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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Mayor Nadine Woodward asks for patience as she works with providers to tackle homelessness

Mayor Nadine Woodward stands across from City Hall on Jan. 9 in downtown Spokane. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

As a candidate, Nadine Woodward was unrelenting in her criticism of the city’s response to its ongoing struggles with homelessness.

As mayor, she is now tasked with appeasing service providers and winning support from city and regional leaders – all while staying true to the ideology she laid out to voters ahead of her victory in 2019.

As both candidate and mayor, she has signaled that “a hand up, not a hand out,” will be her guiding philosophy.

But how Woodward will translate that slogan into actual policy remains to be seen, as city officials weigh the merits of different approaches to homelessness and ask themselves fundamental questions about human dignity.

Woodward was swept into office after running a campaign largely centered on the issue of homelessness, which has increasingly weighed on the minds of voters not only in Spokane but across Washington.

In stark contrast to her mayoral opponent, City Council President Ben Stuckart, Woodward advocated for an enforcement-based approach to mitigating visible homelessness downtown and questioned the federally preferred “Housing First” service model, which prioritizes placing homeless people in housing before addressing the underlying issues that led to their homelessness.

Woodward urged the city not to build any new shelters as she accused its current methods of amounting to little more than “warehousing” the homeless.

Now in office, Woodward has a new message in addition to demands for a “hand up” policy – and that’s to be patient.

“I think people appreciate the fact that this is such a complex problem, that you can’t just wave a wand and get measurable results overnight,” Woodward said. “I can’t be a change agent on this subject overnight.”

As promised during her campaign, Woodward plans to assemble stakeholders to determine the city’s next steps in addressing homelessness. Though it has yet to take shape, Woodward said a task force will include representatives from a broad spectrum of the community.

“This is going to take time. But I really believe that I was elected to start moving that needle in the right direction. And that right direction is not about enabling. It’s about empowering,” Woodward said.

The time to consider multiple avenues is a luxury afforded to Woodward thanks to the work of previous Mayor David Condon’s administration and the Spokane City Council.

As she campaigned for office last fall, the city was facing a crisis. With winter weather looming, the city lacked adequate capacity to shelter the homeless, and a planned 120-bed shelter in the former Grocery Outlet store on East Sprague Avenue had been scrapped in the face of broad opposition.

But in the months since then, the city purchased a building on South Cannon Street and tapped nonprofit Jewels Helping Hands to operate a warming center. It also contracted with several existing service providers throughout Spokane to expand capacity during the winter months.

Woodward feels there’s a cushion, given the current setup, before any substantive changes are made. Her verdict on the current system’s efficacy is so far, so good.

“I’m not going to pull the rug out of those contracts. I mean, I can’t reverse what the city has moved forward to get us through, you know, the next four months or so,” Woodward said.

The question

Looking beyond this winter, the homelessness task force will undoubtedly wade through the nearly unending obstacles to ending homelessness, from complying with federal requirements for program funding to collaborating with regional partners like Spokane Valley and Spokane County on a potential new shelter.

But, ultimately, the future of homeless services in Spokane may hinge on how Woodward, and those around her, answer a single question: What defines human dignity?

“The conversation has to be moving people forward. And if people aren’t moving out of housing first because they’re not getting help, and all they’re being is warehoused at government expense, how are we really helping people? And it’s a tough conversation to have,” Woodward said.

One man who’s likely to play a major role moving forward is Union Gospel Mission Executive Director Phil Altmeyer, who endorsed Woodward at the beginning of her mayoral campaign and was one of only a few people to join her on stage at her inauguration this month.

Pointing to cities like San Francisco, Altmeyer said Spokane residents have seen examples “where they’ve simply enabled” their homeless population and found “their whole city has been drastically changed.”

Union Gospel Mission requires its guests to be committed to sobriety and do chores to help maintain the shelter.

“We’re not interested in the simplicity of just food and shelter and just keeping people alive, though I want to add those are important,” Altmeyer said. “The bottom line is, it’s hard sometimes to hold people accountable, but it’s the best thing for them.”

