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Shawn Vestal: Nadine Woodward views Spokane’s homelessness issues from an ‘aloof, fearful distance’

Former TV anchor Nadine Woodward declares her candidacy for mayor of Spokane on April 2, 2019 in Riverfront Park. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Former TV anchor Nadine Woodward declares her candidacy for mayor of Spokane on April 2, 2019 in Riverfront Park. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Apparently, Marie Antoinette didn’t actually say “Let them eat cake” when told that the peasants had no bread.

Maybe Nadine Woodward will be the first.

In her first weeks in political life – and already a strong contender to be our next mayor – Woodward has distinguished herself as someone who seems to gaze upon the city from a castle window, viewing problems from an aloof, fearful distance.

This is unfortunate if you see civic compassion toward the homeless as a crucial test of our city’s character. But it’s also a concrete, practical problem that would compound if she wins, because our city faces serious challenges with homelessness, poverty and crime, and we need to improve the way it meets those challenges – not just wish them away.

We need to do better, and we could use a candidate who challenges the city’s performance in realistic, factual ways, who understands what has worked and what has not, and who does more than offer easy-sounding dreams of jailing away the problem.

Twice in the past two years, for example, the city has suffered a drastic loss of shelter beds. Almost two years ago, the House of Charity scaled back 100 beds for men that have still not been replaced, an event that preceded much of what resulted in the rest of downtown. More recently the city lost 100 beds for families, women and children at two different shelters.

In both cases, the city failed to replace the beds – offering plans for eventual solutions (the City Council approved $360,000 to restore most of the recent beds lost, but it could take weeks) and future fixes, while more people are put on the streets.

The city also needs to get other governments and partners to share more of the costs. It needs to look seriously at improving the supply of affordable housing. It needs to be creative about finding ways to address the stubborn and challenging problems around addiction and mental health – problems that are greatly exacerbated by a lack of resources. It needs to be sober and factual and compassionate.

An election newcomer running against City Council President Ben Stuckart could put a very sharp, useful edge on that debate.

Instead, Woodward has mounted a campaign against people who are homeless and against helping them.

She has suggested that the City Council created the homelessness problem by mimicking liberal Seattle. She exaggerates crime figures and unabashedly links them directly with homelessness. Her chief specific proposal is to increase police presence downtown, which is not a bad idea but neither is it a solution.

Woodward has claimed, against the evidence, that the downtown library is not safe for families, sensationally using a security cam video of an altercation between a homeless man and a security guard to peddle that claim.

She says that we need to stop merely “warehousing people and handing out sandwiches” – suggesting that all those free sandwiches are enabling addicts. Enough With the Free Sandwiches is a terrible slogan for someone who wants to be mayor of a city where poverty is a serious and persistent issue.

Woodward says she wants to fund only programs that fit an accountability model like the Union Gospel Mission (forced prayer and drug tests) over the Catholic Charities model (housing first), though she takes pains to not say that quite so directly and specifically.

She said she would be open to considering a temporary ban on people who are homeless in the downtown library – an actual no-homeless-allowed policy. Then she said she didn’t say that, which a recording of the interview, conducted by the Inlander, disproves.

She said the downtown STA Plaza is the center of a lot of sex trafficking. When everyone from the cops to the STA to the Downtown Spokane Partnership threw cold water on this idea, Woodward tweeted that she knows an FBI agent who told her it was true. “I believe him!” she wrote.

This week, she sent out a Red Scare fundraising appeal describing Stuckart as a socialist, communist and extremist for supporting taxpayer-funded shelters and “drug addicts living on the streets.”

She quoted Stuckart saying that capitalism only works when some are jobless – an apparently heretical thing to say. And she quoted him saying that those of us who are comfortable have an obligation to care for the least among us.

Of all the things Woodward might go after Stuckart about, a list that is long after his two terms as the president of the City Council, this is what she’s chosen: He believes in sheltering people who are homeless.

What an extremist.

Woodward says this election will be defining for Spokane’s next generation, and she’s right. Homelessness is a challenge to the city, and the way we respond to it – electorally and otherwise – is important.

Our current city government, from the liberal council to the conservative mayor, has made it a goal to combat homelessness, to fund a system of 24/7 shelters and to try to provide shelter for people without barriers. There have been successes and failures, but it has been a serious, widespread effort to truly engage with the problem.

We can surely put an end to that, if that’s what we collectively decide to do. We can surely shift our focus from housing to bum-rushing. We can choose to give up on the goal of eliminating chronic homelessness in the city.

We can stop targeting homelessness and start targeting people who are homeless.

If we do, it will define us. And the view from the castle window won’t get any better.