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Shawn Vestal: A shift in rhetoric – and a key omission – in the mayor’s talk on homelessness

Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward gives her first State of the City address during a Greater Spokane Incorporated meeting on Friday, Feb. 7, 2020, at the Spokane Convention Center. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward gives her first State of the City address during a Greater Spokane Incorporated meeting on Friday, Feb. 7, 2020, at the Spokane Convention Center. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Mayor Nadine Woodward’s State of the City speech last week was, in many ways, awfully standard fare. Lots of sloganeering and few specifics, with a call to employ the most common tool of the bureaucratic optimist: advisory committees.

This is, to be fair, normal for someone who hasn’t done anything yet. During her speech last Friday, Woodward set out her top priorities – homelessness, housing, economic development and public safety – and invited people to serve on panels in those areas. And she made almost-news, with an announcement that she would be announcing, before long, the location of a downtown police precinct.

But for those who have paid close attention to the homelessness debate during the campaign, there was a striking element to the speech: the omission of an oft-mentioned “solution” for homelessness during her campaign. Candidate Woodward was a big proponent of the idea that we would offer the criminally homeless – which she often seemed to consider most of the homeless – a choice: forced drug treatment or jail.

“For those homeless who are facing jail time for property crimes committed to fuel their addiction, we must offer them a choice: Mandated Medicaid-funded drug treatment or jail,” is the way she put it on her campaign website last summer.

Here’s how she framed it in an interview with KREM: “Now some people don’t like the idea of mandated treatment. But if you’re a criminal, and somebody gives you the choice of jail or drug treatment, I would hope the majority would choose drug treatment. I would hate to get to a point where you’re doing that. But at some point, we have to compel people to get help.”

These are but two examples of many. If I had to guess, I’d say this kind of attitude is what helped carry her to the mayor’s office – a simple slogan that appeals on a gut level, as well as an implicit promise of a street-sweeping to those who see homelessness chiefly through the lens of blight.

That’s a lot of people, and they put her in office.

But the treatment ultimatum was always a much bigger lift than she acknowledged, an idea facing a ton of obstacles, from the fact that our jail is full, to the fact that our jail is a short-term facility (subject to the already common problem of becoming an expensive revolving door for chronic minor offenders) to the fact that our treatment capacity may not be up to the task, to the fact that anyone who knows anything about addiction understands you don’t just force someone into treatment and then start ordering flowers for their sober anniversaries.

Still, jail-or-treatment has a fundamental appeal. A veneer of “common sense.” But Woodward’s speech last week contained nothing like that idea. In fact, a lot of the rhetoric on the issue that might have fallen from the lips of her campaign opponent or the housing-first community she ran so vigorously against.

She emphasized that homelessness is a complex issue, and we should manage our expectations.

She hailed the huge number of people and organizations throughout the community who have been engaged on this issue far longer than half a year.

She called on us to understand that we must address the root causes of the problem and understand the upstream traumas that put people on the streets.

She emphasized we must provide everyone a safe and dignified place to stay indoors.

She asked other governments in the region to step up to their responsibility – largely shirked, to date – and to share in finding solutions.

She noted that Spokane is not alone in this. It’s a national crisis.

And she didn’t say a word – not a syllable – about coerced drug treatment.

To be fair, she did repeat several of the generalities upon which she ran her campaign against the homeless. An insistence on “accountability” for those who receive help, and an incorrect implication that there is no such accountability now. A belief that the city has not truly engaged this issue before, and she is going to “bring the issue to the forefront.” An insistence on returning the homeless to being “productive members of the society” once again.

But nothing about the jail-or-treatment ultimatum.

Might we hope the idea has left her for good? That she has evolved past it?

Probably not.

Woodward wasn’t available to talk about this on Tuesday, but city spokeswoman Marlene Feist said the mayor is in the midst of learning a lot about the city’s wide range of service providers and programs, and that her administration – with an advisory committee to be formed on the issue – is still developing an approach. The treatment-or-jail idea, based on what the Washington city of Marysville does, was always intended as just one idea for a subset of the homeless population, Feist said.

“She’s still exploring that,” Feist said. “She hasn’t finished her work.”

Feist said Woodward’s approach is to build on what the city has done so far, and ask, “Where do we go from here? Where do the next investments get made?”

It sounds like Woodward’s first weeks on the job are giving her a greater appreciation for what’s being done already, and what’s been done. One suspects that before long, she will evolve toward celebrating the city’s victories in helping the homeless.

This would be normal – a politician adopting a suddenly different attitude toward a problem once it’s her problem. She has already begun, singing the praises of the warming-center system that was thrown together belatedly and haphazardly after a year of foot-dragging by the David Condon administration.

I’d like to think it’s an evolution based on the new mayor learning more about the problem. An evolution away from the simple slogans and toward the difficult realities of the issue. We can always hope.

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