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Ben Stuckart will take leading role in region’s response to homelessness

Mayoral candidates Ben Stuckart and Nadine Woodward speak to the issues facing Spokane during Pints and Politics: The Spokesman-Review’s Northwest Passages Forum in 2019 at the Bing Crosby Theater.  (COLIN MULVANY)
Mayoral candidates Ben Stuckart and Nadine Woodward speak to the issues facing Spokane during Pints and Politics: The Spokesman-Review’s Northwest Passages Forum in 2019 at the Bing Crosby Theater. (COLIN MULVANY)

Former Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart will play a leading role in the region’s response to homelessness.

Stuckart, who left office in 2019 and now serves as executive director of the Spokane Low-Income Housing Consortium, was elected as chair of Spokane’s Continuum of Care Board on Jan. 27.

As chair, Stuckart’s efforts will be intertwined with those of local governments, including the city of Spokane. The Continuum of Care works closely with the city to develop policies and a long-term plan to address homelessness while distributing more than $4 million annually in federal grants.

Working under the guidelines set by the Housing and Urban Development, the Continuum of Care Board consists of local elected leaders, government officials, nonprofit representatives, and people who have been homeless.

In his new role on the board, Stuckart may lean on his experience serving two terms on the City Council.

“Because I know the bureaucracy and I know the individuals in the departments, I’m hoping that it will be a benefit that I can maneuver inside of the different systems a little easier than if I started from the outside,” Stuckart said.

In recent years, the Spokane City Council has deferred to the Continuum of Care and its committees, which make recommendations on how to spend grant money based on “solid, nonpartisan, nonpolitical technical expertise,” said City Council president Breean Beggs.

“Ben has strong qualifications and is an expert in that subject matter, so he’ll be very good on that board,” Beggs said.

The Continuum of Care works to spread resources equitably, Beggs said, adding that its strength is that it represents the entire region, not just the city of Spokane. He credited the Continuum of Care’s experts with highlighting the acute need for a young adult shelter, which is now a priority of the region’s homeless response and a joint effort between Spokane, Spokane Valley, and Spokane County.

Stuckart has already indicated he will focus on long-term planning, which he argued is important given the limited resources there are to address homelessness.

But in the immediate future, COVID-19 will continue to weigh on service providers. Stuckart noted shelter capacity was limited by the need for social distancing and COVID-19 outbreaks have forced providers like Union Gospel Mission to temporarily stop accepting new guests.

“There’s more pressure on the system, and it’s almost out of mind a little bit,” Stuckart said, arguing homelessness was a central issue for the city in 2019 but less so in 2020.

Stuckart, who served as Spokane City Council President from 2012 to 2019, lost a mayoral bid to Nadine Woodward in November 2019 following a campaign largely focused on the city’s response to homelessness.

The two sparred over the city’s policies, with Woodward questioning Stuckart’s embrace of low-barrier shelters.

As a candidate, Woodward implored the city to demand accountability from people who were receiving homeless services and do more than simply “warehouse people.”

Despite their contentious race for mayor, Stuckart told The Spokesman-Review he does not anticipate conflict with Woodward’s administration because “I think they’ve adopted all of my plans.”

A spokesman for Woodward did not immediately return a request for comment on Monday.

The city’s shelter system was upended by COVID-19 shortly after Woodward took office, forcing shelters to implement myriad measures to limit the spread of the disease.

The city’s warming center on Cannon Street remains low barrier, meaning it does not set requirements like sobriety for its guests. So is the shelter purchased by the county last year and operated by The Salvation Army on Mission Avenue, but that facility will transition to a “bridge” housing model following the pandemic. Under the new model, it will serve people only by referral from a service provider who deems them stable enough to begin the transition to permanent housing.

Stuckart replaces Pam Parr, the executive director of the Spokane Housing Authority, who served as the board’s chair for the previous four years.

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