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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Bring barn-raising mindset to housing

Jerry Schwab Special to The Spokesman-Review

A hurricane is about to hit Spokane. I called the Seattle Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) voluntary agency liaison and asked if we might be able to engage the agency in our impending crisis and possibly access some of the FEMA trailers standing empty from the recent catastrophe in the Gulf region. She was very responsive, wonderfully compassionate and understanding, but regretfully had to inform me that Spokane’s disaster didn’t meet its guidelines.

She explained that prior to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the only disasters that FEMA could respond to were climatic events and that after Sept. 11 there was a new provision for FEMA to respond to terrorist activities. Unfortunately the downtown housing development disaster is not covered under those guidelines.

The reality in downtown Spokane is that a large number of people are going to become homeless because they are going to lose their housing. The City Council has allocated some funds to help with relocation assistance. Social service agencies are scrambling to scour the community for available rooms. Unfortunately, the truth is that there are not enough rooms in the community to house the number of people who will lose housing.

When I read the commentaries on the crisis, I don’t hear much talk about the reality that homelessness in Spokane is about to skyrocket. Whether one views Chris Batten as a terrorist or as a compassionate developer, his actions and those involved in the gentrification of downtown Spokane are going to force a substantial number of people to hit the streets of Spokane, just like in every other major urban downtown in the nation where each night people bunk down on the sidewalks next to four-star hotels, shops and lofts.

People who used to live at Eastern State Hospital or Walla Walla State Penitentiary or who lived at times in their lives in stability and luxury will be seeking refuge under the Interstate 90 viaduct, near the Centennial Trail, under bridges and at the House of Charity, Hope House, City Gate, Union Gospel Mission, Truth Ministries and other providers.

The problem is that nearly all of those agencies are already overwhelmed. The Federal 10 Year Plan to End Homelessness is no more effective on a national level than the No Child Left Behind debacle. If you gentrify without replacing low-income housing stock, you increase homelessness.

The community needs to do an old-fashioned barn-raising. We need to pull together, roll up our sleeves and develop some immediate living spaces.

There are some downtown buildings standing largely empty. Hopefully, bankers can fast-track the financing, and when the churches, carpenters and philanthropists all come together, I think we could prove that Spokane is near nature and near perfect and not constrained by the limitations of other big cities.

I love downtown Spokane and I happen to love loft condominiums. I also have come to know and love many very poor but very rich downtown residents, who, up until this point, have been largely invisible.

I hope that their increasing visibility will be a result of creative community-building and not a physical, emotional and behavioral unraveling and regression.

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