Bonner Homeless Transitions opens second transitional housing facility By Christian Weaner
When you picture a homeless person, the first image that pops into your head might be of a downtrodden individual lying on the side of a city street with a bottle in their hand. This cultural connotation is something that Bonner Homeless Transitions (BHT) Program Manager Joanne Barlow would like to change.
Bonner County might not have homeless people living in tent cities or sitting on the streets of downtown Sandpoint, but the area does have a large population of what Joanne calls the “hidden homeless.”
“Those are the ones that are hidden in the woods, hidden in the tents that people don’t see because you don’t see them laying on the streets here,” Joanne described. “We have a large homeless population—and people don’t even realize that.”
According to statistics from the Alliance to End Homelessness, Idaho’s total homeless population grew 32 percent from 2007 to 2020, with nearly half of the homeless individuals in 2020 being unsheltered. Numbers like these are only getting worse with high inflation, lack of permanent housing options and price increases over the last year and a half.
“A lot of people here have rented for five, six or seven years and then the owners say, ‘What, I can get $1 million for this home that I paid $200,000 for? I’m selling,’ and then those renters have to move,” Joanne said. “There is nowhere to go, there is nowhere to rent, and they can’t afford $2,000 a month.”
Many of these issues are why Joanne, a former social worker, has spent the past nine years of her retirement as a full-time employee at BHT.
According to the organization’s website, BHT’s mission is “to help homeless families and victims of domestic violence develop self-sufficiency and improve the quality of their lives.”
BHT is what Joanne described as a “grassroots organization,” founded in 1991 to help support the homeless of North Idaho. Over the past 30 years, BHT has run shelters in various locations throughout the county, providing housing for women, families and survivors of domestic abuse.
Currently, the program is operating as a transitional housing facility. Instead of solely providing a place to stay and food like a shelter, BHT offers apartment-style housing at a reduced price and provides life-skills support to help clients work through any issues they may have, get back on their feet and find permanent housing. As part of the program, clients meet weekly with a case manager.
“[We do] individual counseling with them, not as a group because everyone has a different reason for being here,” Joanne explained. “And so, they work on the reasons they are here so that eventually they can move on to permanent housing.”
To be admitted into the program, clients must fill out an application. However, the only requirement for admittance is homelessness.
Once they enter the housing program, clients can stay for up to 24 months, but they must have a job within the first 30 days of living there. Bonner Homeless Transitions works closely with local rehab facilities, drug courts, and parole and probation officers, and clients are subject to regular drug testing as part of the program.
Joanne added that she appreciates how well many of the town’s municipalities work together to help hold BHT’s clients accountable and support their healing and recovery process.
BHT’s offices and primary housing facility is called Blue Haven South, a building on South Florence Avenue in Sandpoint, where 10 adults and 13 children currently live. On October 10, 2022, in response to the increasing need for affordable housing in the area, BHT opened a second facility on Spruce Street in the building that previously housed the children’s group home Kinderhaven.
The new building, called Blue Haven North, essentially doubled BHT’s clientele, accommodating eight additional adults and their children.
As BHT is working through the transition of intaking so many new clients, Joanne mentioned that continued community support and benevolence will be necessary to make these efforts possible. She remained confident that the community will come around BHT in their continuing efforts to fight homelessness.
“It really is a community effort here,” Joanne said. “We are not working alone. If we need a project done or whatever, there are lots [of people] to call.”
As Joanne explained, supporting the homeless as a community and helping them find permanent jobs and homes benefits everyone involved.
“Once somebody moves on, it’s a win-win for the community, for them [and] for everyone,” Joanne said. “Because they are part of the community then. They are working, they are paying their bills, they are paying their rent—that type of thing.”
Seeing her clients heal from past traumas and regain stability in their lives is rewarding for Joanne. It is what gets her up in the morning and helps her to remember the mission of BHT.
“I do see people moving on and people’s lives changing,” Joanne said. “It is selfish too because it feels good to help people out.”
To learn more about Bonner Homeless Transitions’ program and how to donate or get involved, visit BonnerHomelessTransitions.org.