Word on the Street Issue 20, April 2022
By Erin Sheridan
Interfaith Sanctuary has been an indispensable resource for people experiencing homelessness in the Treasure Valley since 2005. The shelter’s services have proven essential throughout the pandemic and Boise’s housing crisis, but today, the organization’s future is in question.
In January, the city of Boise’s Planning & Zoning Commission denied Interfaith’s application for a conditional use permit for its new building on State Street. The nonprofit has appealed that decision and those who founded the organization are rallying the community in support. This month, some of the faith leaders responsible for the creation of Interfaith Sanctuary sat down to discuss the shelter’s past and present. Here’s part of the story they told.
Interfaith Sanctuary formed in 2005 in response to a humanitarian crisis. The city of Boise took over a building on 13th and Jefferson where Community House, Inc. operated an emergency shelter and transitional housing following a dispute with the nonprofit’s leadership. The shelter, which Community House and the city constructed in the 1990s in a public/private partnership, went up for lease. Officials then rented the city-owned building to a new provider that imposed discriminatory policies, requiring most of the residents to move out of the building.
In 2005 following the takeover, attorney Howard Belodoff sued the city in federal court alleging the city’s actions violated both the Fair Housing Act and the Idaho Constitution’s religious liberty guarantee provisions. At first, officials did not want to use city resources to run Community House and approached the Salvation Army to do it for them, Belodoff said. Court records show that while the Salvation Army accepted the task, the arrangement lasted no more than two weeks due to operational and maintenance issues and as a result, the city continued to run the shelter on its own.
Belodoff’s lawsuit alleged that prior to the city’s operational takeover, officials withheld federal funding and failed to provide maintenance required under a memorandum agreement signed with Community House in the 1990s. He claimed that once the Salvation Army left, the city fixed the broken elevator, the wiring, and completed basic maintenance it had refused to do when Community House operated the shelter.
State and federal grants that funded the shelter’s construction placed certain restrictions on how it could operate. The building served single men and women, families, and SRO tenants living in transitional housing on the third floor. After Community House stopped operating the building, Belodoff recalled city officials putting out a request for proposals, holding a public auction, and ultimately settling on a lease-buy agreement with a Christian organization.
Belodoff said the city council then voted to declare the shelter “surplus” property despite the 300 people living inside in order to make the transfer compliant with state code. In an effort to satisfy their new tenant the Boise Rescue Mission, the Boise City Council also passed an ordinance stating the building could serve “66 single men only,” forcing everyone else out of the building, according to the lawsuit.
“They were going to allow the Rescue Mission to turn it into a church. Nothing against the churches and nothing against the Rescue Mission, but not everybody believes in their religion and you can’t force people to participate in religion, apparently unless they’re homeless,” Belodoff said.
In court, he tried to prevent the city from forcing Community House guests to vacate the property. But in September 2005, following a court order, Belodoff watched police officers evict nearly 200 people from the building. “This included men, women, children, and the 39 mostly disabled residents who paid affordable rent for the studios on the third floor,” he said.
The only other shelter system left in town was the Boise Rescue Mission and not all residents were properly rehoused. One of Belodoff’s clients was in a wheelchair. “(The city) put him in a dilapidated trailer in Garden City that had four steps up and holes in the floor. I had people in the State Street Hotel, but most of the people were just put out on the street,” Belodoff said.
Another man who paid affordable rent on the third floor told his own story at a shelter in Boise this March. The man, who is an artist, recalled moving into more expensive housing with a friend in 2005. He had to leave shortly after due to cost and began living in his car.
By November 2005, concerned citizens realized that people sleeping outside in freezing temperatures were in danger. Faith leaders and community members jumped into action. Rabbi Dan Fink of Congregation Ahaveth Beth Israel, one of the founding members of Interfaith Sanctuary and a current board member, remembered the fallout of the cold weather as a “galvanizing event that pushed many in our clergy community to take action.”
Faith leaders, nonprofits, social workers, and volunteers resolved to open another shelter. St. Mark’s Catholic Church hosted the first organizing meeting. The group chose the name Interfaith Sanctuary because Interfaith began as “a sanctuary from the weather and cruel city policies,” Belodoff said.
