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

Shawn Vestal: The new ‘Curing Spokane’ video is an inaccurate and shallow report on Spokane’s homeless

Shawn Vestal (Dan Pelle / DAN PELLE)

Spokane is sick, apparently. And the snake oil has arrived.

The supposed cure for our malady: Build a big new jail somewhere far away from downtown and throw more homeless people in it. Also, bury the STA Plaza, so decent people don’t have to look at the bedraggled masses.

And … offer more free parking?

The “solutions” proposed in the new “Curing Spokane” video produced by developer and Downtown Spokane Partnership board member Larry Stone are a bizarre mix, and none more so than the suggestion that the cure for Spokane’s sickness is to make it easier and cheaper for people to park downtown.

Free parking would be great, of course. But one wonders why the makers of this video believe anyone, from anywhere, for any reason, would ever come to the downtown hellscape that is depicted in the video, even if you paid them to park there.

The 17-minute film was released Thursday on YouTube and should be reported as a contribution to the Nadine Woodward campaign. It gives Spokane the “Seattle is Dying” treatment, with seemingly endless video montages of desperate, dirty, misbehaving people downtown – scenes that do exist, of course, but which are presented as basically the sum of the downtown experience.

Though it does pay brief lip service to what a great community Spokane is, the video is preoccupied with painting an image of dangerous blight. The camera lingers and leers at images of sleeping bags piled on sidewalks, on the stumblingly intoxicated, on garbage and needles in alleys. It quotes people asserting that they don’t feel safe walking downtown, and expends no effort showing how many people actually do walk around safely downtown every single day.

Remember that Guardian article from a couple of years back? The one that described Spokane as a desperate wasteland of meth zombies, saved only by our love for college basketball?

“Curing Spokane” is the video version of that. It’s factually disingenuous, dishonest about its intended target – claiming piously not to be about homeless people at all, while focusing relentlessly on the worst possible images of people living on the streets – and proposes solutions that are, by turns, impractical and implausible and irrelevant.

Chiefly, it insists upon the need for a bigger jail into which street people committing misdemeanors can be thrown. This vision, I know, is not unfamiliar in local discussions on homelessness. Lock ’em up. Easy peasy.

But the video makes no effort to take note of any underlying causes or other systemic issues tied up in homelessness here – such as a serious loss of shelter beds in the past two years that have not been replaced – and exerts no effort to predict what will happen once we’ve thrown all the street people in a distant jail for misdemeanors and they are released in short order, or when the bill comes due for a new jail and all the supposed treatment that proponents of this idea pretend to support.

“Curing Spokane” diagnoses our city in comparison with Boise, which is indeed a lovely city with a thriving downtown. The video notes that Boise has fewer homeless people in its annual point-in-time count and that Boise has a bigger jail. It also offers easy, free parking downtown, and has an underground bus station.

“Curing Spokane” concludes – ipso facto! – that a bigger jail, an underground bus station and free parking must be the cure. (The STA Plaza piece of the video makes clear what’s really the “sickness” here, though: the presence of visible poverty. For years, the plaza has been a bugaboo for certain downtown interests, and that opposition has always seemed unambiguously grounded in the idea that the human beings at the plaza are a form of “blight.”)

The Boise comparison is roughly as apt as the comparison made in the “Seattle is Dying” video between Seattle and Rhode Island. In other words, it’s inapt. That report, by KOMO-TV, is the gold standard of homeless panic propaganda, complete with a suggestion that we force homeless addicts into indefinite treatment on McNeil Island.

“Curing Spokane” follows the “Seattle is Dying” template closely. Its version of the Homeless Island proposal – a distant fortress where problems can be safely sequestered – would be building a big jail at Geiger Corrections Center, giving up on trying to house or feed homeless people – just sweep them up and plop them into jail out there away from the holiday shoppers. Easy peasy.

But the Boise comparison is weak in important ways. “Curing Spokane” offers lots of demographic comparisons between the cities, but omits the fact that Spokane’s poverty rate of 19.4% is well above Boise’s 14%. Surely, that plays a role.

Spokane’s median household income is a full $10,000 below Boise’s. Incomes have grown faster there as well, and Boise has, in recent decades, undergone boom times that have not shown up here. Its jail is chronically overcrowded, and not because it’s full of homeless misdemeanants. Rather, the sheriff there complains that they’re being overburdened with parole violators from the state corrections systems.

Boise is also the city that was sued, and lost, a critical decision in current homeless law, which forbids cities from enforcing anti-camping ordinances unless they offer sufficient shelter space as an alternative.

In other words, Boise works as a comparison for “Curing Spokane” only when you omit the full picture and leap faithfully toward the simplistic solutions. That is often the case with our response to people who are suffering, and it’s why this video will sadly resonate with a lot of people.

We have a population of homeless people that needs help, and there are a lot of reasons for that, including addiction and mental health issues – but also including deep, desperate poverty and lack of access to housing and resources. We have crime and safety problems in this town, too, and a lot of property crime, though crime numbers downtown and citywide have actually been dropping. “Curing Spokane” does not present those figures, naturally – it reaches back in time for more dramatic ones.

We can be serious and humane about homelessness, or we can indulge in a jail-it-away fantasy solution that is expensive and ineffective. I have the sinking feeling that we’re heading toward the latter here in Spokane.

If we take that road, “Curing Spokane” will have helped to push us there. Unfortunately, it’s pure quackery – a bad diagnosis and the wrong remedy.

Though free parking would be great.