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‘Tent cities’ concept sparks debate between Woodward, Stuckart

Oct. 11, 2019 Updated Fri., Oct. 11, 2019 at 9:59 p.m.

A homeless person cuddles with a dog outside the Cannon Street shelter, Tuesday, March 12, 2019, in Spokane. The Spokane City Council once again balked Monday on a proposal to ban devices that emit high-pitched noises to disperse young and homeless people from areas near downtown businesses. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
A homeless person cuddles with a dog outside the Cannon Street shelter, Tuesday, March 12, 2019, in Spokane. The Spokane City Council once again balked Monday on a proposal to ban devices that emit high-pitched noises to disperse young and homeless people from areas near downtown businesses. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Nadine Woodward’s final answer of the debate has sparked a new conversation.

“One idea that I’ve seen other cities do, and that is, like, a tent city that is temporary during inclement weather,” the mayoral candidate said during a Greater Spokane Incorporated forum on Wednesday.

On Friday, her opponent, City Council President Ben Stuckart, sharply criticized her for even considering a tent city in Spokane, calling it an “awful proposal.”

“She doesn’t have any solutions, this is ridiculous,” Stuckart said.

Woodward, in an interview with The Spokesman-Review, walked back her comments at the debate slightly, but pressed the city to be “a little more creative” in finding a solution to shelter the homeless as cold weather sets in.

“I’m not calling for it, I’m just saying this is something we should look at too,” Woodward said.

The tent topic brought a new wrinkle into the debate over the city’s approach to homelessness, which has been a focal point of the campaigns for mayor and City Council.

Woodward has repeatedly blasted Stuckart’s support of a plan for the city to buy a new, 24/7 low-barrier emergency homeless shelter. Such facilities are overly burdensome to taxpayers, she has argued, and only “warehouse” people without holding them personally accountable – which she believes is necessary to incentivize people to lift themselves out of homelessness.

Stuckart has joined other City Council members in calling for Mayor David Condon to open a new 24/7, low-barrier shelter with case management and other social services on site to assist people in stabilizing their lives and obtaining more secure housing.

The city has recognized the demand for increased shelter capacity in the upcoming winter months but has yet to secure a facility in which to open a new permanent shelter or sign any agreements with providers for a temporary warming center.

On Friday, Stuckart said it was important to distinguish between tent cities on public and private land. City law currently allows for them on private land, but they are “highly regulated.”

But Woodward’s concept would be in lieu of a new city shelter.

Stuckart questioned where such a tent city would be located. Earlier this year, the city met strong opposition to a now abandoned proposal to open a 120-bed shelter at the former Grocery Outlet building on East Sprague Avenue.

If neighborhoods oppose shelters now, Stuckart wonders how would they react to a tent city.

“Existing buildings would integrate better into every neighborhood in our city than putting up a giant tent,” Stuckart said.

Woodward said she raised the idea of tents for seasonal shelter on Wednesday after the leader of a nonprofit approached her and proposed the concept. She declined to name the nonprofit or its leader, saying it was a private conversation.

It was explained to her the military-style tents would be equipped with heaters inside. They’re very flexible – more tents could be added, or some could be removed depending on demand – and services could be added.

Woodward stressed that it was not her proposal, just an alternative idea while the city struggles to open a shelter and the weather continues to get colder.

“We need to start thinking about what we’re going to start doing this season. I listened,” Woodward said.

The tents would be an improvement over temporary warming centers because they would be a form of 24/7 shelter, Woodward argued.

“This is temporary to get them off the street until the city decides what it can and can’t do. This is what (Stuckart) would call saving lives,” Woodward said.

Woodward said she regrets using the term “tent city,” which, as presented to her, would cost about $500,000 to $600,000 to set up.

The tent concept is fiscally irresponsible, Stuckart said. It would cost the city the same to staff as a shelter building and would not be cheaper in up-front costs. The city is currently in talks to purchase a building – which he declined to reveal the address of – for about $500,000, Stuckart added. The facility could shelter about 100 people.

Coastal cities, such as Tacoma, have used tents to shelter the homeless, and they have been considered in other cities across the West that are struggling with homelessness.

But Woodward said the “tent city” concept was not based on any of those in other cities – only on the information from the unidentified nonprofit.

Other cities that use and allow tents do so because they don’t have buildings available to be converted into shelters, but Spokane has buildings available, Stuckart said. They are also typically used in coastal cities that do not see the same harsh winter weather as Spokane.

“It is much more humane to put people in a building that has consistent heat, not tents. People camp in the summer, not the winter,” Stuckart said.

Temporary facilities, Stuckart said, will only result in more visible homelessness in Spokane.

“You house them during the winter, and then during the summer they’re out on the streets,” Stuckart said. “In a temporary warming center, you don’t get the services and case management. It’s not set up for that.”

Woodward has called on the city to wait on opening a new permanent shelter until the appeals process is fully played out in the case of Martin v. Boise. The decision in that case, made by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, requires cities to provide adequate shelter for the homeless before enforcing laws against activities such as camping or sleeping on sidewalks.

That decision has been appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which has not yet decided whether or not it will consider the case.

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