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Shawn Vestal: Homelessness isn’t a singular problem. So why do we treat it as such?

A homeless person cuddles with a dog outside the Cannon Street shelter, Tuesday, March 12, 2019, in Spokane, Wash. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
A homeless person cuddles with a dog outside the Cannon Street shelter, Tuesday, March 12, 2019, in Spokane, Wash. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

We don’t have a homelessness crisis in Spokane.

What we, and cities around the West, have is a bristling, interconnected tangle of different problems at breaking points – economic, humanitarian, psychological, medical, governmental. When we oversimplify it, we limit our ability to respond usefully.

That was my take-away from a two-hour community forum on homelessness hosted last week by Spokane Public Radio. The “Confronting Homelessness” forum, which included voices from local politicians, social services, businesses and public health leaders, will air today on KSFC 91.9 FM from noon to 2 p.m., and as part of two call-in forums later this week.

The discussion illustrated once more that there are strong divisions in how homelessness is viewed in terms of public policy. One of the key schisms is an old one – a divide between those who view homelessness chiefly as a humanitarian call-to-arms, and those who view it chiefly as nuisance for business owners and those who have a pronounced distaste for having to see or share sidewalks with people who look impoverished.

So we should probably brace for more discussion about homelessness as a “quality of life” problem for the comfortable as we head into a mayoral election year. Those concerns are real, of course, but often exaggerated, and accompanied by simplistic efforts to “toughen up” policies by conflating crime and homelessness and attempting to drive the problem out of sight.

As we try to find realistic solutions for the whole community, let’s immunize ourselves against hyperbole and hysteria.

The forum, on Thursday night in the City Council chambers, offered a variety of viewpoints, ideas for partial solutions and baseline information. Spokane’s last reported “point-in-time count” of the homeless population reflected a 14 percent increase in the number of homeless people, with 1,245 homeless individuals counted. More than 300 of those were unsheltered. The latest count was held in January, and the numbers will be made public in mid-April, said Tim Sigler, a senior manager in the city’s Community Housing and Human Services Department.

It will be interesting to see how those numbers comport with the widespread perception of a dramatically rising problem. It may be the numbers have exploded, but it’s also possible that the increased visibility is the result of a shift in where homeless people have been spending time.

Catholic Charities President Rob McCann noted that the increased visibility coincided with a drastic drop in available shelter space.

Last September, the House of Charity and the city of Spokane put an end to its 24/7 shelter model, in which everyone was taken in for the night, no matter what. The shelter had become too crowded with an intense concentration of the kinds of nuisance and safety problems that are now spread more widely.

“It’s a very simple reason why that happened – we stopped doing 24/7 shelter,” McCann said.

Long waits

On a very basic level, there just aren’t enough affordable rooms at the inn – our rental vacancy rate is 2 percent and there is a shortage of all forms of housing here and statewide. It’s a basic supply-and-demand problem that makes it very hard for people who are ready to move out of shelters or transitional housing, said Kay Murano, the executive director of the Spokane Low Income Housing Consortium.

“Folks are on waiting lists for months, and by months I mean eight, 10, a year,” she said.

There is also the urgent need for a second shelter for men and a place to be during the day. Homeless advocates, like City Councilwoman Kate Burke, argue that a suite of other services more specifically tailored to a wider range of homeless needs – such as public bathrooms and shower facilities, spots for camping or safe parking lots to stay in vehicles – are needed.

Some pieces of the problem are vastly more complicated and long-term. Dr. Bob Lutz, Spokane County’s health officer, talked about root causes, noting that they roll all the way back to childhood.

The research on “adverse childhood experiences” – instances of trauma including violence, neglect or living with drug use, among many others – shows that people who have a lot of trauma carry it throughout their lives, he said.

“If as a child you have an ACE count of eight … the likelihood of experiencing homelessness sometime as an adult is roughly 33 percent,” he said.

Lutz said truly addressing homelessness would involve going “upstream” to that source and trying to apply long-term solutions to problems that begin in childhood.

Downtown complaints

Meanwhile, some in the community are having what seems to be little more than a “go-away” response to the problem. I hear from people all the time who tell me with great certainty that downtown is dangerous and dirty; this does not comport with my experience, being downtown almost every day, though it’s true that we see more apparently homeless people on the streets.

Sometimes they’re high or drunk, sometimes they’re suffering from mental illness, sometimes they create very tough problems for business owners – but often they’re none of these things. Often, they’re just there. A lot of people just don’t want to see impoverished-looking people – whose actual housing status we don’t know.

At the forum, Downtown Spokane Partnership President Mark Richard talked about how frequently he hears from people with concerns about the safety and cleanliness of downtown, and about his concern that “good-hearted business owners will walk away.”

Richard took heat from an audience packed with homeless advocates and homeless people. People eye-rolled and catcalled him, and he became emotional in defending downtown business owners, who do a lot to help and have compassion for people suffering, he said.

He noted several programs his organization has supported, including the HopeWorks project that offers homeless people a chance to volunteer in exchange for a stipend and access to services.

Still, he said, business owners are on the front lines of serious problems, including people using drugs, having sex and vandalizing restrooms in businesses.

“Many of them are sadly out of their minds with addiction,” he said, going on to relate before the forum that he watched police respond to a man, seemingly intoxicated, running naked through downtown.

Profound suffering

Some of the ancillary problems of deep poverty and homelessness do fall hard on some business owners. While it’s discouraging to hear some people focus only on that, it’s also unrealistic to argue that what Richard describes isn’t happening.

And it’s unrealistic not to acknowledge that inside of the larger series of homelessness problems that there are some chronically homeless people for whom addiction drives behaviors that create problems for others and who are resistant to the services and help available.

McCann has talked in the past about that as the “quasi-impossible” piece of addressing the issue. As we continue to debate and seek solutions, we would do well to avoid the oversimplified and the knee-jerk and to maintain compassion in the face of a crisis that is really many problems all in one – the least of which, in my view, is the way the crisis affects those of us driving past the homeless on the way to our homes.

After all, as McCann noted, “These are human beings who are suffering in very profound ways.”