Four days after SpokaneFaVS hosted a Coffee Talk forum on compassion and homelessness, Spokane was hit with a surprise snowstorm.
Photos of downed trees took over my social media feed, and status updates understandably reflected everyone’s surprise and excitement.
I too was stunned by the weather and found myself chatting about it with friends and worrying about the debris on my property. It wasn’t until the buzz died down, and I started to write this column, that I thought about others impacted by the storm.
I started to think about all those people we had just talked about at Coffee Talk – the people sleeping under downtown bridges or in doorways of businesses closed for the night or in their cars.
How easily we’re distracted from the plight of others.
I know that realistically I couldn’t do anything to keep our homeless population warm this week. However, I could remember them and reflect on what I learned at our forum and try to put some of it into practice.
Not only is it easy to forget about the transient community, it’s easy to not see them at all. We avoid eye contact, cross to the other side of the street. Often we don’t say hi or smile or help, and sometimes that’s with reason.
We’re scared. We’re scared of their unknown mental state or their fifth, among other factors. But as panelist and mayoral candidate Ben Stuckart said, the homeless population is more likely to be a victim of a crime than a suspect in a crime.
When we avoid them often enough, we start to forget that they are human beings, just like us.
The Rev. Andy CastroLang, of Westminster Congregational United Church of Christ, also served on the Coffee Talk panel and reminded us that the homeless have a human right to food, shelter, clean bathrooms and safety. I’d add they have a right to dignity and compassion too.
Sadly, our city is failing here.
According to KREM, a snapshot count by the city revealed that in 2018 there were 1,309 homeless living in Spokane. Phil Altmeyer of Union Gospel Mission, who was also on the panel, said he knows that number to be much, much higher, though.
According to the panelists, there are only 700 shelter beds in our homeless system. That means a whole lot of people were out in that snowstorm.
There are many factors that lead to someone becoming homeless. For men, Altmeyer said the No. 1 cause is addiction. For women, the main cause is domestic violence. Others on the panel disagreed, though, and said the main cause – especially right now in Spokane – is income inequality.
Whatever the reason, when someone lands on the street we have a moral obligation to care for them in whatever way we can. Maybe for some of us that’s through prayer or volunteering or donating money or taking political action.
Ridding Spokane of homeless people isn’t a solution, as some local political candidates have suggested. Where’s the compassion in that?
As one Coffee Talk attendee pointed out, Jesus didn’t walk with the rich and powerful. He walked with the poor.
“Running the homeless out of the city is running Jesus out of the city,” she said.
Spokane has numerous organizations and ministries serving our homeless. We can’t all agree on every organization’s policies or theology, but my hope is that together – as a community – we can find a way to help those who need it in a kind and effective way. Maybe it starts by keeping them in our hearts on these cold nights and listening for what comes next.
Tracy Simmons, a longtime religion reporter, is a University of Idaho lecturer and the editor of SpokaneFAVS, a website dedicated to covering faith, ethics and values in the Spokane region.