It’s been nearly a year since city officials announced Spokane would open a 24-hour shelter system, giving anyone - regardless of gender, mental health, sobriety or even service animals - a place to spend the night indoors.
During the winter, shelters filled as visible signs of homelessness downtown dwindled. But as summer ends, Spokane is discovering that ending homelessness isn’t so simple.
The city has cleaned up multiple homeless camps under bridges during the summer. And at the beginning of September, it spent $150,000 dumping rocks below the freeway outside Lewis & Clark High School to discourage homeless people from sleeping there while trying to move them into shelters - even as some who stayed said they weren’t interested and would camp elsewhere.
City Council President Ben Stuckart received so much pushback he later apologized for the rocks, saying the decision was a mistake.
Against that backdrop, Mayor David Condon kicked off the latest city effort to support services for homeless people and discourage panhandling Tuesday.
The city has put two dozen bright orange parking meters around the city, concentrated downtown, encouraging people to “Give Real Change” by depositing money or making a credit card payment with the meter.
Funds collected will go toward the city’s 24/7 shelter system, which includes support for House of Charity, a 24-hour shelter for adult men and women, and Open Doors, a shelter for families with children.
Condon said the campaign hopes to re-channel Spokane’s compassion toward resources that will do more good toward ending homelessness in the long term.
“We want to help out and give them spare change,” he said. Donating to shelters and other services “more successfully helps the people seeking change on the street.”
Signs placed around the city in places where panhandlers and homeless people congregate also encourage people to call the city’s 211 line to donate directly to services, and give homeless people the option of calling 311 to receive referrals to services.
The City Council approved more than $500,000 in extra funding this year to resume round-the-clock operations at House of Charity through the end of the year, and has committed another $1.1 million in 2018 to fund the entire shelter system.
Annually, the city spends about $13 million on housing and human services, and about $6 million directly on serving homeless people.
House of Charity is open to all homeless adults, even if they’re under the influence of drugs or alcohol. People with pets are allowed to stay in the overflow sleeping area.
“I don’t think a lot of the community recognized how many resources we have for the homeless,” said police Chief Craig Meidl.
Panhandling isn’t illegal in Spokane, but a number of related actions are, including sitting or lying on downtown sidewalks during most hours of the day, “aggressive solicitation,” and blocking sidewalks for pedestrian travel.
Downtown police officers work to direct people to resources and carry a small “pocket resource guide” listing emergency shelters, free meal locations, day centers and information about getting permanent housing through the city’s coordinated assessment system.
Citations for downtown “quality of life” crimes are usually handled through community court, which also aims to connect people to services and dismisses criminal charges in exchange for community service.
Still, homeless people who panhandle on Spokane’s streets aren’t fans of the Give Real Change campaign, which they say will take money they need to feed themselves out of their pocket.
“I’m a disabled vet and it’s hard enough for me to survive out here,” said Nick, a man holding a sign under the railroad bridge at the intersection of South Maple Street and West Second Avenue Monday morning. He declined to give his last name because he has misdemeanor warrants in Seattle, he said.
He’s originally from Tennessee and is traveling to Alabama to meet up with his sister. He said he travels by riding the rails when he can.
Nick said he has post-traumatic stress disorder from his time serving in the Marine Corps in Iraq and uses the money he collects to buy food and alcohol.
He was shot multiple times in the legs while on duty and said he often gets yelled at by people in cars while he’s holding his sign.
“If they were in my situation or my condition, they’d be doing the same thing,” he said. “I’d rather hold out a sign then go out and steal stuff.”
Nadine Burkett, who was holding a sign asking for food on Main Avenue, said campaigns that discourage giving money to panhandlers give people ammunition to look down on her.
“I think it makes people feel more in the right to be mean to us,” she said.
Burkett sat with her dog, Buh Buh, an 18-month-old black lab and Great Pyrenees mix. She’s traveling to Flint, Michigan, with her boyfriend and friend for a protest, she said, and relies on the kindness of strangers to eat and get where she needs to go.
The news conference announcing the campaign was briefly interrupted by a chronically homeless man who approached the lectern as Condon was speaking before police officers in attendance quickly moved him to the side of the gathering.
Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer, who recognized the man from his time as a medic, gave him a hug and asked how he was doing. Police officers seemed concerned by the interruption at first but after speaking with the man, gave him a bottle of water and a list of resources.
Schaeffer said the man, who was intoxicated, is very friendly but reluctant to seek out services or get help. That’s something firefighters and police encounter regularly, he said.
“It’s not an easy fix and it may not be fixable,” he said.
The Give Real Change campaign includes a new program called Hope Works, a collaboration between the city, Goodwill Industries of the Inland Northwest, Catholic Charities and the Downtown Spokane Partnership.
Staff from Goodwill will patrol downtown in a van and offer people panhandling a chance to do a five-hour volunteer project around the city, likely related to cleanup or beautification. Participants will get a sack lunch and a stipend, though the amount hasn’t been determined yet.
Clark Brekke, the president and CEO of the local Goodwill chapter, said the goal is to give people “a hand up, not a hand out.” They hope to begin in early 2018 and estimate running the program for a year will cost $150,000. They’re hoping to raise about a third of that through donations.
People can donate $5 to Hope Work by texting CHANGE to 50555.
Jonathan Mallahan, the city’s director of community and neighborhood services, said the city knows there are still gaps in the shelter system and hopes to address them as it solicits services providers for the shelter system next year.
Though young adults under 24 can go to House of Charity, many don’t feel safe there. And options for single women are also limited, he said.
Installing the orange meters for the campaign cost a few hundred dollars, he said. The city already owned the meters and spray-painted them orange for a few dollars.
The city doesn’t have a funding goal for Give Real Change, but Mallahan said he’d like to see it raise about $10,000 a year to help fund the shelter system.
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