Jayne Sorels, Executive Director Interfaith Sanctuary Housing Services, in Boise, Idaho recalls one of her favorite memories:
Jayne shares another memory, from the early days when the Sanctuary was just a winter shelter. The Hare Krishnas were cooking food and had a sacred way of cooking food. During the cooking process, a group of men from the Mormon community came into the kitchen with cardboard boxes of food, careful to take off their shoes first at the door, followed by a Buddhist group, and the interfaith group who came to deliver the food.
Today, Interfaith Sanctuary Housing Services is a collaboration of people of faith and conscience working together to shelter and serve individuals experiencing homelessness. They provide overnight shelter for men, women, and children, as well as supportive services to promote self-sufficiency, well being, and movement towards permanent housing. Interfaith was a response to the closure of a community shelter for men, women, and children and is an example of a Herculean effort on the part of the Boise faith community.
In November of 2005, with no non-restrictive shelters for women, children, and men, the faith community came together along with people of goodwill and decided that it was their responsibility to take action. A meeting was set for the following day in which the group agreed they would not leave without a solution. The initial solution was to start a tent city the following Thursday, on land the community’s rabbi had given permission to use. Jayne had been asked to coordinate efforts for the tent city. She is a self-described organizer. “We had no money, no building, no staff,” said Jayne. However, there was not full support for this plan, and controversy resulted. The First United Church of Christ had offered their space as a temporary shelter for a two-week period until December 5th. Following that, a Catholic congregant offered a 3,000 square foot warehouse as a gift.
The project was given to Jayne, and was established as a non-profit in 2007. By their second winter season, they purchased their own building through Idaho Housing and Finance and the Catholic Diocese. It is a 10,200 square foot warehouse and today they have 126 beds, plus additional floor space. The program is behaviorally based. There is no physical violence allowed and no sobriety requirement.
Prior to this experience, Jayne had never worked in homeless services, although she had always been drawn to working with people who had lived on the margins. “In my first week at the sanctuary a resident said to me, ‘I have been in every shelter West of the Mississippi and this is so different…you actually care about us.’” She was shocked that other shelters did not. Interfaith has 95 volunteers a week, all of whom are trained to serve from a place of compassion, respect, and dignity. “It has been a journey for each of us in our way to learn about compassion, but we have all been transformed. There have been all these little things. I am known as Mama Jayne. People who come to the Sanctuary feel like sons and daughters, brothers and sisters.” Jayne just performed a marriage ceremony, and has also had to perform memorial services when people die. “It breaks my heart every time. I get very close to people,” says Jayne.
The biggest challenge that Interfaith Sanctuary faces today is the same as faced in other communities. There are more and more people experiencing homelessness. In Boise, most people who are homeless come from Boise. There are few people experiencing homelessness who are travelling through on their way to other places. A small percentage of people had everything together until losing everything in one catastrophe. Jobs and affordable permanent housing are scarce. “We are working with people who have multiple layers of issues including mental illness, substance use, trauma, physical disabilities, and chronic homelessness.”
Boise is now in year five of its Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness. Last year, the Continuum of Care was slated to implement Housing First, but there was no new money for housing. HUD VASH money was used for Housing First, but recently the group came to the realization that without new funding, new ideas, and community involvement, they are up against a wall. They are unable to move people out of the shelter and housing programs. Recently the Boise Housing Authority closed their five-year long waiting list. Like many communities, they are focusing on what they can do and digging deep to come up with new, creative solutions for moving forward towards permanent housing and ending homelessness.