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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Can a whole city go NIMBY? The mayor says yes

The mayor has turned the whole city NIMBY.

In lieu of using almost $3 million in grant money to open a badly needed new homeless shelter for young adults, Mayor Nadine Woodward is insisting that no such shelter be built anywhere in the Spokane city limits. The result will be half-measures taken this year – jerry-rigging the bed availability at existing shelters – while regional leaders try to identify a place for a more permanent shelter with services in Spokane Valley.

Just so long as it’s not in Spokane.

That’s Woodward’s top priority, her bright red line – and it has sidelined the progress toward establishing a true full-service shelter.

This is unfortunate, because there’s a lot of good that such a shelter can do. This is a population – young adults – who may be more open to change than those who have been living on the streets for years.

This is also unfortunate because we are simply not meeting the overall need for homeless services, and the people who will pay the price for this political game of hot potato are those who don’t have a place to lay their heads.

However you count it, our population of people without beds to sleep in exceeds the number of beds we offer. That’s the context in which Woodward has taken the entire city NIMBY.

The first and clearest sign of this is the number of people sleeping on the streets – because our shelters are full night after night. You can crunch the numbers in different ways, but if you take the point-in-time count of over 1,500, a figure that everyone knows is an undercount, we have enough beds for a little more than half of them. The actual shortfall is doubtlessly greater.

The $2.7 million federal grant, spread over three years, is intended to fund a free-standing shelter with services for young adults. It was included as part of Woodward’s regional plan for homelessness, which she unveiled over the summer. That plan had much to recommend it, but as with any plan, the important thing is how it’s executed.

City spokesman Brian Coddington said Woodward’s goal is to avoid concentrating more homeless services in the downtown core. He points out that she has done a good job of bringing regional partners to the table and getting commitments and resources from county commissioners and the Valley council.

He said that this year, officials plan to find new beds to serve the young adult population in existing shelters, and that this meets the grant conditions. Some of those beds will be additional, but some may not, he said – meaning that instead of adding beds, we’ll just label some of them differently.

In the long run, he said, it’s more important that the shelter be done right than done in a rush.

Woodward’s efforts to bring in more support and participation from officials in Spokane Valley and the County Commission – both of which have not carried their part of the burden for years – is indeed a notable achievement. Spokane Valley Mayor Ben Wick said, in a news article last week, that he believes his city is a good place for the young-adult shelter, but that the zoning process will take months and months.

And that can only begin after a location is identified. You know what happens when a location is identified – whenever any location, anywhere on the face of the earth, is identified as a place that will serve homeless people?

Out come the neighbors.

Not here, they say.

Not here, not here, not here.

Not in my back yard.

The desire to avoid adding services downtown may make sense (though it’s also true that spreading services all over the place adds a burden for homeless people that many underestimate.)

However, this city is much larger than the downtown core. Whether we like it or not, we are at the center of the region, and downtown is the place where unhoused people congregate for reasons beyond the fact that the services are there.

If the Valley never steps up to the plate and opens a shelter, it will see a much different consequence than Spokane will. That’s why it has been able to shrug off the problem so long. It might not be fair that we’ve picked up more of the burden than other cities, but it’s also true that in concrete, on-the-ground terms, the problem is more pronounced in city centers.

If the whole city goes NIMBY, it’s very easy to foresee this entire proposal dying the death of a hundred other homeless shelter plans – can’t find a site, can’t make the zoning work, can’t find a neighborhood, can’t, can’t, can’t.

It’s one of the most difficult challenges of establishing homeless services, and it’s hard to overcome it without committed leadership.

When a whole city goes NIMBY, it might be impossible.

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