BOISE, Idaho — Monday morning had barely started when Cpl. Tom Shuler and Jodi Peterson spoke by phone.
Shuler, a Boise Police Department bike patrol officer, had crossed paths with a woman experiencing homelessness. Normally, she used a wheelchair, but when Shuler found her on Monday morning, her wheelchair was broken and she needed to go to the hospital. Shuler knew she had stayed at Interfaith Sanctuary, so he called Peterson, the homeless shelter’s director.
Because Interfaith was at capacity, with 164 residents, Peterson found room at another shelter where the woman could stay after her hospital visit, and a place to fix her wheelchair.
That’s a common interaction between Peterson and the bike patrol’s officers and the other agencies involved.
“It’s fast because we know each other,” she said. “We can bring services very quickly.”
Shuler and Peterson represent two entities, the Boise Police Department bike patrol and the city’s emergency shelters, who interact most with those experiencing homelessness in Boise. Their collaborative approach has been paramount to addressing the issue, both sides have said.
And that issue is an important one for Boise. The median home price in Ada County weighed in August in at $355,000, a 6.6% increase over that time last year, and demand for housing outpacing the supply, according to Boise Regional Realtors.
In his state of the city address last week, Boise Mayor Dave Bieter called for the city to become the first in the nation to end family homelessness, citing Ada County’s 166 homeless families. That entreaty comes less than a month after the city of Boise requested the U.S. Supreme Court hear a 10-year-old lawsuit claiming Boise’s attempted ban on residents sleeping outside criminalized homelessness. The court is expected to decide in October whether to hear the case.
The officers on the department’s bike patrol enjoy a high level of rapport with those in the city’s homeless community. Officers know by name many of the people experiencing homelessness in the city, and many of their conversations with them aren’t related to law enforcement. That’s important, because it’s then easier for officers to step in when the situation requires it — and to figure out what sort of help a person might need, as Shuler did when he called Peterson.
“As much as we see them, we know when things are spiraling down,” said Sgt. Craig Nixon, another member of the bike patrol.
While justices in Washington, D.C., decide whether to hear the case, Nixon, Shuler and Peterson will be among the few people on a first-name basis with some of those it will affect the most.
Simply by virtue of where and how the officers on the bike patrol police, they’re in a unique position to help those in the homeless community. Formed in 1989 as a two-officer seasonal assignment, the bike patrol became a full-time unit in 1993, and includes eight officers. There’s a good deal of tenure on the unit, Nixon said — once officers are on the patrol, they often don’t seek assignments elsewhere. They’ve gone from receiving calls via pagers to receiving them on smartphones, but their philosophy hasn’t changed much.
That’s the reason Nixon enjoys it, is because it’s such a personal type of policing.
“There are no obstacles — the (police) car can be an obstacle sometimes,” Nixon said.
Peterson said the same thing. It’s easier to approach a police officer on a bike as opposed to someone in a car with flashing lights. And people do — Nixon said he’s had people he’s familiar with approach him simply to tell him they got a job or got approved for an apartment.
“There’s a lot more individual proactivity in the contacts that we make on a daily basis,” he said.
Plus, the unit is focused on a specific area. It patrols from Broadway Avenue west to 30th Street, and from State Street to the Greenbelt’s 26 miles. It’s the department’s smallest district, and it receives enough calls for an area twice its size, Nixon estimated. He estimated unit members bike 20 to 40 miles a day.
Police officers on the bike patrol still make arrests and traffic stops when they have to — on Thursday, for instance, Nixon said he arrested someone on a $5,000 warrant — the suspect is simply transported to the jail by a police vehicle.
Shuler said in the two decades he’s spent on the bike patrol, he’s seen the homeless community grow more permanent in Boise. People used to leave for the winter, he said, now they usually stay. There were also fewer services available to people as well.
“Back then it was a little more tougher crowd,” he said. “It seemed like I was writing a lot more tickets.”
The soft power and respect the Boise Police Department’s bike patrol enjoys with those experiencing homelessness in the city was crucial in the department’s December 2015 evacuation of the tent city on Cooper Court, where an estimated 100 or more people lived for months. Conditions within the encampment were deteriorating, Nixon said, and there were concerns about sanitation and drug use.
“Every day we’d ride through there and it just kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger,” Shuler remembered.
He knew people in the camp and he would talk to them often. He estimated it grew over the course of about nine months.
Peterson appreciated the department’s approach to the evacuation of the encampment.
“The police were as gentle as they could be on a day that was … gut-wrenching,” she said, adding she felt it must have been a difficult thing for the officers, many of whom knew the people they were evicting from the makeshift neighborhood next to Interfaith Sanctuary.
Nixon wasn’t on the bike patrol at the time, nor was he one of the officers assisting in the evacuation. But he knew about the incident, which will always be a cornerstone in the conversation about homelessness in Boise.
“It’s a delicate situation,” Nixon said. “(The city) spent a lot of time planning that before putting anything into motion.”
Many people who lived in the encampment were terrified, Peterson remembered. It was traumatic, but she said because officers had taken the time to get to know the city’s homeless population, it went smoother than it would have otherwise.
“It was a better experience because of the Boise bike patrol,” Peterson said.
The evacuation sent ripples through Boise’s homeless community.
“It took about a year for things to settle down,” she said.
The evacuation taught the staff at Interfaith Sanctuary a great deal about the needs of those experiencing homelessness in Boise, Peterson said. In a conversation with the Idaho Statesman a few months afterward, Mike Journee, spokesman for the city of Boise, named the bike patrol specifically as the officers who were checking in with some of the camp’s former residents.
