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Boise Parks and Recreation employs homeless shelter guests

"Our goal was if even one person succeeded and was able to get out of the shelter life and be able to start a new life then we felt like that would be a big win," Boise Parks and Recreation Director Doug Holloway said. 

BOISE -- Getting some of Boise's homeless community back to work, and back on their feet, is the goal of a unique partnership between the City of Boise and a local homeless shelter.

It started as a pilot program in the spring and today, it's still running and giving some of our community's most vulnerable members value, purpose, independence, self-worth and stability. Interfaith Sanctuary and City of Boise Parks and Recreation were both inspired by a program out of Albuquerque, N.M., but that model didn't quite fit Boise's culture.

So they created their own unprecedented program where some homeless individuals would become seasonal Boise Parks and Recreation employees. The results up to this point have surprised most and benefited all.

"It's good. Keeps me occupied, keeps me out of trouble," former Interfaith Sanctuary guest, John, told KTVB. (John did not want to disclose his last name due to privacy concerns.)

John lived at Interfaith Sanctuary Shelter for a year and a half.

"Now I'm out and I'm still working. This is good," he added.

He was unemployed for about 10 years until this spring, thanks to the Parks and Recreation program.

"It's better than sitting at the shelter or wandering the streets," John said. "Gave me the opportunity to save the money while I was still there at the Sanctuary and gave me the opportunity and the want-to to get out."

That's the goal - to help transition some of Interfaith Sanctuary's guests - the chronically homeless - out of homelessness.

"The City of Boise would make this commitment to our guests staying at the homeless shelter who were mentally disabled but definitely still very useful and they would hire them as part-time seasonal employees," Interfaith Sanctuary Co-Director Jodi Peterson said.

It started as a 30-day pilot program.

"I didn't know really what to expect. I just felt like, let's give it a shot and see," Boise Parks and Recreation Director Doug Holloway said. "Within two weeks they far exceeded all of our expectations."

Interfaith staff created the internal structure in order for the program to succeed: as seven guests were employed, the shelter assigned them a case manager, set them up with a checking account for direct deposit, and made sure they had their Social Security and Identification cards. Peterson says the case managers are crucial for advocating for the homeless individuals out in the field, and gives them someone they can trust and help communicate their needs or concerns to their employer or manager.

"We really felt like it needed structure around it," Holloway added. "It needed something that would help ensure the success of both the employees we'd be bringing in from Interfaith Sanctuary but also success in terms of what they would actually do for the city in a city park, for example."

The employees are getting paid $9.25/hour and Interfaith case workers are teaching them how to manage and save their hard-earned money.

The crew's original hours were 7:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., but after just two weeks their designated Parks and Recreation crew leader requested those hours be extended until 3:30 p.m. and determined they would like to add even more guests to their staff.

"She said, 'I've never had a harder working crew and we're getting so much done," Peterson added. "What started as one crew in that 30-day pilot program turned into two crews because of the success of the first crew."

Months later, there are two case managers assigned to those two crews, with 10 homeless guests now city employees.

"[They are] making more plans, which they haven't really done for a long time. So it's a huge transition for them to go from not being employed whatsoever to having some regular employment, support, the paycheck is a huge deal. And knowing that they're always welcome and no matter what happens, we work it out and we make sure they're back to work the next day if they really want to," Interfaith Sanctuary case manager, John Davis, told KTVB.

"The value they have brought to our park system has been tremendous. They're doing everything from laying sod to planting flowers, other forms of vegetation," Holloway added.

They also do a lot of weeding and trimming of shrubs and bushes, and have focused their efforts on several projects across town: from the Platt Gardens at the Boise Train Depot to the Julia Davis Rose Gardens.

"They needed something that offered them some support and stability. And an opportunity, and that was the big thing was the opportunity," Davis added. "They are incredibly hard workers, incredibly dependable and they just do a fantastic job and it's really sad to see that, you know, they ended up in homelessness through some certain circumstances but then they couldn't get help, nobody would hire them for anything."

Peterson and Davis say they've found there's often very little opportunity out there for this specific homeless population.

"We wanted to find ways where we could kind of stand by their side and help them overcome barriers like having mental health issues, being older, being homeless but wanting to be employed, wanting to have housing, and wanting to have a second chance based on past history," Peterson added. "Our guests work so hard. They're so grateful to be purposeful again. Their mental health has improved so much by having a place to be and being valued."

Now, a few of Interfaith's guests are no longer guests, or they own a car, or are in addiction rehabilitation or counseling.

"I wouldn't have been able to find this on my own. This had to find me. And when it did I jumped at it," John told KTVB.

"Our philosophy has been if people really want to work they should have an opportunity to be able to work. So we're just pleased we were able to provide that opportunity," Holloway said. "Our goal was if even one person succeeded and was able to get out of the shelter life and be able to start a new life then we felt like that would be a big win."

This program wraps up in October because it's seasonal work, but the shelter staff and Boise Parks and Recreation staff hope and intend on it starting back up again next spring.

In the meantime, the shelter is working with Holloway and the City of Boise to figure something out for the winter and bridge that gap in order to continue the progress their guests (and former guests) have made.

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