The Spokane City Council set new requirements for the funding and administration of homeless shelters on Monday.
Frustrated by what members have felt is a lack of data and failure to follow existing city law, the City Council ordered the administration to more routinely report the estimated number of unsheltered homeless people in Spokane.
“It’s time that we stand up and start finding a way forward. What excites me most about this is if we can get enough low-barrier shelters and we can start collecting data, we’ll be able to see a pattern,” Councilwoman Karen Stratton said.
The law also forbids the administration from funding high-barrier shelters, such as those that require a guest to be sober, in place of low-barrier shelters, which are free from such restrictions.
The amendments were adopted through an emergency ordinance, which requires five votes to pass but is not subject to the mayor’s veto. It passed by a six-to-one margin, with only Councilman Michael Cathcart opposed.
Mayor Nadine Woodward has vociferously criticized the new law, taking issue with both its content and the speed with which it was passed.
Woodward warned the City Council that the law’s prescriptive nature would limit the city’s flexibility in providing shelter to the homeless. She’s also expressed concern that it could jeopardize the city’s ability to fund programs like The Way Out shelter, a higher-barrier Bridge Housing Program set to be operated by The Salvation Army. The shelter will accept only people who are referred to it based on their perceived readiness for permanent housing.
The Salvation Army operated The Way Out as a low-barrier shelter during the COVID-19 pandemic, but closed it earlier this summer to make renovations before reopening it as a bridge program.
The closure frustrated the City Council, whose members felt the city did not replace the low-barrier beds to the degree required under a law it adopted last year. The intent of the law is to avoid a flood of people being forced onto the street when the city allows a homeless shelter to close.
The law also seeks to increase public information on shelter data, including requiring city-funded shelter providers to input occupancy information into the city’s database. The law would force the city to maintain an online, publicly accessible dashboard of occupancy at various shelters.
Councilwoman Lori Kinnear, who helped spearhead the law’s passage, argued that the city can not prove that it has adequate low-barrier shelter until data demonstrates that need is met.
“These changes are an emergency because we have people living and sleeping in parks, under bridges, and camping in our urban wildland. This is not safe for them, and it’s not safe for us, especially with our current extreme fire danger,” Kinnear said.
Kinnear said it does not favor low-barrier beds over high-barrier beds.
“It makes sure we have the low-barrier beds we need before we replace them with high-barrier beds,” Kinnear said.
The proposal has highlighted fundamental differences in Woodward and council members’ understanding of homelessness, its causes, and the potential solutions for reducing it.
Woodward had objected to the law’s emphasis on counting the city’s unsheltered homeless, as she argues many are resistant to shelter. She’s also criticized the council for moving quickly on an ordinance – originally introduced by Beggs in June – before gathering what she feels is adequate input from shelter and service providers.
Woodward has discussed the issue with Council President Breean Beggs.
“We understand that we need to address this issue, we just are looking at addressing it differently,” Woodward said. “I think he wants to increase shelter and try to meet the needs of everybody out there who might be shelter-averse, and I don’t know how realistic that is.”
It’s an idea that Beggs rejects.
“People are not shelter resistant, they are resistant to particular situations that don’t meet their mental health needs,” Beggs said. “Our job is to understand it, and we can solve it.”
Woodward noted that Beggs has endorsed the creation of organized, city-endorsed places for people unwilling or unable to stay in a shelter to set up tents or park cars. As outlined by Beggs, such places would have amenities like bathrooms.
Woodward objects to the concept, arguing that it has not been successful in other cities.
Beggs acknowledged that the city can’t immediately shelter 5,000 unsheltered people – estimates on the unsheltered population vary wildly – but said “we can make a difference.”
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