The “Curing Spokane” video that purports to offer solutions to homelessness has racked up more than 28,000 views on YouTube. That might not be much compared with YouTube superstars, but for a wonky video focused on Spokane, it’s downright viral. But popularity doesn’t always equate to quality. “Curing Spokane” nudges the conversation about homelessness and downtown in important ways, but it contains no silver-bullet solutions for complex challenges.
Here’s a quick summary for those who haven’t watched the video: Downtown Spokane is a hellscape overrun by drugged-out homeless criminals. They leave needles and waste everywhere. Wander the streets at your own risk.
After that cheery opening, the video compares Spokane to Boise, where apparently they don’t have these sorts of problems despite being demographically similar to Spokane. “Curing Spokane” then offers three solutions based on what Boise has done:
1) Build a bigger, better county jail in which to lock up miscreants.
2) Tell police to enforce all laws including misdemeanors.
3) Build an underground bus and transit station so the homeless can’t congregate around the Spokane Transit Authority downtown station.
There’s a lot to tease out, starting with the portrayal of downtown. It takes a play from the propagandist playbook and seeks to overwhelm the viewer with what you want viewers to see. Of course the city looks awful when producers can select the most damning footage.
The real downtown is something else entirely. Most people enjoy visiting the city center to dine, to hang out with friends or to enjoy our world-class riverfront. Yet little of that made the video because smiling tourists and residents didn’t fit the narrative.
The video also focuses almost exclusively on the central city within the Business Improvement District. Yet homelessness and crime extend far beyond those blocks. The challenges are much bigger than just downtown.
When it comes to the video’s solutions, they are superficial. That doesn’t mean they aren’t worth exploring further, but they aren’t ready yet.
Spokane County does need more jail space, but that’s only part of it. The community must strike a smart balance between incarceration and rehabilitation. We’re also not going to argue against hiring more police and empowering them to deal directly with serious lawbreakers. But if Spokane really wants to change course, it also needs more no-barrier shelters, more affordable housing, tighter targeting of illegal drugs and additional beds for substance abuse rehabilitation.
The most audacious proposal in the video surely is digging an underground transit terminal. Such a mammoth construction project would be costly for the STA, which runs lean as it is. It simply is not a priority at this time. Better to invest in the Central City Line. A high-frequency and high-capacity line could run express routes through the city and ensure that no one has to wait overly long downtown, even in areas where the homeless congregate.
Developer Larry Stone financed the video. We trust that his interest arose from a deep concern for his city. But he looked at the issues through a specific lens, and it’s far from the only or best one. Indeed, many of his fellow developers doubt that the solutions offered in “Curing Spokane” are the way to tackle homelessness, crime and poverty.
City government must be held accountable for how it does and does not respond, but so too must the county and individual neighborhoods. The causes of homelessness and poverty are regional and range from poverty to domestic abuse and violence to drug and alcohol abuse to a shortage of low- and no-income housing. Our region lags behind national and state averages on metrics for those things, and Spokane won’t solve them overnight. Rather, they require coordinated solutions that engage all levels of government and community. We must all own these problems.
Nor can we solve them by simply tamping down issues in one area like downtown. Push the homeless out of the central city and they won’t disappear, they will move to other areas.
“Curing Spokane” is less a blueprint for solving acute challenges this region faces and more an indication of the depth of frustration with the lack of progress. Though it presents an extreme view, Spokane should welcome its push to keep pursuing all solutions both for the long term and the immediate challenges on the streets.
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