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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Another winter without a plan, as mayor’s commitment to shelter system appears to wane

A year ago, Councilwoman Kate Burke was angry and upset that the administration of Mayor David Condon had pulled the plug on 150 shelter beds without any plan to replace them.

At a council meeting, as well as in emails, she sharply questioned the administration official who oversees the city’s homeless programs, Kelly Keenan, and criticized the administration’s lack of an immediate plan to fill the gap. The plan that administration was trying to sell back then was really a plan to come up with a plan – temporary shelters with plans to buy a to-be-determined permanent shelter within the year.

It was more wish than plan.

As Burke put it, “The interim plan is there is no plan.”

Stung, the administration leapt into action – not on homelessness, but on the supposed “bullying” of its officials.

Burke’s interactions with city staff on homelessness became one part of a wider investigation into the causes for hurt feelings among administrative staffers at their treatment by City Council, which cost the city $25,000 and which concluded there was no bullying.

Meanwhile, a year after the no-plan interim plan, the Condon shelter plan remains the same: no real plan.

A plan to develop a plan. A half-hearted, half-assed plan.

This week’s announcement that the city would again pursue temporary solutions, almost all of which still have yet to be identified, for sheltering the homeless during winter put an exclamation point on a year of fecklessness and fumbling from the Condon administration.

The mayor’s efforts to divert attention from that fact this week – by criticizing the City Council’s temerity in noticing his lackluster performance – should not leave you confused: This breakdown is his administration’s responsibility.

That’s not to say it’s easy to find a place for a permanent shelter, or that some within the administration haven’t worked hard or made progress. In fact, Keenan and his staffers have helped initiate a lot of good, concrete steps forward in several areas of this large and difficult problem – arranging to buy a new shelter for Family Promise with grant funding, moving toward a more stable funding model and opening a new Spokane center to help homeless and at-risk people connect with services.

“The commitment has not waned at all,” Keenan said Thursday. “I can assure you the staff is trying to advance this issue every day.”

Keenan has taken a lot of heat on this, and deserves credit just for that – for standing there and taking the heat, and answering questions, when people complain. Even administration critics on the council give Keenan and his staff credit.

Yet it’s hard to ignore the sense that at the very top, the Condon administration has simply cooled off on its promise from just two years ago to create a 24/7 shelter system and on its promise from last year to add another shelter.

The mayor and City Council members traded criticisms this week, but this is not a both-sides problem. It is a simple, uncomplicated question of where responsibility lies and how powers are separated under the city charter, which makes it the administration’s job to direct staffers to do the sorts of things that are needed here – find sites, develop plans for services, forge partnerships and present a proposal to the council to be funded.

Almost all of that involves directing the city staff to act, something the City Council is expressly forbidden from doing. It’s the mayor’s job. Setting priorities, assigning resources, deciding what’s urgent, making proposals to address those priorities – the mayor’s job.

Two winters ago, Condon stood at a podium with Council President Ben Stuckart and Catholic Charities CEO Rob McCann and announced the city would offer 24/7 shelter services for homeless people during the winter. The goal, he said, was to end homelessness.

That goal – which McCann and others also vowed to pursue – always seemed like a naive overreach, primed to allow people to give up quickly if homelessness wasn’t immediately ended.

Catholic Charities took on a near-heroic task of addressing the hardest parts of the problem – accepting all comers at the House of Charity. It didn’t work at all. The shelter often doubled its capacity, and the surrounding streets became a center for crime and safety problems. The problem was bigger than the resources, and the city pulled the plug a year later.

A large part of what we’ve seen since – and especially the panic over the increased visibility of the homeless and downtown crime – stems directly from the closure of those beds and the resulting dispersion of the homeless population into the rest of downtown.

Since then, it has almost seemed the administration has given up.

Condon wasn’t available to talk on Thursday, and Keenan insisted that isn’t the case. It’s been very difficult – given funding challenges, neighborhood concerns and many other factors – to find a location for a shelter, and efforts to find a permanent shelter to replace the lost House of Charity capacity continue, he said.

“That process hasn’t stopped, and it has never stopped,” he said.

Last fall, the city defaulted to a series of warming centers set up hastily at local churches and nonprofits, pledging to open and have a new shelter by summer 2019.

That didn’t happen, of course. One location for a permanent shelter was put forth in August – the Grocery Outlet building on East Sprague – but the administration left too many partners with unanswered questions, and neighbors of the building opposed it.

The city quickly punted.

Earlier this week, racing the clock and trying to slap together a winter plan, the administration sent a proposal to the council to approve one contract with the Salvation Army to manage one of many pieces of a short-term approach. (Which is, to reiterate, the way it works: The executive branch proposes, the legislative branch disposes.)

This proposal was for a contract so unfinished that it came with a price tag of between $240,000 and more than $3 million. The frustration on the part of council members boiled over – on the dais that night and at a press conference Wednesday. The mayor leapfrogged in with his own press conference, where he blamed the council for “political theater.”

It is all, he said, “very embarrassing for this community.”

He’s right, but not in the way he means.

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