- Associated Press - Saturday, September 13, 2014

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - “Hobo Hangout” is cleaner than it used to be, but it smells like urine.

Dozens of homeless adults live there, under the bridge where the Connector crosses Americana Boulevard. Some have jobs and some don’t. Drug and alcohol use is common, as are mental health problems.

People arrange tiny outdoor spaces with mattresses, suitcases, knickknacks and a few pets.

The scene clashes with Rhodes Park on the other side of Americana, where children skate in the daytime. Complaints from parents are rare, though.

The general public mostly avoids the hangout. Some people drop off food, diapers and blankets. A few yell at the squatters to get a job.

“Oh, my God, we’re sorry we’re homeless,” said Karen Shay, who’s spent the past three summers under the bridge. “Sorry to bother you, man. My life had some s– happen. Sorry to offend you.”

The squatters say they’re anti-drama, but plenty of petty quarrels arise. Police say they respond to two or three fight calls a day in the area. Drugs, alcohol and money are the most common factors.

Sometimes people wake up to find they were beaten in their sleep. Maybe they know why, but they’re not keen on talking to the police.

‘BARTERTOWN’

Some 750 homeless people live in Ada County, according to the Idaho Housing and Finance Association’s 2014 count. And Boise is a good place to be if you’re homeless, said Jon Means, who has spent most of this year in and around town. Shelters offer plenty of food, he said.

Shay said the staff of the Boise Fire Department station on 16th and Front streets always helps out if there’s an injury, and the Parks and Recreation Department occasionally supplies basic cleaning and sanitation items.

“I’ve met some of the nicest, most generous - I might even go so far as to say godly - people. I’ve met more of them out here than anywhere else in my life,” Means said. “It’s not just about being nice to people. It’s about helping them out.”

Between 50 and 80 people - according to the squatters’ rough estimate - live in “Hobo Hangout” and the alleys between Americana Boulevard, the Connector and River Street. Close to Interfaith Sanctuary and the Corpus Christi house, it’s a natural location for homeless people to camp out. The numbers will thin as winter arrives.

Police, people who work in the area and casual observers say there are more squatters than ever.

“This whole thing under the bridge wasn’t going on last year,” said Mike Wiensz, a tattoo artist at Inkvision on Americana. “They would sit at the tables at the skate park and just make the pilgrimage back and forth to the missions for meals, and there were a few stragglers who couldn’t get a bed at night for whatever reason. But not this whole barter town thing where it’s 40 people deep and garbage everywhere.”

Predictably, City Hall has fielded more complaints this year, mostly from nearby businesses, about Boise’s homeless corridor. Police have started warning the locals they can’t keep camping out there. It’s the first phase of a gradual push to dismantle the camps. The next step is to make it clear that camping on the streets is illegal, officers say. They’ll hang “No Camping” signs in the next few weeks.

BEHAVIOR ADJUSTMENT

Clair Walker, head of the Boise Police Department’s bicycle and Greenbelt patrol units, said the health and safety of the homeless is his first concern. Many qualify for rooms and other services at homeless shelters, Walker said, but they choose to live on the street instead. By not enforcing the law, he said, police are enabling dangerous, unhealthy lifestyles.

Squatters’ reluctance to report crimes is another problem.

“What are we not getting calls on?” Walker said. “There’s so much unreported stuff, I don’t know what’s going on.”

Even after the new signs are up, he said, officers will give people a few warnings before ticketing them. And if the offenders don’t show up in court? They’ll be in contempt, and warrants will be issued.

“We don’t want that. We don’t want these people getting picked up on warrants,” Walker said. “What we want to do is change their behavior without writing tickets.”

Officers don’t enforce the camping laws if the shelters are full, he said.

THE HANGOUT’S LAST DAYS

Word has been going around that the police are going to run off the homeless, several of the people living there said. That makes the locals uneasy.

Shay said she doesn’t want to live in a shelter - not until the weather turns cold, at least - because the rules are too restrictive.

Josalyn Leonardich, who lives a few feet south of Shay’s mattress and belongings, said rousting the homeless out of their camps will just move the problem, not solve it.

“If they start dispersing us, then we’re going to be in people’s bushes,” Leonardich said.

But a homeless exodus would please the owners and employees of local businesses, who say their customers feel uncomfortable around “Hobo Hangout.”

“We strictly rely on private sessions, so we kind of have a little higher-end clientele. So they’re super-intimidated by it,” said Clay Lyle, a personal trainer at A20 Fitness across the street from Inkvision. “I think that shouldn’t really matter in life, but … businesswise, it does.”

Jesse Hernandez, owner of Boise Cold Storage, believes the homeless camp discourages would-be customers from dropping in to peruse his cuts of meat. If there are still a lot of squatters near his store when his lease is up, he’ll consider moving the business, he said.

“We’re thinking about tinting the windows, just so when (customers are) in here, they can’t see out,” Hernandez said.

___

Information from: Idaho Statesman, http://www.idahostatesman.com

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