Boise & Garden City

By Alex Brizee


Justin Balistreri has been homeless on and off for most of his life. But he said he’s never seen such a high level of enforcement against the homeless — until Boise.

The 32-year-old, who began staying at the property of the former Ada County Courthouse in downtown Boise on Thursday, watched as roughly half a dozen hazmat-fitted workers tore down some tents and hauled away a truckload of trash Friday. Central District Health deemed the encampment a “public health hazard,” district spokesperson Rachel Garceau told the Idaho Statesman via text.

“Some people are just trying to make it by and survive,” Balistreri said. “Not everybody’s homeless because they want to shoot up every day, or get drunk, or smoke.”

The hazmat team — Abatement Pro — was contracted by the Department of Administration. The company’s Facebook page states it is a Boise-area construction company that offers “full-service demolition, asbestos and lead-based paint abatement.”

Tents have been one item Idaho State Police have been cautious to seize in their last seven visits to the protest against the city’s affordable housing crisis. A 2012 court ruling concluded that tents can be used in protests, but that there cannot be any items that indicate camping.

Idaho Legal Aid has also pushed back against police and said law enforcement has violated protesters’ First Amendment and Eighth Amendment rights to sleep on public property when no shelter is available. In 2019, a court ruled people experiencing homelessness cannot be cited or arrested for sleeping outdoors on public property if there isn’t available shelter space.

Roughly a dozen state troopers — along with Department of Administration Director Keith Reynolds, who briefly made an appearance — observed as the hazmat team lugged bag after bag. The bags of items either made it into a pile of items the protesters were able to take back or a much larger pile that was thrown out.

State police spokesperson Lynn Hightower told the Statesman by email that no arrests were made or citations issued, and that troopers were on scene to provide “safety” and “security.”

But not everyone agreed.

“I have never seen, the government or police or whatever, overtake their power,” Balistreri said. “They’re just power-hungry.”

Idaho authorities seize tents at homeless protest in Boise | Idaho Statesman A ‘public health hazard’: Idaho officials remove tents from downtown Boise protest

Six tents were left standing after authorities left — including Balistreri’s tent. Idaho State Police Specialist Rob Heise told the Statesman in an interview that some of the tents weren’t deemed a safety hazard. He said authorities are just doing their jobs the best they can.

“It affects everybody, it doesn’t matter if you’re here or not, it affects everybody,” Heise said regarding the site.

In recent weeks, Idaho State Police has made at least 14 arrests and issued over 30 citations. Throughout what state police are calling “welfare checks,” they’ve removed several items, including sleeping bags, pillows and propane tanks.

Central District Health received a request to determine if the encampment “posed a risk to public health” last month from Reynolds, Garceau said in a statement.

On Feb. 22, Michael Reno — program manager of the solid waste department of Central District Health — met with Reynolds, State Security Manager Steve Walker and Idaho State Police Officer Mike Kish at the protest site.

During the inspection, Reno observed “garbage and discarded food waste on the ground, what appeared to be dog vomit or dog diarrhea on the ground within the circle of tents, and what appeared to be urination stains on the side of the building at the west entrance,” according to a complaint filed by Gov. Brad Little and Attorney General Lawrence Wasden.

Reno also noted that he was told “maintenance crews had picked up several hypodermic needles at the site that morning, and that this was a normal occurrence.” Back in February, state police launched an investigation into the use of methamphetamine at the site after they found and seized a pipe, multiple syringes and a white powdery substance that tested presumptive positive for methamphetamine, according to a news release.

Additionally, state police provided the district with photographs of human feces, bottles filled with urine and hypodermic needles.

Reno determined “the encampment site does pose a risk to public health.” In addition, Garceau said the determination was based on the health district’s observations, the photographs and the lack of sanitary facilities at the site for the disposal of human waste after buildings close, according to the complaint.

Amanda White, a supporter of the demonstration, told the Statesman protesters created a functioning toilet within one of the tents, but it was quickly removed by police. White continued that authorities are “criminalizing them for not having a toilet, though they wouldn’t let them have a toilet.”

When asked about this, Reynolds told the Statesman in an interview authorities “don’t provide latrine facilities for protests and have not.” He added that with an extended protest — like Operation Hope — it’s a rotating group of people and they can use facilities that are open during the day.

Earlier this week, Little directed the Idaho Department of Administration to seek an injunction that would ban individuals from camping on state property near the Capitol. The lawsuit was filed through the Fourth Judicial District Court.

Scott Graf, spokesperson for the attorney general’s office, told the Statesman on Friday the injunction hasn’t moved forward.

Boise Mutual Aid, an advocacy group supporting the protest, posted on its Instagram that state leaders are trying to repress protesters’ First Amendment rights. The post said affordable housing is the actual public health crisis.

“We have to figure out what to do right now. This is not gonna work. This is not the solution,” White said of state police actions. “This is trying to sweep it under the rug. And human beings, literally, don’t fit under a rug.”

Reporter SallyKrutzig contributed to this report.

This story was originally publishedMarch 19, 2022 4:00 AM.

Alex Brizee