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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: In the midst of a homeless crisis, city ignores millions for possible solution

 (City of Spokane)
(City of Spokane)

The state handed out millions of dollars in September to help communities quickly buy and stand up homeless shelters and affordable housing to offset the housing emergency.

The city of Vancouver received more than $5 million to add 62 shelter beds.

King County was awarded $9 million to provide 84 shelter beds.

A West Side nonprofit was awarded more than $25 million for 161 units in permanent supportive housing.

Spokane received zero dollars and added zero beds to a system that is obviously, visibly insufficient. Neither the city government, nor the county government, nor any other government in this area asked for any.

This month, the state will distribute another $50 million-plus to help communities quickly add shelter beds.

Spokane will again receive zero dollars and add zero beds, having once again not asked for any money to do so.

There won’t be a Phase 3. So many other communities applied for the emergency fund the Legislature created that there won’t be any left after the second round.

Thus passes another chapter in our city’s homelessness saga, in which statis, inaction, foot-dragging and outright hostility to services has us frozen in place. We are entering another winter in an embarrassingly long stretch of winters in which we have far too few beds for thousands of unsheltered people.

It is a failure to which we have simply grown accustomed, while the mayor and the downtown business class work in service of a priority of preventing any new services downtown.

Just check the viaducts to see how that’s going.

The state Department of Commerce is making grants to communities to purchase hotels or apartment buildings that could be quickly rehabbed to put people in beds. The grants required a quick turnaround of 90 days. Cities or nonprofits have to handle operating costs going forward.

Mayor Nadine Woodward’s much-touted regional collaboration did not produce any application to seek these funds. It wouldn’t have been easy, necessarily, but other jurisdictions in the state managed it and are benefiting. Surely there would be properties in this city, or the Spokane Valley, or the county at large, that would fit the bill and help get more people out from under tarps and cardboard boxes relatively quickly.

Catholic Charities realized in late summer that there was this opportunity and it wasn’t being pursued, so it made its own effort to pull together an application. The City Council committed $350,000 in support, but Woodward didn’t back it, several people said.

“The council was really supportive, while the mayor never did anything to help, due to lack of staffing and lack of caring,” said Ben Stuckart, who leads the Spokane Low-Income Housing Coalition and was Woodward’s opponent in the 2019 election.

Council President Breean Beggs echoed that critique.

“The mayor’s office, based on my conversations with people in the administration, was not supportive of the Catholic Charities application or the city funding it,” he said.

The Catholic Charities proposal wasn’t funded in the first round, and then the financing didn’t work out for an application in the second round. Rep. Marcus Riccelli, frustrated at the inaction, tried to help rally an application around a different downtown hotel, but it didn’t come together.

Had officials acted early, and had someone in a key position of authority shown leadership, it’s conceivable that we’d be adding beds to help address the problem. Instead, other communities will be moving people off the streets and into shelters, while everyone here continues to complain about the viaduct camps.

“It’s just a failure of leadership in our community,” Riccelli said.

The lack of housing – shelter and low-income units – is an emergency. The mayor, through a combination of ideology and a City Hall staffing crisis, seems to be working on a timeline measured in light-years.

Brian Coddington, the mayor’s spokesman, insists that this is an unfair characterization, and he points to several initiatives that have been a part of the mayor’s overall plan – some of which I acknowledge to have been positive steps. He noted that there have been beds added to the system through the opening of a new bridge shelter, young-adult shelter and the new Hope House.

He also said that Woodward did support the Catholic Charities application.

“There was work done to support the ask and resources identified” in the current proposed budget that would have provided support, had an application succeeded, he said. That was the money the council approved to support the initial application.

In fairness, it’s important to note that Woodward has budgeted for a new low-barrier, drop-in shelter. That’s the kind of project most likely to make a dent under the train tracks. This was, to me, an unforeseen and welcome development, and yet, as many working in the homeless community have noted, it comes with a caveat that could be a poison pill: It can’t be in or near downtown.

Any new shelter is good shelter, but so many of the other services important to homeless people are downtown. The idea of simply herding people outside the city core strikes many who work with that population as naive.

We need a true system, one that identifies the scope of the problem and tries to meet it with coordinated efforts. We need leadership that is forthright about the problem and not invested in fantasies. We need someone with the courage to bring partners together and move them to action, someone with the bravery – if it must be seen as that – to persuade powerful interests arrayed against services that the housing crisis must be met with the simplest, most effective solution: housing.

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