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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Kay Murano: Getting real about solutions to homelessness

Kay Murano

Homelessness has become Spokane’s lightning rod in public debates and our upcoming election. The sight of people living on our streets – sometimes in a state of disorientation or despair – tugs at the heart of our city. It is a true community challenge, but it can be solved if we find common ground.

How do we move people off of the streets and into permanent housing? Let’s start by looking at some hard truths. The facts matter.

We have a challenge downtown. While the Spokane Police Department reported last week that citywide crime has fallen by 15%, the fact remains that there is a small population of people hanging out downtown who threaten public safety. People living on the streets are most at risk and far more likely to be victims of crime than the general population.

We have a housing problem. The Census Bureau tells us that 50% of people in Spokane pay more than 30% of their income to keep a roof over their heads; and 25% pay more than half of their income on rent. With fewer and fewer affordable places to live, too many Spokane families are being priced out of housing and into homelessness.

Homeless people don’t all look alike. The face of homelessness is typically a single man living downtown and struggling with addiction and mental health. But that’s only one piece of the puzzle. Others are much less visible. According to Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, there were 1,449 homeless students in Spokane Public Schools last year. Many women – like those sheltered by Volunteers of America at Hope House – aim to stay invisible because they don’t want to become victims of violence. And hundreds more are couch surfing.

Homeless people are our neighbors. There’s a persistent rumor that homeless people come to Spokane from far-flung places to take advantage of abundant social services. But based on the latest count, more than 80% of our homeless population was born and raised within 75 miles of downtown Spokane. These are people who were born and raised here, and they deserve to be treated like neighbors.

We are making progress. There are many organizations in Spokane that have had great success getting people into long-term housing. Since Donna Hanson Haven opened in late 2017, for example, Catholic Charities has moved 50 men and women who had been homeless an average of 11.1 years into safe, permanent housing. Other organizations, like Spokane Neighborhood Action Partners, are supporting people in crisis and stopping homelessness before it starts.

Sadly, the public debate around homelessness has gotten so heated it is easy to overlook the progress we’ve made. At Spokane Low Income Housing Consortium, we believe it’s time to step back from the fighting and finger-pointing.

We all want solutions. We all want to live in a safe, stable community. We all want to see Spokane thrive and grow. So here are five basic principles for the community’s consideration – principles that can serve as a foundation for solving homelessness in Spokane.

    Every person deserves to be safe and treated with respect. That includes people struggling with homelessness, as well as local business owners trying to earn a living, law enforcement working to keep us safe and families visiting downtown.

    Every person deserves dignity and should eat, sleep and use the bathroom indoors. All of our neighbors deserve access to stable housing and the support to get them there.

    We need more affordable housing. For generations, Spokane has been a community where people of different incomes could live side by side. As the wealth gap widens, we’re increasingly at risk of losing the rich fabric of our local tapestry.

    We should support those suffering from mental illness or battling addiction. It’s far too difficult for people dealing with alcohol or drug addiction to get treatment, and mental health services are woefully lacking.

    First responders need our help so they can focus on their jobs. Because many groups providing outreach to the homeless lack resources, we end up relying on police and firefighters to do case management. These first responders deserve more support.

There is no simple way to end homelessness because the causes are multi-faceted and complex. Our community is not immune to the housing, affordability and public safety challenges that come with rapid growth. These five principles may not answer every challenge we face, but they can offer a starting point to come together, dig in and start finding real solutions.

Kay Murano is the executive director of the Spokane Low Income Housing Consortium.

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