Why Idaho Homeless Shelters Are Full When There Are Fewer Homeless People

Jan 29, 2014

Homeless people often spend days outside Interfaith Sanctuary or inside nearby Corpus Christi House day shelter.
Credit Emilie Ritter Saunders / Boise State Public Radio

Luanne Jensen sits in an alley behind Boise’s Interfaith Sanctuary homeless shelter. She recently had knee surgery, so she's sitting on a bench built into her walker. The surgery, she says, is why she’s staying at Interfaith Sanctuary -- again. Jensen says she stayed here three years ago before landing a job. Now, she can’t work.

I tell her about a report that came out a few months ago from the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) that says the number of homeless people in Idaho had dropped significantly in the last few years. She doesn’t believe it.

“There’s more homelessness, more people with more kids,” she says. “I’ve seen some of the same faces I saw three years ago and then more.”

When that HUD report came out I started calling organizations that work with the homeless in the Treasure Valley and Twin Falls. All told me the same thing. The numbers don’t match what they see every day.

Interfaith Sanctuary was one of those. At night, its common room is packed and noisy, but in the day, when it’s closed, echoes bounce off the concrete floor as director Jayne Sorrels speaks. She says there hasn't been a decline in homeless people coming to the shelter.

“We serve, at Interfaith Sanctuary, 160 individuals each night,” Sorrels says. “That’s our building capacity and we are at capacity most nights of the year, for the whole year.”

Sorrels says they frequently turn people away because there’s no room. Single men are referred to another shelter. But some will end up sleeping outside. Sorrels says they don’t turn families away. Families get a motel voucher if the shelter is full. Sometimes, Sorrels says they put as many families in motels as in the shelter.

On one night in January 2013 volunteers counted 231 homeless families with children in Idaho.
Credit Emilie Ritter Saunders / Boise State Public Radio

“Definitely more families are coming to us than we’ve ever seen before,” Sorrels says. What Sorrels and Luanne Jensen are seeing isn’t just a matter of perception. They’re right. While overall homeless numbers are down in Idaho, the number of people in shelters is not. As the Great Recession began in 2008 homelessness in Idaho took a big jump. That happened for two groups, sheltered homeless and unsheltered.

Luanne Jensen is one of the sheltered, the people who have a temporary roof over their heads. That population has remained almost flat since 2010 while the people who sleep outside or in a car, has gone way down. Almost the entire decline in Idaho’s homeless numbers has come in this unsheltered group.

Counting the homeless is difficult. The numbers for this chart come from a count conducted once a year. It's considered a minimum estimate. Reports that shelters and others make to HUD put the total number of sheltered homeless in Idaho at 4,226 for 2013. But not all shelters make these reports. Boise's largest, the Boise Rescue Mission does not.
Credit Data: Idaho Housing and Finance Association | Chart: Emilie Ritter Saunders

Meanwhile Jensen and Sorrels say they’re seeing more families and kids in the shelter. That may be happening throughout the network of organizations that work with the homeless according to Bill Block, HUD’s northwest regional director.

“The number of families entering the system is probably up and the number of families at extreme risk is way up,” he says.

Block’s office published the report late last year saying homeless numbers in Idaho are down. It’s tempting to connect that drop in overall homelessness with the economic recovery. But don’t say that to Jayne Sorrels at Interfaith Sanctuary.

“I don’t know that I would really trust that the recession is over and that everything is getting better,” Sorrels says. “We certainly don’t see that here.”

There is a lot of research to back her up. These studies find the financial crisis hit the people at the bottom of the economic ladder hardest, and that the recovery has largely not gotten to them yet. So there are more working poor families who become homeless or are on the verge of it.

But HUD’s Bill Block says there’s good news too. He says since the recession started, the public and private groups that partner to help homeless people have been doing more to get people out of shelters and into housing.

“There are more people coming in the front door if you will, but there are also a lot more people leaving,” he says.

Homeless counts in 2012 and 2013 did show slight declines in the total number of households with children. That could indicate more families are getting help. But the Idaho Housing and Finance Association that tracks homeless numbers for HUD has not been able to provide data to verify the claim that more people have been placed in housing. Certain types of housing were reported some years but not others.

Even if more people are getting housing, the demand still outweighs the supply. For example, the organization CATCH that helps Treasure Valley families with kids go from shelters to apartments, has a waiting list of 30 families. Jayne Sorrels with Interfaith Sanctuary says people end up staying in shelters like hers much longer than they should. Some stay even after they’ve made it to the front of the waiting lists.

James stands on the corner next to Boise's Interfaith Sanctuary.
Credit Emilie Ritter Saunders / Boise State Public Radio

“Currently we have a number of people who have housing vouchers,” Sorrels says. “So they have a guaranteed payment of their rent, but landlords will not rent to them.”

Sorrels worries about reports like the one from HUD that said homelessness was down overall in Idaho. She’s concerned that this could be harmful since it doesn’t reflect the reality for all homeless groups.

“When people in a community believe that homelessness is not a problem, then people are not working as hard to address the underlying issues that contribute to people becoming homeless,” Sorrels says.

HUD’s Bill Block has a different take, “what the numbers really show is that we really can make a difference not that we are at the point where we can stop.”  

But in an alley behind a homeless shelter Luanne Jensen thinks the numbers are just wishful thinking by politicians. “Because they don’t want to pay attention to people that are in that much need,” Jensen says. “They want to put us under a rug, make us go away.”

HUD’s Bill Block is not one of those who just wants to pretend the homeless aren’t there. Here’s his biggest take-away from the report.

“We have homelessness at a level we simply shouldn’t tolerate,” he says. “And we all need to work together to make sure that that count is zero, because that’s where is should be.”

Copyright 2014 Boise State Public Radio