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Shawn Vestal: Council pushback shows progress on how we handle ‘quasi-impossible’ problems around homelessness

House of Charity patrons patrons find shade outside the building, Tuesday, July 24, 2018. HOC is ending their 24/7 shelter policy on Sept. 1. Dan Pelle/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

If you enjoy euphemism, then you’ll love the language that has sprung up around the decision to put roughly 150 homeless people back on the streets until next summer.

As the chief city official overseeing homeless relief efforts put it in a City Council meeting earlier this month, “capacity will be temporarily lost.”

That capacity will eventually be regained when the city builds a new shelter by July, said that official, Kelly Keenan.

“The location of that shelter is TBD,” he said.

That’s one way to put it.

Another one is this: “The interim plan is there is no plan,” said Councilwoman Kate Burke, who gave Keenan a pointed grilling at last week’s council meeting. “These people are going to be suffering and it’s going to be a very bad state for the most vulnerable people out there on our streets.”

Hooray for plain speech. It now appears – thanks in large part to Burke’s refusal not to stop being a burr under this particular saddle – that the city will redouble its efforts to find a temporary solution for the scores of homeless men and women that will no longer be sheltered at the House of Charity after this weekend, while the city figures out where to build another shelter.

All of which speaks volumes about where Spokane now stands on the issue of homelessness. A decade ago, it seems to me, our primary civic response was to consider how homelessness affects everyone else; banning panhandling and sidewalk-sitting represented the chief legislative impulses to act.

These days, as the city and key partners like Catholic Charities have dramatically stepped up the effort to fight homelessness – even setting the goal of eliminating homelessness in the city – it’s simply no longer acceptable to some people to develop strategies that don’t take the welfare of homeless individuals themselves into careful consideration.

I’m not saying that’s what the city and Catholic Charities were doing when they decided to pull the plug on the ill-fated experiment at the House of Charity. Keenan argues persuasively the city is expanding some services, including a doubling of the budget for outreach workers, as a direct effort to ease the crisis until a second shelter is built. But it’s clear the day-to-day lives of the homeless individuals themselves have been elevated in the discussions and debates about homelessness in City Hall. Passionate voices will be raised on their behalf.

That’s why the City Council is forcing the issue, demanding that the city seek ways to try and shelter those folks who will no longer be sleeping at the House of Charity. A resolution proposed by Councilman Breean Beggs and approved by the council on Monday asks community agencies to submit potential solutions for the nightly housing of those who can no longer go to the House of Charity.

The city plans to rely on warming shelters as part of a developing stopgap fix, but Beggs and Burke both expressed concerns that the administration didn’t work harder to have such a fix in place before making changes.

In recent years, the city has stepped up spending and improved its processes for evaluating homeless people and moving them toward shelter. Catholic Charities, Volunteers of America and other local organizations have undertaken an ambitious series of federally funded housing projects to provide permanent housing for the homeless.

One of the changes in the past year and a half has been sending all downtown homeless people to the House of Charity as part of the city’s 24/7 shelter model. Unfortunately, it hasn’t worked well at all. The shelter is designed for 109 men sleeping on one upstairs floor; it has been sheltering nearly three times that many people, and their service dogs. During the daytime, when the shelter closes, the ripple effect on the surrounding neighborhood is profound.

Crime, safety and nuisance issues have exploded around the shelter over the past year, and the staff is strained beyond its limits, said Rob McCann, president of Catholic Charities.

McCann and Keenan both say the current situation is not merely a nuisance for neighbors of the shelter – it’s dangerous for homeless people. I asked Keenan if finding a more concrete interim solution for the homeless individuals affected wasn’t called for. He said the city plans to rely on warming centers in the winter months and has been actively working on a range of new services.

In the meantime, “I’m not sure the most humanitarian answer is continuing to ask people to go into an unsafe situation,” he said.

McCann is overseeing perhaps the single most ambitious effort to house homeless people in the city with the construction of permanent apartment buildings for the homeless, and his heart for homeless people is unmatched. And yet, he also thinks the current situation is “quasi-impossible.” This isn’t a heroes-and-villains tale.

But the “quasi-impossible situation” is the new front in the war on homelessness. Having decided to take on the issue ambitiously, we know that some things just don’t work, and our response to that will be defining. We should do better than last year’s debacle with the dumping of rocks under the freeway, which gave us a good example of a “solution” aimed at everyone but homeless individuals themselves.

The House of Charity experiment didn’t work, but the city should not retreat from its ambitious goal of housing everyone. Building another shelter seems like the consensus choice as a next try at the problem. Meanwhile, the city is fighting the problem on a wide variety of fronts, all intended to move people into permanent housing.

Burke, at the risk of seeming impractically touchy-feely, wants the daily lives of the people who will be most affected by these decisions to be a top priority along the way. The fact that she, and others, pushed hard for a better interim solution is a sign of the city’s positive evolution.

It doesn’t make quasi-impossible situations any easier. But it forces us not to forget who we’re talking about when we talk about homelessness.

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