and mental health crisis services.
“We knew enough by seeing this model work in our community,” she said. “That’s the confidence we’ve gained by being a partner of this.”
She said St. Luke’s has committed funding for a year but will continue to do so unless the data comes back to show that it is completely ineffective. However, McLeod said the impacts of housing the residents of New Path would not be felt immediately, and she expected that everyone involved will give it time to see how it works in Boise.
When asked why the work of housing the homeless is important, tears welled up in Lutes’ eyes.
“It really could be any one of us that becomes homeless, and everybody deserves to be treated with dignity and respect,” she said. “We should all be looking out for each other. I think housing is a right, and by helping people that are more vulnerable and fragile it’s absolutely the right thing to do, and we should do more of it.”