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Spokane mayor, city council president hopefuls debate homeless issues at library forum

UPDATED: Thu., Sept. 5, 2019

The 2019 Candidates Forum on Homelessness gathered mayoral hopefuls Nadine Woodward, left and Ben Stuckart, along with council president candidates Cindy Wendle and Breean Beggs, Thursday, Sept. 5, 2019, at the Downtown Spokane Library. Dan Pelle/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
The 2019 Candidates Forum on Homelessness gathered mayoral hopefuls Nadine Woodward, left and Ben Stuckart, along with council president candidates Cindy Wendle and Breean Beggs, Thursday, Sept. 5, 2019, at the Downtown Spokane Library. Dan Pelle/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Candidates for Spokane mayor and City Council president clashed Thursday over the city’s approach to homelessness.

In a forum hosted by the Spokane Homeless Coalition and Spokane Low Income Housing Consortium, the candidates debated the merits of a housing-first approach to homelessness, the source of homelessness and the city’s ongoing struggle to open a new emergency shelter.

The event featured mayoral candidates Nadine Woodward and Ben Stuckart and council president candidates Breean Beggs and Cindy Wendle. It drew more than 100 people to the downtown Spokane Public Library, illustrating how the topic has become a centerpiece of the campaign.

Over nearly 90 minutes of discussion, the candidates’ comments illustrated stark differences in their positions on homelessness and the path to reducing its prevalence in Spokane.

The candidates’ divergence was perhaps no more acute than in the value they place on “housing first,” an approach that emphasizes low barriers to housing and is required by the federal government in order for cities to obtain federal funding.

Beggs, who has represented the South Hill on the council for more than three years, said a housing-first approach does include accountability despite claims otherwise.

“You have to give people shelter, and food, and social workers in order to get them stable so that they can get the intestinal fortitude to move forward,” Beggs said.

Woodward, who despite a lack of political experience has touted her trustworthiness as a longtime television news anchor in Spokane, disagreed with Beggs.

“There is no required accountability in the (Housing and Urban Development)-funded housing first, and there needs to be, so I hope that changes,” Woodward said.

Stuckart, who is seeking the city’s top post after two terms as city council president, said the city has $12 million in federal funding riding on a housing-first approach that would be rescinded if the city changed its approach.

Wendle, a political newcomer who co-owns the Northtown Square shopping plaza, said housing first is part of the right approach, but said she learned during a recent ride-along with city police downtown that drug deals are taking place in and out of the city’s housing-first programs.

“That’s not OK. Our homeless are being victimized as much as or more than we are,” Wendle said.

Woodward said she would not support the opening of a new 24/7 low-barrier shelter and sharply criticized Mayor David Condon’s proposal to create a 120-bed emergency shelter for adults in the former Grocery Outlet at Havana Street and Sprague Avenue.

“These things take planning and organization, and that was an absolute disaster,” said Woodward, who didn’t mention Condon by name when criticizing the city’s efforts for the shelter.

Woodward proposed Spokane wait until the city of Boise’s appeal of a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision plays out before the city builds any shelters. The decision requires cities to provide adequate low-barrier shelter space in order to enforce laws against camping.

“I don’t think we should be investing in anything until we know exactly what we can and cannot do as a city,” Woodward said.

Stuckart suggested it was unlikely the U.S. Supreme Court would take up the Boise case and, even if it did, it would take a year to decide. In the meantime, “people need a place to stay, especially during the winter months.” If the city does not have adequate shelter space, “we will have camping everywhere and there’s nothing we can do about it,” Stuckart said.

“If we don’t have shelters and warming centers open, people will die, and that’s just a fact of the matter. They will die, and we will be responsible for that,” Stuckart said.

Bluntly, Beggs said “we need shelter. We just do.” When the city ended its agreement to fund the 24/7 shelter at Catholic Charities last year, significantly reducing the number of shelter beds available, Beggs said those people were dispersed throughout the city.

“People are going to sleep somewhere. They’re going to be somewhere. It’s not easy to leave Spokane. So you have to have that set up, and you have to have a plan,” Beggs said.

Wendle said she was recusing herself from discussion about the Grocery Outlet proposal or an alternative location for a shelter due to a conflict of interest. Her husband, Chud Wendle, is executive director of the Hutton Settlement, which owns the Grocery Outlet property in question.

The candidates took different views on the source of the homelessness problem.

Stuckart said incomes have failed to keep pace with increasing housing costs. He said there is a long list of reasons why people find themselves without housing, and stressed the importance of “individualized solutions” with case management.

“We have to be funding case-management inside the system, and that’s where we’re failing right now,” Stuckart said.

Woodward repeated prior claims that “the vast majority” of the homeless have mental illness or an addiction. Woodward acknowledged that other factors can play a role, such as escaping domestic violence, pulling themselves out of poverty, job loss or medical issues.

“We have plenty of programs for those kinds of people in transition, but we need to do a better job of getting people the mental health that they need and the addiction treatment that they need,” Woodward said.

Woodward suggested the city proactively identify those who want help for their addiction. Those with a charge pending against them or a warrant for their arrest would be given a choice to get help or go to jail. The city should create a “network of programs” including detox, rehab and transitional housing.

Shelters with case management are needed immediately, and until those “basic needs are met,” Stuckart said “we just need to be real with each other.”

“If you’re living on the streets and there is no place to sleep that’s safe – I’d take a drink. I’d use drugs if I were homeless on the streets,” Stuckart said. “If we want to get them out of their situation, we need the basic needs (met) first.”

Beggs disagreed with Woodward’s assertion that there are programs with sufficient capacity.

Without adequate services, “we can’t figure out who is a troublemaker versus who is just in trouble. Once we do that, it’s easier to hold people accountable,” Beggs said.

According to a survey conducted during the annual count of homeless people, the top two reasons people cited for their homelessness were family conflict and lack of income, Wendle noted.

“We need to ask why,” Wendle said.

Wendle said it is imperative that tax dollars go toward addressing the root of the problem.

“If we’ve got vacancy rates that are low and housing prices that are high, what has been going on and what has this council done to help us get better? It’s too late now for many people,” Wendle said.

After Wendle mentioned the homeless count, Woodward repeated her concerns that the “point in time” count is a “snapshot and not an accurate reflection of what’s going on.”

“Unfortunately, we’re using that as a base for a lot of our decisions,” Woodward said.

Stuckart replied that it is concerning that Woodward rejects the available data and instead “uses anecdotal data,” in what was the most contentious moment of the forum between the two mayoral candidates.

“We can’t discount the data,” Stuckart said.

Woodward advocated for a new police precinct downtown and increased community policing to remove criminals from the city’s core “who are making it uncomfortable for people to do downtown.”

“When did we become a lawless society? I don’t get that,” Woodward said.

Stuckart criticized Woodward for not supporting the public safety levy, which voters approved earlier this year and funds the hiring of 20 additional police officers.

In theory, Wendle said it makes sense to have more officers walking the street. But, in practice, “you need your patrol car.”

“It doesn’t work. You need a mixture,” Wendle said.

Beggs said most criminal acts are committed by people who are housed, but said he supports more police being on foot patrols.

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