Catholic Charities is in the middle of a $60 million building blitz aimed at ending chronic street homelessness in Spokane by 2020.
“We have been living and breathing the world of construction,” said Rob McCann, executive director of Catholic Charities. “It’s an aggressive goal. It is a stretch goal. But it’s one we think is worthwhile.”
In 2016, the nonprofit will have completed or started seven building projects costing roughly $10 million each. Five of those projects are in the Spokane area; the others are in Othello and Walla Walla.
Four of those projects are for homeless and at-risk families.
When the five Spokane projects are completed, they will provide 200 units of housing for chronically homeless men and women. During the next four years, the nonprofit hopes to build one or two 50-unit projects per year. If it succeeds, that would provide a home for all of the roughly 360 chronically homeless people in Spokane.
“The only way you’re going to stop homelessness is by building houses,” McCann said.
Volando Peeples moved into his recently completed Buder Haven apartment in July. After years of bouncing from shelter to shelter, Peeples now has a place for his few possessions.
“There are still days I wake up and pinch myself, like is this real?” the 41-year-old said. “My mom is very happy for me.”
Peeples is benefiting from a model called Housing First. It was made famous by its successful implementation in Utah and was first implemented in Spokane several years ago.
“You cannot expect some guy on the street to become clean, dry, and sober living on the street,” said Lloyd Pendleton, the former director of Utah’s Homeless Task Force.
Over the course of a decade, Utah reduced the chronically homeless population by 91 percent, using the Housing First model. Pendleton, who now works as a private consultant, said it is “absolutely” possible for Catholic Charities to end chronic homelessness in Spokane by 2020, if the model is implemented correctly.
The model, as its name suggests, emphasizes the importance of having stable housing before anything else. Then, once someone has a home, it’s necessary to provide all the services someone who may have lived on the street for years needs to recover and integrate with society, Pendleton said.
Each site has support services for mental health and medical care, in addition to counseling staff. At Buder Haven, a 50-unit complex completed this summer, there will be a Frontier Behavioral Health office and an alternative response unit for nonemergency medical issues. Residents at Catholic Charities apartment buildings do not need to be drug- or alcohol-free to live in the building.
For many of the residents, the adjustment from living on the street to living in an apartment can be difficult, said Monique Kolonko, associate director for Seniors and Housing.
“Although this is beautiful, there is a huge leap the resident has to make,” she said while showing one of the immaculate 471-square-foot apartments at Buder Haven. “There are some people who will move in and decide this is not for them.”
Ezra Bedeski moved into Buder Haven in July. He said the transition from being homeless to having an apartment was “weird and scary.” But now that he’s used to it, it’s beneficial.
“I can begin working more on myself,” he said, adding that he doesn’t miss appointments and takes his medication consistently.
Another key component of the Housing First model is having sustainable and consistent funding, both for the building projects and for the upkeep and maintenance of the units after completion.
The funding is a large reason Catholic Charities is building so many units at once. The building boom in Spokane is funded by a federal tax credit program that’s administrated by the state, and Washington has prioritized organizations providing housing to the homeless.
“Right now the spigot is open, and it won’t stay open forever,” McCann said. “We’re either going big or going home. It’s truly a shock-and-awe homeless response.”
The federal program provides tax incentives to encourage wealthy individuals and organizations to invest in low-income housing projects, with banks acting as the middlemen.
“The richest 1 percent are building housing for the poorest of the poor,” McCann said.
The wealthy contributors receive a tax credit that can be applied to 16 years’ worth of tax returns.
The city of Spokane and Spokane County are also providing some funds for the building projects, although the majority of the money comes from the tax credit program. The city of Spokane gave $1.4 million toward building Buder Haven, while Spokane County gave $1.2 million for another project, The Marilee.
Dawn Kinder, director for the Community, Housing & Human Services Department, called ending chronic homelessness by 2020 an “achievable goal” and said the city is very supportive of Catholic Charities’ building boom.
In addition to the four projects in the Spokane area, Catholic Charities is building one 85-unit complex in Othello for farmworkers and their families and a 45-unit building in Walla Walla for homeless veterans and their families.
The organization has also started a new program called Rising Strong designed for families.
In January 2017, Catholic Charities will break ground on a 76-unit family housing project west of Fort George Wright Drive, near Spokane Falls Community College.
The Holy Names Homeless Housing Project will provide homes to families who are involved with Child Protective Services, McCann said. Instead of being removed from the home, children will stay with their parents in a monitored and supported living situation. Some families will move into the old convent building on the site while construction is completed.
In Spokane Valley, Catholic Charities will break ground within a month on the Pope Francis Haven apartments, a 52-unit homeless family complex. It’s expected to cost about $10 million.
Regardless of the specific project, the overarching goal remains the same – giving people a home.
“Basically having a place over your head is a wonderful feeling,” Bedeski said.
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