At first, organizers intended to set up a large tent at Ahavath Beth Israel but opposition from neighbors halted the effort. Belodoff and others witnessed police officers near the temple “intending to prevent anyone from ‘camping’ on the property,” he said.
First Congregational Church stepped in to offer its building as an alternative. According to Judy Cross, president of the Interfaith Alliance of Idaho and another one of Interfaith Sanctuary’s founders, 70 people slept on the floor the first night. From that point on, faith groups and community partners hosted guests for one to three weeks at a time to provide overnight and evening dining space until Interfaith Sanctuary secured a permanent location. This process continued for two years.
The shelter’s formation was a massive community effort grounded in the belief that all human beings deserve a safe place to rest regardless of gender, race, religion, nationality, disability, familial status, or sexual orientation. Cross called the effort “a truly coordinated act of compassion by many, for many.”
She recalled meeting a guest registering to stay at one of the churches with long, blonde hair and bright pink fingernails who alleged he had been turned away from the other shelter system because of his nail polish.
Will Rainford, social work professor at Boise State University and Pam Baldwin, Executive Director for the Interfaith Alliance of Idaho, led much of the organizing, Cross said. Other organizations helped with policy development, legal issues, site searching, and identifying support agencies to provide assistance as needed.
Community members staffed each space overnight and made breakfast every morning. People gave food, bedding, and toiletries. Some hauled laundry to and from St. Luke’s two to three times a week. One of those volunteers was Diane Tipton, a janitor and member of the Interfaith Alliance of Idaho.
“I cleaned every bar and restaurant in Boise for about six years,” Tipton said. “I knew all the homeless because they would be our security guards. When you’re a woman in the middle of the night taking trash out into the dumpsters…it was really good to know the homeless men who thought of us as their friends would watch out for us.”
In December 2006, the shelter temporarily relocated to a donated warehouse on West Jefferson Street. The zoning code required a conditional use permit. Belodoff recalled a public hearing packed with supporters. “The citizens at the time were appalled that the city would let this happen,” he said.
Interfaith Sanctuary incorporated as a nonprofit the following year and lined up the funding to purchase its building on River Street. The organization is still the only low-barrier shelter in Boise and space is limited. The faith leaders who founded Sanctuary say more needs to be done to serve community members unable to survive in the Treasure Valley’s booming housing market.
Ed Keener, a retired Presbytarian pastor and founding member of Interfaith Sanctuary, said it’s important to remember that homelessness is a failure of the community, not the individual. “It’s the way the community treats people, excludes people, erases people,” he said. “(Displacement) is a huge thing to overcome because we’re dealing with 500 years of this…but you’ve got to start somewhere and we can rally people to do that.”
Cross echoed Keener’s words. “For me this is a matter of justice. It’s a matter of humanity. It’s a matter of if we want to be comfortable in our skins, everybody has to be comfortable in their skins and cared for,” she said.
Some of the Founders of Interfaith Sanctuary include:
Boise Baha’i Temple; Boise First Congregational United Church of Christ; Boise First Presbytarian Church; Boise First United Methodist Church/Cathedral of the Rockies; Boise Friends; Boise Unitarian Universalist Fellowship; Congregation Ahavath Beth Israel; Hari Krishna Temple and the Gupta Family; Hillview United Methodist Church; Humanists of Idaho; St. John’s Cathedral; St. Paul’s Baptist Church; St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church; The Interfaith Alliance of Idaho (board and members); Islamic Center of Boise; Treasure Valley Metropolitan Community Church (now Liberating Spirit MCC); Carnegie Library; Boise State University Department of Social Work faculty and students; Catholic Charities of Idaho; Idaho Food Bank; St. Luke’s Regional Medical Center; The LGBTQ Community Center.
*If you or your organization helped found Interfaith Sanctuary and would like to be recognized, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Stay tuned for the full history of Interfaith Sanctuary in Episode 2 of the Word on the Street Podcast.