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Shawn Vestal: The mayor’s smart, timely homeless plan arrives as a welcome surprise

Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward, left, and Lisa Brown, Washington state’s Commerce Director, meet and greet before a tour of the temporary shelter for the homeless on March 30 at the downtown Spokane Public Library.  (DAN PELLE)
Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward, left, and Lisa Brown, Washington state’s Commerce Director, meet and greet before a tour of the temporary shelter for the homeless on March 30 at the downtown Spokane Public Library. (DAN PELLE)

I did not see this coming.

Mayor Nadine Woodward – along with her administration team and regional partners from the county and Spokane Valley – has come up with a good, and maybe great, plan for dealing with homelessness in the city.

At the very least, it marks a big step forward in planning, preparation and strategic thinking for the city, which has botched its homelessness response in recent years, and it also has produced a giant leap forward in securing commitments from other local governments to help carry the burden.

Woodward said the regional collaboration was to some degree a result of the cooperative regional response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced a sense of shared mission into officials and agencies that often operate separately.

“It’s not about me,” she said in an interview Tuesday. “It’s about what we can do with our regional partners.”

To a large degree, though, it is about Woodward, who came into office with homelessness as a top issue. It often seemed, to many involved with helping homeless people, that she ran against the homeless – ran on it as chiefly an issue of blight, not human need. I had a lot to say about that, over the course of several columns; I would never have predicted a plan like the one she presented to the City Council last week.

But there it was: smart, strategic, timely, hopeful.

The plan would expand the current winter-only contract for emergency shelter at the Cannon Street site to a year-round agreement, using the facility for day services in the summer.

It would open a bridge shelter targeted at those most ready for services and assistance to move toward permanent housing. It would add a new shelter for young adults – part of an overall strategy of microtargeting different subsets of the homeless population with tailored interventions. It has identified a replacement for the temporary shelter beds at the Spokane Arena that we have relied on during the coronavirus pandemic, as that contract expires.

It contains – at least thus far – no plans for the police to give jail-or-involuntary-drug-treatment ultimatums to homeless people, as Woodward proposed during her campaign, nor does it broadly set up barriers to housing, such as drug testing, in the name of “accountability,” though the bridge shelter would have such requirements.

She even, in presenting the plan to the City Council, used the words “low barrier” – the key verbal signal for housing-first policies against which she often seemed to be running directly.

Also important: Woodward unveiled the plan last week instead of following the recent pattern of scrambling for shelter space as the temperatures dropped.

Finally, we are now seeing the most progress – ever – in the city’s attempts to bring Spokane County, Spokane Valley and other local governments into meeting their responsibility to help with this problem. On Monday, the County Commission agreed to buy a building for a new regional shelter that the city would operate, and which other regional governments would help fund.

That is a feat of persuasion for which Woodward deserves a lot of credit.

This is good news for the city. Homelessness remains a crisis for those who are living through it and a multifaceted challenge for governments, and one that may grow as the pandemic wreaks havoc at the lower ranges of the economy.

I don’t believe candidate Woodward offered much of a preview for what Mayor Woodward has helped to produce here. She said Tuesday, though, that her key principles have not changed.

“I’ve always said and believed we need to get people the help they need to get off the streets and out of being homeless,” she said.

Also unchanged, she said, is her conviction that accountability is important, as is regional collaboration.

“This is something we need to do as a region, and not just as a city,” she said.

She acknowledged she’s learned more about the system, about what’s possible and about the need for government involvement.

“I’m still learning, six and a half months into being in office,” she said.

The plan Woodward presented to the council is a result of months of regular meetings among officials from Spokane, Spokane Valley and the county. I can’t say the resulting approach is perfect or even sufficient to the need; the pandemic and social distancing requirements have changed our lens on how much space is needed for shelter, dramatically.

City Council President Breean Beggs, who praised the plan overall, suggested in the meeting last week that our region still needs millions more to house those who need it. Others are pressing the city to do more on services such as bathrooms or shower facilities and other services.

Also, the plan repeats what strikes me as a mistake from earlier years – a goal of ending homelessness in five years. It would be pretty to think that’s possible, wouldn’t it? The array of complicated social factors involved should humble anyone claiming they’re going to “solve” homelessness, especially right now.

Still, in terms of forethought, strategy and regional inclusiveness, this is the most promising strategy to come out of City Hall in a long while. At last, 2020 produced a happy surprise.