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New data show homeless population numbers in Boise, Ada County. Are efforts working?

Every year, a local group takes to Boise’s streets to count all of the homeless people it can find.

The results this year show that the number of those without housing has increased in the short term but decreased over the long haul, in a way that has local leaders hopeful.

The exercise, known as a Point-in-Time count, was conducted by staff and trained volunteers with Our Path Home, a public-private partnership working to end homelessness in Ada County.

On Jan. 25, the Our Path workers counted people accessing emergency shelters or spending the night unsheltered in Ada County. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was the first full-scale PIT count since 2020, organizers said.

The group said in a report that it found 687 people without housing: 472 in emergency shelters, 103 in transitional housing, 46 in vehicles and 55 staying outside.

That number marked a 6% increase since 2020, which Our Path Manager Casey Mattoon said could be attributed to the pandemic and the rising cost of housing locally.

At the same time, that number is an 8% decrease from 2012 — something Mattoon said is promising, given the the increase in local rental prices and the area’s vast population growth.

Boise leaders have long listed affordable housing, and the ability to provide transitions and housing options to those who don’t have homes, as priorities, and have worked to fund initiatives.

“I think it shows we’ve got the evidence-based solutions, we know how to implement them, and the only thing that we’re missing is being able to fund those at scale,” Mattoon told the Idaho Statesman in a phone interview.

Of the people counted, 81% were single adults and 12% were families, with about 6% “unaccompanied youths.” About 71% were male, 32% were 55 or older and 16% were veterans, according to Our Path.

The count also gave insight into the struggles of some in the homeless population. Of those surveyed, 17% had a serious mental illness, 8% suffered with a substance abuse disorder and 8% were survivors of domestic violence.

The PIT count found that 28% of those spoken to were chronically homeless, which the federal government defines as a person with a disability who has been living in an emergency shelter or on the streets for a year straight or repeatedly over several years.

Count doesn’t show full picture

The Idaho Housing and Finance Association, which conducts its own Point-In-Time counts across Idaho, tries not to emphasize PIT numbers because it’s not possible to be completely accurate, IHFA spokesperson Ben Cushman said.

“The reason it doesn’t really show the whole picture is because it’s one night,” Cushman told the Idaho Statesman by phone. “It’s just who they run into that one night when they’re doing the count.”

As a result, counts are typically assumed to produce a number that’s less than the real total, but the federal government generally requires groups that work to combat homelessness to conduct a PIT to receive funding. Therefore, doing them serves a good purpose, officials said.

Counters might not be able to find every homeless person on the street and might miss vehicles that contain sleeping people. There might be members of the homeless population sleeping in hotels or crashing at others’ homes.

Our Path emphasized this point. Mattoon said the 2023 Point-In-Time number was lower than the one in Our Path’s coordinated entry system. The group keeps a list of people coming in for a housing assessment, and in April, 1,162 people were listed.

“The Point-In-Time count is useful because it’s giving a particular picture of a specific type of interaction on one day in January over time,” Mattoon told the Statesman by phone. “But we also have access to other data about the way that people utilize the homeless system that paints a much bigger and more accurate picture.”