The city is just about out of time if it hopes to do better than last year providing shelter to homeless residents. Temperatures this week could drop to freezing at night in Spokane. And that’s nothing compared to how chilly things have gotten at City Hall.
Everyone agrees there’s a crisis. The Spokane City Council says so. The mayor says so. City administrators say so. Service providers say so. Everyone.
And now everyone also knows that the crisis won’t be averted before the cold arrives.
“We’re in the middle of a situation – I think I would call it a crisis. We’re coming into cold weather, and we have nothing solid. We have no plan for a permanent shelter,” said Spokane City Councilwoman Karen Stratton at last week’s council meeting. “We all want the same thing. We all care about doing the right thing. And we’re all getting angry at each other because this is so frustrating.”
Things definitely got testy at the council meeting. Councilwoman Kate Burke called out Council President Ben Stuckart for a snide comment he directed at her. “Council president, please stop being inappropriately rude on the dais,” she admonished.
To Stuckart’s credit, he later apologized. “I’m lashing out at you because I’m very frustrated,” he said. “I’m just as frustrated as you that the resources we’ve known we needed for the last year haven’t been put there.”
Spokane’s political leaders are far from the only ones frustrated. The people are frustrated, Mr. Mayor and City Councilors. We’re frustrated that you’ve proved unable to make progress on a challenge that affects everyone. The homeless residents face a cold winter ahead without adequate shelter. The housed residents fear that the city’s quality of life is in steep decline as people sleep in the streets and petty crimes fuel drug habits. Business owners, especially downtown, worry that customers will be scarce, as people no longer want to see the human misery on every corner.
Spokesman-Review columnist Shawn Vestal documented the dysfunction in tremendous detail.
The council last week tabled a proposal to pay the Salvation Army to operate a homeless shelter, location unknown. The city has been working with property owners and providers to find up to three shelter locations for the winter.
In fairness, the mayor and city staff had asked the council to approve a deal without a lot of information. Even the cost was planned to be up to $3.15 million. That’s a big “up to.”
We hope that when the proposal comes back at this week’s meeting, many of those details have been fleshed out and council is able to approve the financing so that action can occur as quickly as possible. Shelters don’t open overnight. After a management agreement is in place and a location selected, the building still will need to be furnished and stocked.
A side distraction in all this has been accusations that Salvation Army will exclude people for religious reasons. Homeless members of the LGBTQ community especially are concerned that they might not be fully welcomed at a shelter run by the Salvation Army. While it is true that the Salvation Army is a Christian charity, it would be required to operate a publicly funded shelter as a secular service. There would be no mandatory prayers or proselytizing. The Salvation Army has experience in this sort of thing and is sensitive to such concerns.
The Salvation Army also is sensitive to concerns about how a shelter will fit within a neighborhood or downtown. There is near universal recognition in our community that shelter is needed for our homeless neighbors, but when it comes time to pick a location, people who live or work nearby are quick to nitpick every conceivable concern. “Put it somewhere else,” they say. Look no further than the recent dispute over using the Grocery Outlet site on East Sprague for evidence. The city punted in that case, but it cannot punt every time if it hopes to ever start helping people.
No location will be without controversy. A strong, experienced operator like Salvation Army can smooth some of that over by being transparent with neighbors and addressing reasonable concerns. Neighbors might never be happy about it, but they can become accepting if they are treated like partners not opponents.
The imperative must be to get shelters open as soon as possible. Only then will the frustration everyone feels start to ease.
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