A word with Jodi Peterson, co-director of Interfaith Sanctuary

Anne Wallace Allen//September 26, 2016

A word with Jodi Peterson, co-director of Interfaith Sanctuary

Anne Wallace Allen//September 26, 2016

Jodi Peterson (left) with ?? at the Record Exchange in Boise. Photo by Celia Southcombe.
Jodi Peterson (left) meets with John O’Neil, the manager of the Record Exchange in Boise. Photo by Celia Southcombe.

Jodi Peterson is co-director of Interfaith Sanctuary, an overnight shelter that serves 164 men, women and families with children each night in Boise.

Peterson graduated from Boston University with a degree in communications and sociology and for many years worked in marketing, communications, and public relations. For the last 11 years, she and musician Curtis Stigers have co-produced the Xtreme Holiday Xtravaganza, a fundraising concert that has raised more than a million dollars for Interfaith Sanctuary. For the last four years, they’ve also produced the McCall Jazz Festival, raising $100,000 so far Interfaith, the Shepherd’s Home in McCall, and other nonprofits.

Last year, the Interfaith Sanctuary had a budget of $800,000 – 20 percent of that from federal aid. $220,000 came from the Xtreme Holiday Extravaganza and the rest came from private donors, foundations, and grants.

Peterson was working as a job training contractor for Interfaith Sanctuary last year when a crisis arose around the Interfaith Sanctuary in the form of Cooper’s Court, a homeless encampment. Homeless people who had been living under a nearby underpass were displaced by construction on the city’s new skateboard park, and many ended up creating a tent city on a small patch of land called Cooper’s Court next to Interfaith Sanctuary downtown. The sight galvanized and outraged many in Boise, and the police removed the homeless from the site in December 2015.

Peterson entered the fray as an advocate for the people in the encampment. In the process, she got an education about some of the factors that cause homelessness. Now, as co-director of the Interfaith Sanctuary, she’s helping establish case management services for the homeless population to ease the shelter’s guests out of homelessness, sitting at the table as the city and other parties discuss affordable housing, and trying to raise $1 million in the coming year.

Interfaith will stop accepting federal funding Oct. 1 in order to change its programming and offer social services to its shelter guests. Idaho Business Review spent some time with Peterson learning about the obstacles that the homeless, and homeless shelters, face. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why stop taking federal funding?

We can receive the funding only if we are compliant with the way in which they want that funding to be used. You have to shift the mission to match the funding. The Idaho Youth Ranch went through something like this; the Boise Rescue Mission also doesn’t accept any federal funding. When you want to be true to your mission, no offense to federal funding because it’s a wonderful thing, but it’s only wonderful if it matches up with who you are in the community.

How doesn’t it match up with you?

Interfaith Sanctuary is defined as emergency shelter, so it only houses people for a very short amount of time, and the federal funding defines the timeline as 30 days and defines what services can be provided to those within the emergency shelter.

There are no real alternatives for the community in which we serve, the chronically homeless. So if they were unhoused from us, there’s no place else really they’re qualified to go to.

Eighty-nine of the guests who have used Interfaith Sanctuary for the past 5-6 years stay regularly with us, with breaks. They have nowhere else to go. We provide case management to help overcome some of the barriers making our population not qualify for current housing programs.

What are some of the barriers to qualifying for housing programs?

Past offenses, mental health issues, addiction … each of the agencies that serve the voucher program have specific criteria of who is allowed to actually come in through their program. We really do serve the most vulnerable disabled population. They cannot qualify for those existing programs based on their history. We’re working very closely with the city housing roundtables for Housing First. Eighty-nine of our 164 guests would qualify for that housing immediately if the doors opened.

How would the Housing First model serve these people?

With the Housing First model, there are buildings to take people off the street and provide services to them there in the building. The best way to make homelessness more economical for a city is give them shelter, because the cost of care decreases tremendously. And having the services in the building allows them not to use 911 and require police intervention.

How did Cooper Court change things for the homeless?

We heard, ‘These people have to go away to shelters. They are angry, rebellious, and they’re only doing this so they can party all night.” It felt violent there. Our Interfaith Sanctuary guests were having a hard time navigating through the crowd that had built the tent city. We stopped bringing volunteers in. It was messy, and in our city, the way the story was told was that people should stay away and not help these people.

