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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: The City Council should use its power to force a better approach to shelter emergencies

Chancy Jackson, 63, stands with the Ford Taurus he is currently living in, which is also overheating, on Thursday in front of The Patsy Clark Mansion in Browne’s Addition. Jackson said he’s tried to find housing, but the waitlists are long. His Dodge pickup with a slide-in camper – his go-to shelter – recently was stolen.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
Chancy Jackson, 63, stands with the Ford Taurus he is currently living in, which is also overheating, on Thursday in front of The Patsy Clark Mansion in Browne’s Addition. Jackson said he’s tried to find housing, but the waitlists are long. His Dodge pickup with a slide-in camper – his go-to shelter – recently was stolen. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

If the mayor won’t do it, the City Council should.

If the mayor repeatedly fails to prepare for predictable weather-related emergencies for homeless people, the City Council should force her hand.

If she won’t try to get a truthful assessment of the number of unsheltered people on the street, the City Council should require that she do so.

If her chief tool in dealing with homelessness is to strategically apply suffering rather than services, the council should use its authority to intervene.

The honeymoon is over at City Hall. Conflict and communication breakdowns between the council and the administration are flourishing again. The administration is stonewalling the council in a high-handed, officious manner – as demonstrated in a piece in last week’s Inlander – and it has been swamped with chaos, high turnover and chronic understaffing in the department dealing with the homeless response.

That’s the reality behind a new push to drag Mayor Nadine Woodward – not quite kicking and screaming, but close – toward a more thoughtful, compassionate approach to emergency services for the homeless when it’s too hot, too cold or too smoky.

If the proposal seems aggressive, it is. It marks an assertion of council authority on a matter that has tended to be left to the administration. But under the City Charter, the council makes law and policy, and the administration carries it out. There is no reason that the elected members of that body should not use their authority if they deem it necessary.

The continual failure to properly prepare for the predictable emergencies of cold weather, hot weather and smoky weather – all of which can be life-threatening – makes it necessary. The no-services approach of criminalizing homelessness makes it necessary.

If we needed a reminder of the urgency involved, it came this week with the news that 20 people died of heat-related causes last week, a figure that is expected to climb. Most of those people were in homes without air conditioning, but the conditions are clearly dangerous for those without shelter.

The council proposal is simple and humane and overdue. It is a sad sign, if not surprising, that it rouses such passionate opposition from the mayor, her major funders and those who want to treat the chronically homeless as weeds – to use the metaphor offered in a meeting Wednesday by Union Gospel Mission’s executive director, Phil Altmeyer.

On Monday, the City Council will vote on a proposal to amend the city ordinance on homelessness offered by Council President Breean Beggs.

The amendments would:

• Require the city to provide sufficient shelter in extreme weather for the city’s unsheltered population.

• Establish temperatures and air-quality levels at which this requirement kicks in.

• Set a deadline of Sept. 30 for the administration to come up with annual plan for emergency shelter and make it public.

• Require the city to ensure there is enough basic, low-barrier shelter for the homeless population before funding new high-barrier, conditional-shelter projects.

• Prevent the closure of low-barrier shelter unless there is a demonstrated lack of need.

• Establish as city policy the goal of ending chronic homelessness through an approach that offers a variety of services for people in different circumstances, but based on the goal of providing enough shelter for every unsheltered human being in the city.

These proposals, and particularly that final one, fly in the face of the street-sweeping, weed-pulling approach favored by the mayor.

Beggs is treating this as an emergency, with a vote scheduled for Monday following a public hearing. He initially introduced it at a June 28 meeting, then delayed bringing it forward again at the mayor’s request. It is now on Monday’s agenda for a vote – which the mayor says is moving too fast, though her concerns are clearly more substance than speed.

Beggs’ proposal was motivated by years of administrative bungling and indifference to providing protection from weather emergencies, a problem that predates Woodward, as well as frustrations over what seemed to be half-hearted efforts to prepare a response to the recent heat wave.

The mayor responded by organizing a strange, hasty public hearing that had all the markings of a show trial, intended to produce the impression of a massive public outcry against it.

The meeting was announced with not quite 24 hours’ notice. It was set at the very time that the city’s board overseeing homelessness meets – which just so happened to mean that many people with knowledge of the issue could not be there.

Key supporters of the Woodward approach were on hand, however, prepared to offer brisk, confident views that homeless services cause homelessness; that the homeless have overtaken the city; that we should move all shelters out of downtown; that we should not become Seattle or Portland; that “these people” don’t really want, or deserve, help; that the real problem is addiction and mental illness … .

As usual, the addiction and mental illness claims are made not to propose that we try to tackle those problems, but as arguments against sheltering people who have them.

If the idea was to create a wave of opposition, however, it backfired. Homeless advocates showed up in numbers and dominated the discussion.

Almost all the testimony concerned broader questions of homeless policy, not the specific measure at hand. It was former council president and Woodward’s opponent in the last mayoral campaign, Ben Stuckart, the chairman of the regional Continuum of Care board overseeing homeless funding, who cut to the simple heart of things.

The city has taken in some $80 million in federal pandemic emergency funds in the past two years, he noted. It would take about $400,000, he estimated, to meet the requirements of the proposal, which seeks to save human beings from suffering and dying in extreme weather.

Not so burdensome. Not so unreasonable. Unless your preference is not to do it at all.

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