Peterson said her team worked with the bike patrol as well, and helped find shelter for many who didn’t have a home.
“(Boise Police) Chief (Bill) Bones has been a big reason why we’ve been able to improve,” Peterson said. “I think he makes us a priority.”
She knows she sees homelessness in Boise through a different lens than police officers do. That’s why dialogue is so important.
“I think the key piece was the police department understanding what it looks like from the shelter side, and the shelter understanding what it looks like from the police department side,” Peterson said.
Still, officers need to enforce the law, and sometimes that means writing citations.
“We are going to enforce the rules and laws for the state and the city,” Nixon said.
Last month, the city filed a writ of certiorari asking the U.S. Supreme Court to rule on a lawsuit stemming from one of those rules. The suit, Martin v. City of Boise, was filed in 2009. It claims the city’s practice of writing citations for people found sleeping outside, even when shelters are full, “criminalizes homelessness.” The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the city, and Boise has since asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case.
The city has updated the ordinance to only criminalize sleeping outside if there’s no space in a shelter.
The city argues it needs to be able to ban sleeping outside to avoid encampments like Cooper Court. But Peterson doesn’t think allowing officers to write citations for sleeping outside will change anything — what needs to change is access to housing and services, she said.
It’s why she values her relationship with the bike patrol so much. During the day, they are in contact with her if they find someone sleeping or camping outside. She works with them to find out what a person needs, and how to help them.
“We find ourselves kind of being that go-between,” Nixon said.
Shuler said much the same thing. He’s used to going back and forth between a person sleeping outside and a local shelter — finding out why a person was asked to leave a shelter, and whether he can help them find a place to stay.
“I can get a meeting to happen,” Shuler said. “They are the ones that have to follow through.”
In some cases, though, he encounters people who don’t want to stay at a shelter because they don’t want to obey the set rules. He feels he can do in those situations.
Jacob Lang, the men’s ministry director at the Boise Rescue Mission, also lauded the department’s bike patrol. He said those at the mission have had some bike patrol officers’ cell phone numbers over the years, and kept in contact with them. Sometimes they’ll stop by and talk to the shelter’s staff, he said.
“They’ve been great,” he said. “I’ve known a few of them over the years.”
According to Boise Police Department spokeswoman Haley Williams, there is no overarching policy guiding officers in their interactions with someone sleeping outside.
“No, there is no policy dictating the approach, officers generally try to get to know the person’s situation to determine what their options are before deciding what resources could be helpful to them,” she wrote in an email. “That process could be days or months or years long as people try to find what works for them.”
“During the day the Boise Bike Patrol is super great about reaching out directly to Interfaith with a question or need regarding someone in our homeless community,” Peterson wrote in an email. “We are hoping to improve that communication in the evening with the police force to offer outreach and support when they come across someone sleeping outside.”
Interfaith Sanctuary allows people to stay in the shelter even if they are high or drunk, but if they violate the shelter’s conditions of behavior, they have to leave for a set period of time.
If Interfaith is full and a person cannot stay at Boise Rescue Mission, they have to sleep outside because there’s nowhere else for them to go. In those instances, Peterson said, a person would be vulnerable to a citation under the city’s camping ordinance. It’s not reflective of their situation though — that person can come back to Interfaith Sanctuary once the mandatory period of time is up — that period of time ranges from 24 hours to 30 days.
A citation would only make things more difficult for them, she said.
“These people — they’re in trauma,” she said. “The citation is just another piece of trauma. … It pushes them further in their homelessness because of those layers of despair.”
She estimates there’s maybe five people who chronically sleep outside in Boise and who would violate the city’s ordinance. She knows there’s a fear Boise will sprout tent cities as are seen in Portland and Seattle, but she doesn’t think citations are an effective way to prevent that from happening.
Ultimately, the decision about whether to write a citation belongs to the individual officer. Peterson knows that. It’s one more reason why she wants to work with officers, and one more reason why the hyperlocal approach the bike patrol takes is important. She’d rather see officers use citations as a last resort.
Shuler prefers communications and warnings, but he said sometimes he has little choice but to issue a citation, especially after he’s warned the same person, day after day, that they need to change their behavior.
“Ultimately if there’s no consequences for your actions, there’s no reason to change your actions,” Shuler said.
‘WE’VE COME SO FAR’
In October 2018, the Boise City Council approved the $1.1 million purchase of the Lucky Dog Tavern at 2223 W. Fairview Ave., with the intent of turning the property into a substation for the Boise Police Department’s bike patrol. Nixon hopes the space will be ready by early 2020. Lucky Dog had originally hoped to move to a new location, but announced on Facebook on Sept. 13 that the business was unable to secure a new location and would close Sept. 28. One of the area’s few gay bars, Lucky Dog was in business for 17 years.
The building won’t be a full police station, Nixon said, but it will serve as an important base for the bike patrol officers, who work miles from the department’s main headquarters in City Hall West.
Nixon said he’d like to see the bike patrol expand, at least to 10 or more officers.
Meanwhile, in the wake of the Cooper Court evacuation, and thanks to more communication between multiple agencies, Peterson thinks things are getting better. Shuler, too, said he feels the relationship between the police department and the shelters is strong.
“We’ve come so far with programming,” she said. “I don’t think that our homeless agencies have ever worked so closely.”
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