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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Catholic Charities refutes claims of lawlessness and building a ‘small army’ of homeless people

Jackson Goolsby strums away on his guitar outside the House of Charity in July. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Catholic Charities, which runs the city’s largest homeless shelter and has built hundreds of permanent homes for chronically homeless people, aggressively pushed back against what it deemed “some very serious misstatements that have been floating around in the community.”

Rob McCann, president of Catholic Charities Spokane, said flyers have been passed around near the House of Charity listing numerous lies about the shelter, crime associated with it and plans his organization has to build more housing. A separate petition seeking to “get control of the 1,000 people we already have” before Catholic Charities is allowed to build more housing has also circulated and gathered signatures.

At a hastily called news conference, McCann said they’ve known of the flyer and petition for more than two months but only felt compelled to dispel the rumors this week, for reasons he did not explain.

The flyer is a list of grievances filled with numerous assumptions and outright lies, McCann said.

Under a header called “Known Facts,” it states that “homeless are trying to get hit by driving cars,” “overnighters have been raped” and “police are not allowed inside” Catholic Charities’ facilities. It also said the organization planned to build “a Spokane slum empire” with 9,000 units for a “small army” of homeless people.

McCann, who is incorrectly referred to as Rob McKenna in the flyer, characterized the points on the flyers as “factually inaccurate,” but didn’t’ give them a “second thought.”

He did have something to say about the petition calling for his group to stop building housing for the chronically homeless.

“Here’s the spoiler: We’re not going to do that,” he said, noting construction of two new buildings with 50 units each would begin this fall, part of a long-term plan to build up to 800 units of permanent housing for chronically homeless people.

At the news conference, McCann gave a nearly point-by-point refutation of the flyer.

The flyer says that drugs and weapons are allowed in the House of Charity.

“First and foremost, weapons and drugs are not allowed in the House of Charity,” McCann said. “However, it’s a low-demand shelter. We take anybody in any condition, which means we take people who are still actively using, actively drinking, may not be on their meds with mental health issues, and with that population does sometimes come some illegal substances and weapons. But they’re not allowed in the House of Charity. We have strict rules about that.”

The flyer says that rapes have occurred in the shelter.

“That is completely untrue,”McCann said. “We do not have any knowledge of any such activity at the House of Charity. Certainly we would know about it if it happened.”

The flyer says police are not allowed in the shelter.

“The police are always welcome at the House of Charity,” McCann said. “The police are our number one collaborators and partners in Spokane. Without them, we could not do this work. We are blessed with an amazing police department in the city of Spokane. They give a level of patience and understanding to this population that they don’t always earn and deserve.”

The flyer says Catholic Charities plans to build 9,000 units for the homeless population.

“I wish,” McCann said. “That would be great if we could build 9,000 units for the homeless in this community.”

He pointed out that Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle combined don’t have that much permanent housing for the homeless.

The flyer said Catholic Charities’ housing developments are a “slum empire,” which McCann said was not only offensive, but also wrong.

“These are not slums. These are the nicest buildings on the blocks in most cases,” he said of his group’s buildings, such as the Father Bach Haven and Donna Hanson Haven. “The word ‘slum’ is just a really negative, unfair term.”

McCann acknowledged the shelter did have problems, but noted it was built to shelter 109 homeless men and has in recent months sheltered upward of 400 “men, women, couples, service animals and everything in between. That has put a great stress on our neighborhood and our block.”

McCann said he hasn’t seen any instances of violence against homeless people inspired by the flyer and petition but said a man, “likely the same individual who did this flyer,” has entered Catholic Charities’ buildings and filmed clients and residents without permission.

He said other people have experienced “emotional and verbal trauma as a result of being berated.”

Finally, McCann said about 85 percent of Spokane’s chronically homeless population suffer from mental health and substance abuse issues, making them a “very fragile, delicate population.” He asked for patience from the greater community.

“Certainly when you’re struggling with mental health and substance abuse, you’re not always making the best decisions, nor would any of us in this room if we were suffering with mental health and substance abuse,” he said. “We will never, ever apologize for the work of serving the poor at Catholic Charities.”