For the past 28 years, you have watched me on TV talking about the issues facing Spokane and the Inland Northwest. Like many of you, I have witnessed the tremendous progress Spokane has made in that time. But, with great gains come great challenges – and one of our biggest is homelessness.
Anybody who works with the homeless can tell you this basic fact: A distinction exists between those who are actively seeking a way out of and those who have chosen to live a transient, addicted lifestyle. The people of Spokane should not have to foot the bill for those who are unwilling to get help.
It is true that most homeless people want homes. But some want alcohol and drugs even more. As the saying goes, a man cannot have two masters. The National Coalition for the Homeless found that 38% of homeless people are dependent on alcohol and 26% are dependent on other drugs. It also found that 20 to 25% of homeless people suffer from severe mental illnesses.
Since declaring my candidacy for Spokane mayor, I have met with Catholic Charities, Union Gospel Mission, Salvation Army, Adult and Teen Challenge, Transitions and Frontier Behavioral Health, including addiction counselors, law enforcement officers, community court judges and downtown business owners. And, most importantly, I have met with the homeless themselves. My key takeaway from each of these meetings is that accountability must be the driving force behind our efforts.
After talking to our key, on-the-ground stakeholders, I have developed a strategy to start turning our challenges into solutions. While I lack a magic wand to solve them overnight, I do have a plan which will take time and require our community to work together.
What we need is a compassionate, cohesive and collaborative approach which coordinates existing services with neighboring cities, counties and tribes. With a coordinated effort, we can assist people toward addiction treatment programs and eliminate the criminal behaviors in which addicts engage to fund their habits. I do not seek to criminalize homelessness; I seek to rehabilitate those who suffer from it. I also seek to hold those who commit crimes accountable.
Together, we must:
1. Identify those who are homeless due to difficult circumstances versus those who choose to live a transient and addicted lifestyle;
2. Return a police precinct to the heart of downtown Spokane, which will increase visibility and foot patrols;
3. Implement a neighborhood policing approach in higher density areas to get more feet on the ground, not in patrol cars. More interaction between police and the public will erode the walls which facilitate an us vs. them mentality;
4. Offer a choice for homeless who are facing jail time for drug-related offenses, including property crimes: Either they seek treatment or go to jail;
5. Expand the partnership between the Spokane Police Department and Frontier Behavioral Health to pair more social workers with police officers, which will deescalate problems stemming from mental illness. Criminalization will not solve homelessness;
6. Create a homelessness task force which partners stakeholders from all areas of society, including the homeless themselves;
7. Rigorously gather feedback from all stakeholders to ensure our results are real and impactful. If they are not, we must identify where we have failed and take responsibility for our shortcomings.
Some, including Council President Stuckart, have said that I am relying on the politics of fear to manipulate the voters of our city. This could not be further from the truth. To admit we have a problem is not to stoke fear. Rather, admission is the first step towards solution, one which the politics of delusion and denial will not bring. “Nothing to see here, move along,” he says. But there is something to see. Visitors and prospective businesses see it, a fact which should embarrass all of us. Mr. Stuckart believes an impulsive push for a city-owned shelter will solve our problem, but it will simply establish another unnecessary and expensive bureaucracy that will become a long-term burden.
Spokane, we have a choice. Do we want to continue ignoring this issue, hoping it will magically disappear (which I assure you it will not)? Or, do we want to proactively offer solutions to those who need them most? Effective compassion requires us to help those who need it most, by requiring accountability. Spokane has a unique opportunity to be a model for the rest of the country. But first, we must walk in unison toward a common goal. Will you walk with me?
Nadine Woodward is a candidate for mayor of Spokane.
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