Of the more than 4,000 people Union Gospel Mission served last year, Altmeyer estimates more than 90% entered with a substance use disorder, though surveys of the homeless population in Spokane indicate addiction is not the leading cause of homelessness.

Altmeyer asks, “Are handouts increasing the problem or solving the problem?”

“If you want to live on the street and you make the choices to continue in that lifestyle, and you provide them the stuff to stay there, what have we done?” Altmeyer asked.

There is perhaps no organization in Spokane that represents a commitment to low-barrier shelter more than Catholic Charities, which operates the House of Charity downtown. The shelter, which is open to adults, does not require its guests to be sober, although it does not allow drug use or drinking inside its doors.

Rob McCann, president and CEO of Catholic Charities of Eastern Washington, was adamant that he looks forward to working with Woodward’s administration and other city officials to address homelessness. But he’s not a fan of an approach based on “a hand up, not a hand out,” saying “that’s just not our flavor of Catholicism, period.”

“That phrase – I’ve heard that phrase for 20 years, that’s nothing new. It’s based on an ideology that we don’t agree with at Catholic Charities for faith-based reasons,” McCann said.

McCann wishes everybody was ready to get clean and sober when they enter the House of Charity’s doors. But that’s not reality. It might take days, weeks or months. Or the person might die of their affliction. But no matter what, he said, “Every human being deserves basic dignity and respect.”

“Our view is pretty simple at Catholic Charities. There’s no such thing as a handout in our world,” McCann said. “Any human being who’s hungry should get a meal. Any human being who’s homeless should get a bed.”

But, Woodward said, “some people just can’t get beyond putting a roof over their head.”

“And then what do we do?” she asked. “We don’t have enough money to build enough houses to put a roof over everybody’s head if they’re not getting the help to get out and beyond that part of it. That can’t be the only thing we do.”

Woodward still opposes investing city dollars in shelter infrastructure.

“I would rather prioritize funding to programs or pushing nonprofits to do more on the treatment in program services side of things,” Woodward said.

More roofs, actually, need to be a part of the solution to homelessness, according to McCann.

“First and foremost, the city needs to recognize there is a housing crisis in Spokane and do more to mitigate it. When it’s hard for a middle-class person to find an apartment, it becomes even harder for a poor or homeless person to find one,” McCann said. “The only way we’re going to get out of this is start building more housing.”

The homeless are unique in the way society passes judgment on them, McCann argued, comparing it to Catholic Charities’ involvement in an annual toy giveaway to children around the holidays.

“No one has ever called that a handout and put a negative connotation on it,” McCann said.

Altmeyer has a different perspective, arguing that the homeless are “one segment of our society where we reward bad behavior and we expect people to change.”

“When you give, give, give, you take away dignity,” Altmeyer said.

Council President Breean Beggs said the idea that certain providers operate without requiring any personal accountability from those they serve was a “false narrative” proliferated during the election.

“I don’t know of any social service providers that do that,” Beggs said.

Even the city’s barrier-free warming center, operated by Jewels Helping Hands, will remove people for being too disruptive. There are even people who complain that Jewels is too strict, he added.

“There’s not this place where people just shoot up publicly,” Beggs said.

The future

McCann said he’s glad homelessness dominated the election discourse, even if it resulted in some “electricity” directed at Catholic Charities.

“I’ve been waiting every year for someone to make this the top issue,” said McCann, who stressed that Catholic Charities was more than willing – even excited – to work with Woodward.

Though the House of Charity and Union Gospel Mission have different philosophies, McCann is adamant there is room for both, saying “both solutions are solutions” and Union Gospel Mission does “amazing work.”

He pleaded to avoid allowing the conversation to become “one or the other.”

“The constant fight and attack, I wish that would go away. We all have better things to do,” McCann said.

Altmeyer agrees.

“What we have in common is compassion and a desire to help people,” he said.

Beggs believes the stakeholders have more in common than not.

“My main thing is that we have a comprehensive regional plan with enough resources,” he said.