Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Rob McCann’s ambitious pledge to end homelessness is ringing true

Rob McCann poses for a photo Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2016, at the House of Charity  in Spokane. He says the bell on his right is rung every time a homeless person gets housing. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Every time a bell rings – at least in the hallways at Catholic Charities – a homeless person gets a place to live.

This year, that’s been 73 vigorous peals. Seventy-three people who have gone from the streets to a permanent apartment. At this rate, Rob McCann figures, street homeless in Spokane could become largely a thing of the past.

That’s right. McCann, the executive director of Catholic Charities, is not talking about reducing homelessness in Spokane. Or fighting homelessness in Spokane.

He’s talking about ending it.

“We think we can reduce homelessness to next to nothing,” McCann said this week. “The goal should be to end homelessness, and not just someday, but by 2019, 2020.”

This is not the way people usually talk about the very difficult problems woven into deep poverty and homelessness. But as the leader of one of Spokane’s largest and most visible charitable organizations, McCann has launched an ambitious program with ambitious goals.

Using federal tax credits, Catholic Charities has five major projects completed or underway this year: Permanent housing buildings in Spokane, Spokane Valley, Walla Walla and Othello. The projects serve different parts of the homeless population, from families to veterans to single men.

Catholic Charities usually tackles one project of that size every year or two, McCann said, so this year has been a wild one.

“It’s probably the busiest year we’ve had in the 17 years I’ve been at Catholic Charities,” he said.

McCann, a 47-year-old native of Summit, New Jersey, has been at the head of the organization since 2005, overseeing one of the community’s largest charities. The nonprofit has a $21 million budget and 6,000 volunteers, and it runs charitable programs providing food, housing, counseling and a wide range of other services across Eastern Washington.

In recent years, the organization has been one of the key forces as Spokane, along with cities all over the nation, shifted its approach toward homelessness in a radical way. After years of programs that emphasized sobriety and rules-following, requiring homeless people to qualify or earn their way into permanent housing, government and social services agencies reversed course. Now, the approach is to get people housing first – no matter what – and then provide services.

“It’s better that they’re in housing than under the bridge,” McCann said.

This is now the conventional wisdom in social services circles, but it wasn’t back in 2011 when McCann and Catholic Charities opened Father Bach Haven. The project offered 50 permanent apartments to homeless men, and surrounded them with support like mental health care, addiction treatment and simple, humane oversight.

Everybody told him, “that’s gonna be a mess,” McCann said.

It can be difficult, he acknowledges – a building full of people with many different kinds of challenges, unused to living in a permanent apartment, can have its “Wild West” moments. But of the first 50 men who moved into Father Bach Haven, 48 remain in permanent housing.

“Now it’s a big success and what the mayor and police chief say is, ‘Rob, how many more of these can you build?’ ” he said.

The benefits of Housing First are many, but one of the key reasons it draws support is that it saves money all over town. Chronically homeless people can be enormous draws on resources – the subject of constant calls to police, cycling in and out of emergency rooms, creating nuisance complaints. McCann said one of these so-called “super-users” can cost $50,000 to $250,000 in various services when they’re on the streets.

“I can put them in Father Bach Haven for about $7,000 a year,” he said.

Jonathan Mallahan, the city’s director of community and neighborhood services, said McCann’s example has rippled through the social services community. He recalled remarks McCann gave at the Spokane Philanthropy Awards a couple of years ago in which he used the metaphor of the Rolodex as a way of encouraging people to get involved with helping others.

Mallahan’s takeaway: “If someone picks up the phone and asks you for something, you’ve got to be there for them.”

“To this day, I hear those leaders say, ‘I want to be in your Rolodex. I want to be there to help you.’ ”

McCann has spent his entire adult life working in social services. He grew up in a suburb of New York City, attended Catholic schools and then Fairfield University, a Jesuit school similar to Gonzaga. His junior year, he went on a trip to help impoverished people in Ecuador.

“It blew my mind to see human beings living that way, and I thought, ‘That doesn’t look right to me,’ ” he said.

He joined the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, and then went to work for Catholic Relief Services for many years, traveling the world, evaluating programs and helping with fundraising. His job took him to Calcutta, where he met and worked with Mother Teresa.

About 17 years ago, he got a three-month assignment to come to Spokane. He didn’t expect to stay long, but the town grew on him. He likes to golf, for one thing. And he met his future wife, Rachael, a teacher from Walla Walla, for another. They now have two children and McCann has been leading Catholic Charities here since 2005.

The recent boom in homeless housing reflects opportunities available through federal funding. Tax credits sold to the very wealthy help finance the projects, in conjunction with local matching funds.

“It’s more than poetically just that Beyonce built Father Bach Haven,” he said.

He was speaking metaphorically about the pop star, but added, “I like to believe that.”

McCann said ending Spokane’s street homelessness is a realistic target – perhaps unlike some larger cities. He figures there are 360 people living on the street here. (This doesn’t include people who are homeless under broader definitions, including those who may be living with friends or relatives, doubled up or couch surfing.)

“We think 360 is a tackle-able number, if we can keep building and ringing that bell,” he said. “These issues of poverty are not beyond us. They are solvable. In Spokane, this stuff is solvable, so by gosh let’s solve it.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.