By Kayanna Gunther, case manager at Interfaith Sanctuary
When I was younger, I would pass by a little building with a big banner with the word ‘Sanctuary’ on it. There were little people standing outside of this building. I would be on my way to the main library via the conector every week with my mom and siblings and I would wave to the little people, thinking they could see me like I see them. I was fascinated by those little people standing in line waiting for something. What they were waiting for I did not know, but my child brain knew it was for something important. In the summer they would be in shorts and tank tops and in the winter bundled up with coats and blankets. They would line the fence that surrounded the building. Some sat down while others laid down on the ground. It was not until I was older, when I asked my Mom as we were driving past this little building, that I learned what they were waiting in line for. She told me they don’t have a home and are waiting for a place to sleep. I was surprised. I did not know that some people did not have homes. I asked her why and she said it was because they drink and do drugs. I did not fully understand what the connotations of this statement were but naturally, because she is the authority in my life, I listened to her. We had a short conversation about why drinking and drugs were bad and that there are people less fortunate than we were. Then we went on with our lives. I forgot about the conversation as soon as I stepped into the library, my favorite place as a child.
In this interaction with my mother I was taught a few things. One, that some people do not have homes. Two, that these people who did not have homes were in that situation because of their choices. Three, that drugs and alcohol are bad. Finally, I was taught that because drugs and alcohol were bad then the people who chose to drink and do drugs are also bad. This is a lot for a kid to take in all at once, but I took it in because I was taught to listen to my mom. She must know what is best. I think it is fair to say that now in my older years my mothers views have changed and are more human-focused. I can also safely say that I have taught her a few things here and there. Regardless of what I know now, my knowledge then was limited to what the people around me told me and what I looked up myself.
We soon stopped going to the Main Library and started going to the new one that opened up in our neighborhood, and I stopped seeing the little people standing waiting for a place to sleep. I did not think about them until I was in my junior year of college. I needed to complete 20 hours of service learning for the class I was taking. We had had multiple presenters come in from agencies around the community and I had already picked out the one I wanted to do. When the online portal opened up for the list of service learning opportunities, I was late getting to the portal. I was dismayed to see that every agency’s slot had been taken up except for Interfaith Sanctuary. I was upset at myself for not getting into the portal early to “pick one of the good ones”. I chose Interfaith, however unwillingly, and evidently started my journey that I am on now.
As I was being given the tour around the shelter by Morgan, I saw the big banner, now weather worn, still hung across the building. I was thrown back to my childhood, driving across the connector and looking down at the little people waiting in line. “This is it”, I thought. “This is that place.” I was thrilled that I had stumbled upon this little building from my childhood, but I was also nervous. Thinking back to my conversation with my mom and the conclusions I had drawn as a kid, I thought to myself,”I will start this with an open mind.” After my first shift at Interfaith I cried. I drove home crying and then sat in my car outside of my warm home crying. We had to turn people away that cold winter night in January. When I asked the shift lead where they will go, she told me they will sleep outside trying not to freeze. I do not know where I thought they would go but I did not even consider there would be people sleeping outside in 30 degree weather. I wanted the building to be bigger so we did not have to turn away people.
I thought to myself after I had cried everything out, “How lucky am I to have a warm home. To have a car to travel in the bad weather. To have a bed that is mine and food in my cupboards. How lucky am I to have what I have.” My partner and I had just barely gotten the home we were in after spending a month in the Sunliner Motel. We spent a month eating food from our work that we would get for free. The motel blew through all of my savings I had for college the next year. But we were not outside. A month later we had gotten a trailer and a roommate to split the bills with. A month later we had a home to call our own.
I was so thankful and hopeful I could help this population more. I threw myself into learning more about the population and how I could help support them. Through talking with guests and learning more academically, I spent my social work internship at Interfaith and now am hired working directly with the guests.
Imagine if I hadn’t committed myself to learning more and coming into the shelter with an open mind. I would still have the complex that homeless people are bad, they did this to themselves, they are dirty, etc. There is so much more to every population and those experiencing homelessness are no different. They have heart and soul. They are strong-willed and compassionate. The population that has moved out of homelessness is dedicated to helping those that have supported them and those that still need support. People deserve second chances. This population is no different than anyone else. We all have struggles and concerns. You become homeless when you run out of a support system, not when you run out of money. When you do not have people to support you through tough times, you fall through the cracks. This population is ready for assistance and ready to become housed, they just need that hand up. The support around them shows them it is alright, that they are safe.
In the building we are in now, Interfaith stretches itself beyond belief to cover as much ground as possible. We strive to be that safety net so people do not fall through the cracks. When I first started at Interfaith, the programs were almost nonexistent. Now there are programs for substance use, mental health, families with children, children’s early education, those who are medically fragile, and for those looking for employment and housing. Our community of people experiencing homelessness has grown due to the pandemic but our community support has grown stronger as well.
Regardless of all the programming we do and all the support we offer, there are only so many beds this little building can provide each night. Every night that we are full and have to turn away people into the cold night is a night that we fail this population. The housing crisis the Treasure Valley is experiencing is not getting better, and as a result, more and more people are experiencing homelessness. In the new building, there are more spots for the ever-growing population of people experiencing homelessness. There is more space not only to house people until they can get housing of their own, but also more space to social distance.
When deciding whether or not to support a shelter, think first of the people who will stay in that shelter. Think first of those who will be turned away due to lack of space. Think first of the families with children that are sleeping in cars or bouncing from one couch to another. After thinking about others then think of yourself. Boise is a community that supports each other. Boise is a kind city and in that kindness comes support of those who do not have what you have. Support the new sanctuary. Have faith in Interfaith Sanctuary.