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As economies grow, so does homelessness in cities like Spokane, evidence suggests

Homeless people gather inside and out the Cannon Street shelter, Tuesday, March 12, 2019, in Spokane. The city bought the building for $415,000 last week to serve as an overnight shelter for this winter, and it will now open the evening of Nov. 22, officials said Thursday. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Homeless people gather inside and out the Cannon Street shelter, Tuesday, March 12, 2019, in Spokane. The city bought the building for $415,000 last week to serve as an overnight shelter for this winter, and it will now open the evening of Nov. 22, officials said Thursday. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

The word “homeless” has appeared in more than 400 news articles, letters to the editor and opinion pieces in this newspaper so far this year.

Spokane is a city where political ads try to shine a light on the number of temporary encampments. A city where one candidate for mayor was open to the suggestion of banning homeless people from the public library, while her opponent openly declared that if he were homeless, he too would take a drink or use drugs.

Given all of the talk about homelessness in this year’s city elections, a Spokane resident may have been shocked to read a headline in the Economist this month: “Homelessness is Declining in America.”

So what makes Spokane, and other cities across the West wrestling with increasing homeless, different from the rest of America?

Ironically, the city’s streak of prosperity might be largely to blame for – or at least a contributing factor to – the increase in the most visibly severe form of poverty.

“Though it can be found everywhere, homelessness, unlike other social pathologies, is not a growing national problem. Rather it is an acute and worsening condition in America’s biggest, most successful cities,” the Economist wrote.

In Spokane, the growth in wealth neatly mirrors the rise in homelessness.

Though it remains below the national average, Spokane has seen its per capita income sharply increase in recent years.

The median household income in Spokane rose an average of 6.7% every year from 2013 to 2018, the most recent year available for such data. That’s about twice the pace of the national average, The Spokesman-Review reported earlier this week.

Despite that economic good news, the number of homeless people in the area is also on the rise. From 2014 to 2019, the number of homeless people in the Spokane area rose by 14%. The vast majority reported last being permanently housed in Spokane or in other parts of Washington.

The count of unsheltered homeless people, specifically, more than doubled from 138 in 2017 to 310 in 2018.

The term “unsheltered homeless” refers to those “sleeping in a place not designed for, or ordinarily used as, a regular sleeping accommodation,” according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

And while the overall population and per capita income of Spokane has grown, more than 30,000 of its roughly 220,000 residents still live below the poverty level, a rate notably higher than the national average.

Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles have all faced similar trends. As their populations grow and economies flourish, some of their residents get left behind.

Despite an “unprecedented run,” the income growth seen in Spokane “is not universal among lower-income taxpayers,” acknowledged Gavin Cooley, the city’s chief financial officer. And for people in those lower brackets, “there is no cushion.”

“A couple of bad weeks when you’re living paycheck to paycheck can be the difference between being housed and not being housed,” Cooley said.

Of the 59 communities similar to Spokane across the country, it had the fifth-highest homeless population, according to federal data from 2018. It also ranked fourth-highest in the number of homeless people in families with children and fourth-highest in unaccompanied homeless youth.

But nationally, the number of people chronically homeless between 2010 and 2018 dropped by 16%, according to the 2018 Annual Homeless Assessment Report prepared by the department of Housing and Urban Development and delivered to Congress.

That data is based on the annual point-in-time count, a census of the homeless population conducted by cities and regions across the country on a single night every January. Although it’s imperfect by its very nature – a “snapshot” that most experts say underrepresents the true number of people experiencing homelessness – the point-in-time count is widely regarded as the best tool available to track trends in homelessness.

From housed to homeless

According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, there are two central reasons why people become homeless: poverty and a lack of affordable housing.

Ian Werer, 61, has been staying at the House of Charity, a shelter operated in downtown Spokane by Catholic Charities, for about 60 days. After a long career that included being a workman’s compensation adjuster at Boeing, Werer’s health declined and he now receives Social Security disability benefits. With no family to lean on, he landed at the House of Charity.

“My goal, since day one, has been housing,” Werer said, but “the sheer amount they charge” and low vacancy rate in apartments has complicated matters.

The biggest misconception about homeless people, Werer said, is that they don’t want to work, that homeless people want the freedom and lifestyle and know how to navigate the system to make it work.