I was working for Interfaith Sanctuary and had never gone to see these people, ever. But I had 200 bottles of water left over in my car after the McCall Jazz Festival in September, so I brought water to them.

There were about 60 people living in tents, and they were really sick. They were clearly disabled and not partying, and were there for many different reasons. When I pulled up with the water, a group ran over immediately to help me unload it. They brought it to their friends who were clearly not doing well in the heat.

I saw that this is a vulnerable population suffering from addictions and mental health issues. Some were living there and some were just keeping their stuff there. It really wasn’t as easy to define as people wanted to believe it was.

There were some people who didn’t need to be there, and some people who needed to be cared for super badly. I started working with Terry Reilly Health Services and Saint Alphonsus and El-Ada Community Partnership to serve this population by providing medical outreach, flu shots, health screenings, blood pressure screenings, to see if there was anyone failing. We started replacing ripped tents and sleeping bags.

That was misinterpreted to seem as if we were trying to build up a tent city.  What we were trying to do was sustain those who were already there,  not make it bigger. But it was just a mess because there was no control over who could come in and out. There was no way to keep the most vulnerable safe, and that’s why it got disbanded.

What did Cooper Court change for you?

Cooper Court got me very connected with being an advocate for this population. I became involved in serious housing issues. I accepted this job as co-director at Interfaith Sanctuary. I learned what our population needed to get better: Intensive case management. I learned that everyone has a very specific homeless story, and they’re vulnerable, and they are mostly broken from their homeless experiences, so if you don’t walk alongside them their ability to succeed is limited.

I learned so much in this process about different homeless people – those who can be sheltered, those who cannot. There is a huge difference. Those who can be sheltered want that community and structure and care. There are those who want no part of a system and structure and rules, and so they find a way to come up with different shelter options for themselves while not getting better themselves.

And then those who are truly shelter-resistant, who have suffered from PTSD. These people who have schizophrenia, some people don’t qualify to be together in shelter and choose companionship instead of splitting up.

So what’s needed here?

A case manager who isn’t handling 500 cases. We’re now working with 10 case managers from Boise State University’s social work program. The relationship with Boise State is what’s changing the way we are able to serve our population.

Forty-three of our guests are now in a drug treatment program.

So does this solve the problem?

No. There is nowhere to move our homeless as they get better. There is limited affordable housing. The city is working to create Housing First buildings and scattered site models, that’s what has to happen for us to move one step forward.

What can businesses do?

Everyone is a stakeholder in the health of the community.

If you have jobs that require hands and not so much executive level skills, and are looking for opportunities to help, connect with us. We can get them trained to the point where they can work for your company.

If you own property, perhaps look at being part of the scattered site Housing First landlord program. More landlords have to be willing to opt into that program and serve it. It changes lives.

What are your biggest fundraising obstacles?

A lot of people don’t understand that when you come out of prison, you don’t necessarily have an ID or a birth certificate or history that can be tapped into, so you can’t apply for a job, you can’t apply for an apartment or insurance. So recidivism is huge.

One gentleman had been homeless for 14 years and in jail for six years. He had had no ID for 20 years. It took us four months to get him a state ID, but the day after he got the ID he got a job at a cement company. He had wanted to work but he just couldn’t because he didn’t have a car, he didn’t know how to navigate the system, he had PTSD.

These people need help. They are not lazy. They are resigned, because they have tried and failed so many times. The system is so much harder than anyone realizes.

We have 40 people who work every day and come back to the shelter every night. We  do have employable people. We have to help them become the right kind of employee. We have to make sure they’re at a certain level before we even attempt to move them. We have to make sure they’re showing responsibility, consistency, and cleanliness and are ready to try employment.

You seem tougher than you used to be.

I am less willing to believe everything that is sold to me. I am wiser in how to show compassion.

The biggest lesson I’ve learned from Cooper Court and everything else leading to my job at Interfaith is they have to work harder than you for either of you to be successful. You can’t just give, give, give.

They have to be willing to go into drug treatment before they can go into job training. They have to function at a certain level for us to move them into housing. You have to be taking steps toward recovery.

Until that piece is dealt with, there is no point in looking at any other pieces for them.