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Monday, February 24, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Editorial

Editorial: Forget the library, dispel myths about homelessness

The Spokesman-Review editorial board

While Spokane’s mayoral candidates fixate on safety and homelessness at the downtown library, they miss the big picture. Yes, homelessness is a challenge at the library, but no more so than at any other public space downtown. City residents deserve an honest and frank conversation about homelessness from candidates.

Anyone who frequents downtown knows that what is happening at the library is happening in every quasi-public space and in every public bathroom. The Spokesman-Review checked with police, and the library isn’t even close to the top location for service calls. Through June 12 this year, STA Plaza holds that dubious distinction with more than three times as many calls as the library – 641 compared with 179.

That’s not to say that concerns from library staff and patrons don’t merit discussion. Rather, we draw attention to this distinction to remind everyone that this is a pervasive, complex problem. Addressing the larger problem will address the problems at the library, too.

Homelessness is disruptive to a vibrant city core with a growing economy. Crime is just the start. More insidious is the public perception and response. Fear of crime or of simply being screamed at by an aggressive street camper is enough to keep many people away from downtown. Shops wind up with fewer customers, and employers struggle to hire workers willing to run the gantlet every day.

Residents who want to better understand the magnitude of the crisis, its root causes and the potential solutions would be better served by checking out a recent panel discussion hosted by the Washington Policy Center than by listening to mayoral candidates attacking the topic obliquely.

Participants at the forum, Catholic Charities and other organizations have worked hard to dispel myths and elevate the conversation. Until the public confronts the realities, solutions will remain elusive.

Myth: Almost every homeless resident is a drug addict or has a mental health problem.

Reality: Many homeless residents do in fact suffer from substance use disorders or mental health problems, but they are a subset of the total population. The much greater cause of homelessness is economic displacement brought on by insufficient housing and shelter. People with low incomes struggle to find housing they can afford in this red-hot rental housing market. Vacancies are few, and rents are going up.

Myth: Spokane is a magnet for the homeless. If we build housing and shelters for them, we’d attract more.

Reality: Most of the homeless in the region were born here or have lived here for a long time. Catholic Charities surveys patrons in its lunch line, and more than three-quarters report having been born within 75 miles of downtown Spokane. The rest have, on average, been here for several years.

Myth: Better policing would solve the problem.

Reality: Most homeless residents’ worst crime is loitering or trespassing, hardly offenses that demand incarceration. Service-resistant, repeat offenders are a problem, but they are the minority. Even if police locked them all up, many people would remain on the streets and continue to need help.

Myth: Only people who commit to being clean and sober deserve shelter.

Reality: Substance use disorders are chronic health conditions. Going clean is the goal, but often people are not ready to initiate treatment. When their lives stabilize in housing, they are better equipped to make a decision to leave addiction behind.

The hardest thing is finding money to pay for needed programs and places to put supportive housing that minimize impacts on surrounding neighbors. When it comes to funding mechanisms, a collaborative approach among jurisdictions is needed. This crisis does not recognize city and county borders. All residents have a stake in addressing it.

The community lacks sufficient supportive housing and shelter to accommodate everyone on the streets. Those guilty of criminal behavior need to go to jail, but after they’ve done their time, they need access to housing where they can receive treatment for any underlying issues like addiction.

First, however, we must move past the soundbites of a campaign in which candidates are lining up to appear toughest on people hanging out at the library. Homelessness is a complex issue, and the Spokane region won’t make progress on it until leaders help the public move beyond myths and toward real solutions.

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