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Spokane City Council eyes second round of changes to homeless shelter laws as mayor, councilor remain at odds

UPDATED: Fri., July 23, 2021

Mayor Nadine Woodward stands with county commissioners Al French, left, and Josh Kerns on July 19 in The Gathering Place beside Spokane City Hall. Woodward doesn’t agree with the second half of a proposal regarding homeless shelter capacity that faces a vote Monday by the Spokane City Council.  (Jesse Tinsley/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Mayor Nadine Woodward stands with county commissioners Al French, left, and Josh Kerns on July 19 in The Gathering Place beside Spokane City Hall. Woodward doesn’t agree with the second half of a proposal regarding homeless shelter capacity that faces a vote Monday by the Spokane City Council. (Jesse Tinsley/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Mayor Nadine Woodward and Spokane City Councilwoman Lori Kinnear both bristle at the thought of a person camping on public property.

But they fundamentally disagree about why that person is likely living there, and what the city should do about it.

Kinnear is a leader of the City Council’s push to ensure that Spokane provides enough shelter space for the homeless by amending city law to require it.

Woodward believes capacity isn’t the problem, but that many people living on the street are simply resistant to the idea of living in a shelter and abiding by its rules.

The two outlooks are set to collide Monday when the City Council is expected to vote on Kinnear’s proposal.

If it passes over Woodward’s objections, the law would have a substantive impact on the city’s homelessness response. It’s the second half of a two-piece amendment passed in the wake of a deadly heat wave in June, and it’s partly a consequence of the fruitlessness of the City Council’s pressure on the administration for more data on homelessness in Spokane.

The debate over the council’s proposals has highlighted the gap between the City Council and mayor’s philosophies on homelessness, which had largely remained under the surface as the city’s focus during the pandemic was providing safe shelter.

The new law would prohibit the city from directing funds from readily accessible low barrier homeless shelters and toward high-barrier shelters, such as those that require their guests to be sober.

It would require the city to maintain a publicly viewable online dashboard of nightly shelter capacity. The city would require any city-funded shelters to report real-time data into the city’s homelessness database and pay those shelters for their effort.

The law also would force the city administration to provide the council with a quarterly estimate of the number of people who are sleeping without shelter and collect demographic information about them.

That’s key, according to Kinnear, to determining whether Spokane has enough beds to meet the needs of its homeless population.

Everybody shares a goal of ending camping on public property and sleeping in doorways, City Council President Breean Beggs argued. The solution is to have people inside in shelters.

“You first need to know what the scope of the problem is, how many people there are and what their demographic is,” Beggs said. “We knew that young adults weren’t using the shelters, so we created a young adult shelter and, voila, young adults started using shelters.”

The entire proposal is an amendment to an existing city law that seeks, in part, to prevent the city from closing low-barrier homeless shelters without replacing its beds elsewhere. If the city allows low-barrier shelters to close without a backup plan, people wind up on the street, Kinnear said.

“They’re not going to disappear, and I think that is disconnected for people who are saying don’t provide more shelter,” Kinnear said. “You’re going to create more of a problem for yourselves and the community.”

To Woodward, the number of people living unsheltered should not be a marker by which the city establishes shelter capacity. It’s not a number that reflects how many people are unable to attain shelter, as she believes many are living unsheltered by choice, and it’s “just not a number we’re confident with,” Woodward said.

The administration regularly points to reports showing there are dozens of beds available across the city on any given night.

But City Council members and homeless advocates often note that there are not beds available for every type of person. For example, on July 5 there were more than 150 beds available, according to the city’s capacity report. But only 54 of those beds were low-barrier, and of those, none were open to adult women.

“When people say ‘shelter resistant,’ to me they’re resistant to the shelter options that they have,” Beggs said.

City Council members remain frustrated with the closure of the 102-bed Way Out Shelter, which will reopen as a high-barrier shelter later this year, and the city’s plan to replace those beds.

“They somehow interpreted a loophole,” Beggs said of the administration. “I think it’s illegal that they closed that down, so we’re fine-tuning (the law).”

Woodward expressed concern that people who are homeless come to Spokane because recreational marijuana is legal in Washington, there are free meal programs in Spokane, it’s “easy to get on welfare” and some service providers even hand out free sleeping bags.

Spokane’s 2020 regional Point in Time Count found that 72% of people experiencing homelessness in Spokane County were last permanently housed in the city or Spokane County.

Woodward favors high-barrier shelters and supports programs that would employ people who are homeless, she said. She has voiced concern that the council’s ordinance would jeopardize funding for the high-barrier programs like The Way Out Shelter, despite council members’ assurances that it would not.

“My philosophy is we need to get help to people who want help,” Woodward said.

The proposed ordinance is also overly prescriptive, she has argued, and will impede the city’s ability to be flexible in how it provides shelter.

Woodward has objected to the speed with which the City Council plans to adopt the law. Beggs introduced it in June, but agreed to temporarily hold off at the administration’s request. The bill was later cleaved in two, with the first half adopted by the council earlier this month.

Woodward feels that the council has moved too fast, and without gathering input from stakeholders like shelter providers – with whom she’s met twice in recent weeks.

“These are resolutions with lots of implications and we need to be thoughtful about how we plan,” Woodward said. “There’s no need to rush into something … we just need to get as many people at the table as possible and talk about this.”

Beggs countered that the proposal is the result of years of discussion with service providers. He agreed to delay the ordinance for several weeks to allow Woodward time to make specific recommendations, but she hasn’t.

“If you just don’t like it and we have the votes to pass it, why should we delay?” Beggs asked.

Woodward told The Spokesman-Review that because she disagrees with the framework and process behind the ordinance, she won’t be making line-item edits or proposals of her own.

If adopted with a five-member majority Monday as an emergency ordinance, the law will not be subject to Woodward’s veto.

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