And addiction isn’t at the root of most people’s homelessness, according to Werer. Rather, it’s a symptom of it.

“That’s the way they’re treating their pain,” he added.

Substance abuse and mental health are undeniably interconnected with homelessness, as a disproportionate percentage of the homeless population nationwide suffers from one or both of those afflictions.

But is a rise in drug addiction responsible for a rise in homelessness in Spokane?

As with homelessness, Spokane and Washington state are far from alone in battling the opioid addiction crisis. But the states that have seen the most startling surge in overdose deaths, such as West Virginia and Ohio, don’t always match up with those that have seen a similar rise in homelessness, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data from 2013 to 2017.

Nearly 100 people surveyed in Spokane cited alcohol or drug use as the primary reason for their homelessness, but more reported an eviction, a lost job, a lack of income or a lack of affordable housing led them into the shelter system or to the street.

Bob Lutz, Spokane Regional Health District officer, spoke to the Spokane City Council on Monday about a recent outbreak of hepatitis A in Spokane County, which has had 51 confirmed cases. Given the disease’s disproportionate impact on the homeless, his presentation quickly veered to the topic. He advocated for an “upstream” approach to address homelessness, noting the roots in the behaviors and experiences of young people.

“Far and away,” the cause of homelessness is poverty, Lutz said. But he added, “I have to look at trauma, I have to look at adverse childhood experiences. We know that individuals who are living homeless have trauma, oftentimes as a root cause of why they’re there, and they are more subject to trauma when they are homeless.”

For those with a less-than-average income, finding – or staying in – an apartment in Spokane isn’t getting any easier.

During that tremendous economic run from 2013 to 2018, the income required to afford fair market rent also increased, by nearly 20% for a one-bedroom apartment and 17% for a two-bedroom apartment.

The rental vacancy rate in Spokane was 3.3% in 2018, well below the national average of 6.1%, according to data gathered by Eastern Washington University researchers. As recently as 2012, the vacancy rate in Spokane was higher than the national average.

Spokane has long advertised itself as an affordable alternative to Seattle or Portland.

“Generally speaking, that’s not our claim to fame any longer,” Cooley said.

And comparing Spokane to Seattle is “ridiculous,” because “Seattle is one of the most expensive places to live on the planet,” Cooley added.

Terri Anderson, interim executive director of the Washington Tenants Union, implored the Spokane City Council to take action and enact tenant protections this week. For every 100 tenants who are eligible to receive subsidies for housing, there are only 12 units of affordable housing available, according to Anderson.

“We need more than just Band-Aids, we need policies,” Anderson said.


Unsheltered homeless people make up less than half of the homeless population in Spokane, but are by default its most visible.

Washington has a high rate of homeless people who are unsheltered. At 48%, the state ranks fifth in percentage of its homeless without shelter, behind only Hawaii, Nevada, Oregon and California, where more than two-thirds of homeless people are unsheltered.

Some states and cities have found that the most direct way to reduce the number of unsheltered homeless people is quite straightforward: Offer them shelter.

New York state, for example, has nearly four times the number of people experiencing homelessness as Washington, but still shelters more than 95% of them. The homeless population has reached a record high as New York City deals with a housing crisis of its own, but still keeps all but a small percentage sheltered. Courts there have mandated a person’s right to shelter and that the city provide a bed to anyone who needs one.

Shelter in Spokane became more difficult to access when the city ended funding for a 24/7 shelter at the House of Charity amid health and safety concerns last year.

This year, as it implements a plan to expand capacity at temporary warming centers and open one or more targeted-capacity shelters, the city has prioritized having them operate around the clock. Though they are often at odds, that’s one thing the Spokane City Council and Mayor David Condon agree on.

The City Council authorized $75,000 for the installation of bathrooms and various fixes to its new, 24/7 warming center on Cannon Street. But it’s unclear exactly when that center will open, and temperatures this week have dropped below freezing.

At the House of Charity’s monthly town hall meeting on Tuesday, director Heather Schleigh was blunt. She didn’t have answers for the dozens of people there, who at noon would be out on the street with nowhere to go until the shelter reopens at 7 p.m.

The previous night, which saw the low temperature drop below 20 degrees, the House of Charity turned away 29 people.

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