There’s a chill in the air. The calendar has changed to fall, but for Spokane’s homeless, winter has already arrived.
The turning of the seasons is not a new problem, of course. Yet each year around this time it triggers alarm bells across the city. The arrival of cold weather is certain to make life for Spokane’s homeless exponentially worse as we scramble to have enough shelter beds, and prepare meals for those in need. But the most troubling problem is not the arrival of winter; it’s the fact that our region is in a full-blown housing crisis.
Rents have climbed nearly 50% in recent years. In the last 18 months alone, Spokane has seen average rents spike by $180. And for every $100 increase in rent, Spokane’s homeless population grows by 13%.
The effects of this disparity touch all corners of our community – especially the most vulnerable among us, like children and seniors. The number of homeless students who are couch surfing and the number of homeless seniors who are moving back in with their kids and grandkids – or into shelters, is skyrocketing.
Over the past several months, we’ve witnessed multiple critiques of people living in poverty and critiques of those who serve them. We have seen videos about “curing” Spokane’s complex troubles as if they were a pesky flu, and we’ve read a great deal about an approach deceptively dubbed “effective compassion.”
Out of respect for the dignity of the homeless clients we serve, Catholic Charities and our partners have tried hard not to agitate or push back. We prefer to de-escalate and let our work speak for itself. Still, I can’t help worrying that now we’ve waited too long to respond. The intensity of the rhetoric and the misguided fearmongering of late compels me to answer the call that all of us should hear to be a voice for the voiceless.
Taken at face value, “effective compassion” sounds respectful, even loving. In truth, however, it seems like coded language to convince our community that treating people with dignity and respect is actually just enabling or hurting them. Street homeless individuals – the population which seems to draw the most ire from effective compassion proponents – are typically very medically sick people. And sick people do more harm to themselves and cost more to the community when they are not cared for, sheltered and housed.
Offering the weakest and the sickest among us the simple ability of eating, sleeping and going to the bathroom indoors is a basic tenet of human dignity. We cannot leave the most fragile to be hungry and in the cold only because they are not ready to start their path to healing. To do so is not effective compassion, but rather seems more like weaponized compassion. There must be room in our community and in our hearts for all solutions to homelessness. It’s important to have some shelters that request sobriety and others that don’t. It’s not either or. It must be both and.
At Catholic Charities we see hopeful compassion every day in the lives and stories of those we serve. Take Daniel, for instance. Once homeless, Daniel was a former patron and participant in our onsite job training program at the House of Charity. While working with a shelter case manager, he got a job at an inpatient drug treatment facility helping others who struggle with addiction. Daniel now lives in a clean, safe apartment with a stable income and the prospect for a brighter future.
Contrary to what some would have you believe, our policy of housing the homeless involves far more than simply providing the homeless an apartment without rules or expectations. Like Daniel, most who live in Catholic Charities’ Housing First apartments proactively choose to engage in mental health and substance abuse services. 93% of those who move from homelessness into our apartments are successful – meaning they maintain their housing for a minimum of two years.
Spokane’s homeless service providers have become very efficient at housing people like Daniel. We work hard to address clients’ needs on a case-by-case basis, respecting the unique stories of each individual human person. As a result, the number of formerly homeless Spokane families who have been successfully housed has risen 60% since 2012 – with no real increase in spending.
There is a lot we can do as a community to reduce the high cost of being poor. We have to invest more in addiction treatment and comprehensive mental health services. We can create better incentives for developers to expand housing options that are truly affordable. We should expand the number of low-barrier shelters that take all homeless individuals and families. And we need to break the logjam and stigma surrounding the siting of a new 24/7 shelter.
Winter will be here soon. It doesn’t matter how hot the rhetoric is when it’s snowing outside and you have nowhere to call home. True compassion is only possible when a community comes together to work for lasting, systemic change. That requires support from business leaders, law enforcement, service providers, Spokane citizens and our elected leaders.
The Spokane community is amazingly caring. I like our chances to carry the day in this battle for hearts and souls. At the end of the day I am hopeful that love, service and mercy will always triumph over fear, anger and judgment. If Spokane is to truly be the City of Choice, we must first choose to stand for the life and dignity of every human person. I know we will.
Rob McCann is president and CEO of Catholic Charities Eastern Washington.
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