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

Shawn Vestal: Catholic Charities takes heat for its low-barrier housing, but closer examination of Starbucks ‘patrons’ tells different story

Shawn Vestal (Dan Pelle / DAN PELLE)

In some ways, it is the geographic Ground Zero of the issues that we seem to be lumping under the umbrella of “homelessness.”

Most days, a group of people gathers inside and out at the Starbucks coffee shop at Second Avenue and Division Street – one block from the gateway to the city off Interstate 90. Shopping carts loaded with belongings often sit there; men and women carrying suitcases or backpacks sit and sometimes sleep inside the coffee shop. The police are called there almost daily.

A person might drive by and think: Homelessness. There it is.

But if the Second and Division Starbucks is a geographic Ground Zero – sitting as it does near the House of Charity homeless shelter and several permanent housing projects – it also might be Ground Zero for mistaken assumptions about the intersection of homelessness and crime.

In particular, there is a belief that what’s happening there is a consequence of the growth in low-barrier housing – the permanent housing units that put roofs over the heads of the homeless even if they aren’t sober first. It is now common to hear, and will become more so as an election year proceeds, that the problems at Second and Division are a result of too many services, too much “free stuff” and too little “tough love.”

It’s a new iteration of an old division in Spokane and the country – the clash between competing models of offering homeless services. On the one hand, there is the growth in federal funding for “housing first” solutions, which put people in housing whether or not they are sober. That’s the model that Catholic Charities has pursued ambitiously in recent years, and officials there say it has shown overwhelmingly positive results in keeping people off the streets.

On the other hand, there is the approach that puts conditions and requirements on shelter and assistance, such as sobriety or religious activity – as the Union Gospel Mission does. The UGM’s executive director, Phil Altmeyer, recently told KHQ News that low-barrier housing and “activist” homeless people are creating problems downtown.

“What do you think has happened to our downtown?” he said. “And then you put a low-barrier shelter where they can come and eat free and be high on drugs right next door to it? What have you just done? You’ve created a new skid row.”

Rob McCann, president of Catholic Charities, said it’s not a new argument to him, but he’s confident his organization’s projects are going a long way toward keeping chronically homeless people sheltered – and little reason to blame those sheltered individuals for the most visible problems.

“ ‘Oh my gosh, Catholic Charities, you’re enabling these guys and Union Gospel Mission is doing it right because you have to blow a breathalyzer to get in the door’ – that’s been going on for 25 years,” he said.

But what’s happening at Second and Division can’t be diagnosed with a drive-by and a wish that the police could simply sweep some kinds of people away. It has at least as much to do with the coffee chain’s policies as it does the city’s efforts to help the homeless. And there is good reason to believe that the residents of nearby housing projects are not to blame at all.

A lot of calls

Steve Kraft is the manager of 172 S. Division, LLC, which owns the building that Starbucks leases at that corner. The building has three units: the Starbucks, a frozen yogurt shop closed to the season, and another space that has been very difficult for Kraft to lease out.

This is not the first season of chaos and nuisance at that corner, or in that neighborhood, where several business owners have lived through cycles of some of the kinds of problems that sometimes crop up in and around the homeless populations.

Police have been called to that corner almost once a day, on average, so far this year. Jon O’Brien, public information officer for the Spokane Police Department, said last week that officers had responded to calls 106 times there since Jan. 1, for reasons including drug activity, prostitution, pedestrian issues, trespassing complaints and other issues. More than once they have responded to complaints that someone has been locked in the coffee shop bathroom for a long time, doing drugs or engaging in other illicit behavior.

“Those types of calls are common throughout downtown,” O’Brien said, “but I would say that is … a large number of calls for just three months.”

Such concentrations are a drain on police resources that are already stretched thin, he said.

Kraft did not want to be interviewed for this column, but he provided a written statement about his concerns.

“What I see with my own eyes, day in and out, is that compassion is confused with leniency,” he wrote in a text message.

