When the city of Spokane struggled to meet the funding needs of homeless service providers last year, leaders pledged to find alternative and creative ways to support them.
City Councilwoman Kate Burke thought she had done just that when she introduced a proposal that would erase trash and sewer bills for homeless shelters like Open Doors, House of Charity, Hope House and more.
But the logistical and legal challenges to implementing Burke’s proposal, introduced late last year, proved too substantial to overcome. Early this month, the bill was shelved indefinitely.
And Burke is frustrated.
“The way I look at it is we encourage places like Family Promise to open. Then they do it, do a whole capital project to open a new location (on East Mission Avenue), and then we don’t fully fund them to sustain that,” Burke said.
Burke is calling on fellow council members and the administration of Mayor Nadine Woodward to bolster their commitment.
“It’s totally our responsibility to go back and figure out how to make this work,” Burke said.
Council President Breean Beggs acknowledged Burke’s frustration and noted that the legal challenges to proposed solutions don’t “take away from the need.”
In 2019, the city transitioned from a two-year to a five-year funding schedule for homeless service providers, arguing it would allow for greater stability and long-term planning. But for many, it resulted in less funding.
Family Promise, which operates the city’s only emergency shelter for homeless families in Open Doors, was not spared from the cuts. It saw its annual funding fall from more than $700,000 to about $440,000.
In response, the organization had to cut seven staff members and reduce its capacity, although it later raised funds to increase its overnight capacity to 60 in its new Mission Avenue facility.
This winter, the city gave Family Promise $500,000 to temporarily increase its capacity to 80 overnight guests.
“It’s one of those Catch-22s,” said Joe Ader, executive director of Family Promise. “There’s cuts early on in continuous stay (funding), and then you have to pay more for a warming center.”
Beggs has advocated for the city to investigate if there’s a way to identify more money in the general fund to help homeless providers. His interest includes providing funding for shelters, but also for “extensive services” that help homeless people better their lives. He noted the city’s shelter capacity is as large as ever.
Just pouring more money at the problem isn’t necessarily going to fix it, argued Councilwoman Lori Kinnear. She advocated that the city be more “targeted in our approach” and “put resources upstream so we’re not continuing to focus on people that are in dire straits right now.”
Kinnear also repeated her regular call for Spokane Valley and Spokane County to increase their funding of homeless services, saying “our partners in the Valley and the county really need to step up more.”
Utility bill hurdles
Burke’s bill would have given shelters a 100% credit on their bills for solid waste removal and sewer service. It was estimated to amount to a loss of about $190,000 in revenue from the city’s utility system annually.
“That would’ve been helpful. We pay around $2,000 a month in city utilities, and that’s money that either people are giving or we get grants for, which is designed to go toward helping those who are homeless out of homelessness,” Ader said.
Though it had support in theory, the practical application of Burke’s utility proposal was called into question from its introduction.
“That’s a ratepayer fund, so you’re basically asking people who already might be challenged in paying their water bills or garbage bills to pay more money for an important social service,” Beggs said.
The administration of then-Mayor David Condon questioned the legality, under Washington law, of providing discounts to a certain class of ratepayer in the city’s utility system. Ultimately, the administration suggested that if the council wanted to do more to fund service providers, it do so directly through the city’s general fund.
Beggs had hoped to offer an alternative way to fund shelters through a three-year pilot program that would give providers a 2-to-1 match on every dollar they spend on conservation measures such as low-flow shower heads. The savings would have totaled thousands of dollars, Beggs said, but the idea died along with Burke’s bill.
Though she understands the legal challenges, Burke said this month “we can’t just push it aside.”
“They’re paying thousands of dollars a month for garbage pickup. That just seems a little bit off to me when they’re providing a service for people who need it,” she said. “I continually try to bring up new things and it gets shut down.”
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