“True compassion resembles tough love, which says it’s not acceptable to destroy property and business livelihoods, doesn’t fuel self-destructive behavior and instead gets (mandatory) drug treatment.”

He added, “No barrier housing has its place, but not across the street at the Gateway to Spokane.”

‘A good neighbor’

There are a number of other factors at play. Perhaps the main one is the coffee shop’s own policies. Starbucks’ corporate policy changed after a high-profile uproar involving the arrest of two African-American men who were trying to use the bathroom in a Philadelphia shop though they hadn’t bought coffee; the corporation changed its policy to allow people to be in the shops and use the facilities without buying anything.

My calls to the corporate offices seeking comment about this were not returned, and employees in the store said they could not discuss the situation. But police and others say that the Starbucks policy, coupled with free Wi-Fi, draws in people who need a warm place to rest or spend time during the day. Police can’t cite them for trespassing if they haven’t been asked to leave, and their ability to respond to any individual report of, say, suspected drug sales or prostitution, or an act of vandalism, is limited by lack of evidence or witnesses and a shortage of resources.

There seems to be no concrete reason to blame low-barrier housing. McCann has been active in trying to help neighborhood businesses deal with crime and safety problems.

In the case of Second and Division, he has taken extraordinary measures to find out who’s responsible, and he feels sure it is neither the residents of the Donna Hanson Haven, which is one block away, or people being sheltered at the House of Charity. He notes that people who have their own apartment with their own bed and key, and with common spaces to share, are unlikely to need to hang out at the coffee shop.

McCann has talked frequently with Kraft and has offered to spend $25,000 to build a fence for the property, “just to be a good neighbor,” he said.

He said that not long ago, he reviewed two weeks’ worth of security camera footage, to see if he could identify any residents of Donna Hanson Haven or the House of Charity among the regular on that corner. He said he couldn’t. He also spent time observing activity on the corner and saw what he believed to be evidence of those criminals who operate on the fringes of homeless communities, trying to exploit or victimize them through prostitution or drug sales.

Not what it appears

Catholic Charities has built four 50-unit permanent housing buildings like the Donna Hanson Haven. These are federally funded, and must operate on a housing-first model. McCann said he remains committed to the core tenet at the heart of the philosophy: Everyone deserves the dignity of a place to sleep and go to the bathroom and get clear, even if they are addicted to drugs.

People live in the units, and have access to services including mental health treatment and addiction counseling, but they are not forced to accept them.

McCann said the projects have been successful in getting chronically homeless people off the streets. He said 85 percent of residents in the projects have remained in some form of stable housing for at least two years; he said he is proud of his organization’s efforts to help bring down both chronic homelessness (reduced by 21 percent since 2017, according to the city’s recent point-in-time homeless count) and family homelessness (down 8 percent).

He understands that things are quite difficult for business owners like Kraft. While McCann has often been targeted and criticized by the neighbors of the House of Charity, he says he tries to engage as productively as he can, tries to mitigate problems that might originate in and around the shelter, and has spent money and resources to do so.

It’s worth noting that Catholic Charities took on the largest burden of any organization in the city in trying to address homelessness in Spokane. It partnered with the city to attempt a 24/7 shelter model – an ambitious experiment that simply did not work, because it put too many people in a shelter that was too small, and because that concentration exacerbated the very kinds of crime and safety problems that exist at Second and Division.

Meanwhile, that corner will continue to be a signal or a symbol of something that’s happening in Spokane, something we should try to get to grips with in a productive, informed way. I drive by there quite often, and have gone in perhaps a dozen times in recent weeks. Often there are groups of people outside, and often the number of people inside who aren’t drinking out of a Starbucks cup outnumber those who are.

But not always. Last week, I saw few seemingly homeless people on two visits there. On Wednesday, I arrived to find a window boarded up. A man, captured on video, had thrown a rock through it the night before.

Kraft checked with the House of Charity to see if they knew who it was, and they didn’t, he said.

“Not homeless,” he texted, “just a criminal.”