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Shawn Vestal: Just because you don’t count the homeless doesn’t mean they aren’t there

Sgt. Jason Hartman of the Spokane Police Department walks around soiled bedding inside the Browne Street underpass, which is often a camping spot for homeless people, on Wednesday. The city uses police officers, a litter crew and employees of the Downtown Spokane Partnership to completely clean and sanitize the areas frequented by homeless campers.  (JESSE TINSLEY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Sgt. Jason Hartman of the Spokane Police Department walks around soiled bedding inside the Browne Street underpass, which is often a camping spot for homeless people, on Wednesday. The city uses police officers, a litter crew and employees of the Downtown Spokane Partnership to completely clean and sanitize the areas frequented by homeless campers. (JESSE TINSLEY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

How many unsheltered homeless people are there in Spokane?

The Woodward administration says it does not know. Still, it is convinced that we have enough beds to meet the need – and enough to legally begin trying to sweep people off the streets.

We seem to be operating on a “Field of Dreams” theory of homelessness: If you don’t build it, they won’t come.

Or: If you move them from under the viaduct, they vanish.

It’s been one year since Woodward announced an unexpectedly ambitious and broad approach to addressing homelessness. That plan was surprising for the fact that it included humane, practical ideas – and almost none of the spirit of her mayoral campaign, which relied heavily on the implication that she would use the police to sweep away the problem.

Last week, she issued a progress update. You could read between the lines to see where we are on the spectrum of talk-versus-action – or you could simply look at our streets.

In between last year’s high hopes and this year’s desperate spin, the crisis of street homelessness has grown and we’ve gone from better-than-expected to just what-you-might-have-feared from Woodward: a devotion to not solving the problem.

The progress report included a lot of meetings with regional partners, a lot of talking, a lot of developing of processes. There are a couple of points of concrete action, but it must be noted that the credit the mayor can take for those is pretty limited.

For example, she touted the city’s progress toward opening a new young adult shelter. This shelter was a good idea when Woodward proposed it last year, and it remained a good idea when Woodward put the shelter funding at risk because she didn’t want new shelters in the city limits.

And it was still a good idea when the City Council and community pressured her to reverse course.

Now she’s touting it as one of her accomplishments.

Another positive step in the mayor’s plan is the transition of the Cannon Street warming shelter into a day-use facility during the warm weather that will shift back into shelter mode during the winter. This is great idea – and helping to end part of the now-annual scramble for beds when the snow flies.

It’s also required by a new city law the council passed last summer, which prohibits the closure of shelter services without evidence they’re no longer needed.

It should be said that the pandemic complicated the issue on all fronts. Still, with last week’s update, the mayor who ran on fixing homelessness boasted primarily about how much she’s been talking about it. Then, a few days later, she was out with her plan to expand the cleanup patrols for litter, graffiti and “encampment abatement” – a euphemism for the bum’s rush and a project that seems doomed to become a game of whack-a-mole.

Brian Coddington, the mayor’s spokesman, said this week it’s selling Woodward short to describe her progress as mostly talk, and he made a case that a lot of that talk actually is progress.

Woodward has brought regional government leaders to the table to try and get them to participate in solving the problem and helped broker investments by the county of its CARES Act funding.

The county, and other cities in the region, have long been falling short of their responsibility to share this problem, and getting them to at least begin participating in regular discussions about the problem is positive.

Coddington also noted the impending opening of a new Bridge Housing Program shelter, connecting people to services to help them move off the street. That shelter holds a lot of promise. It also replaces a drop-in shelter, a loss of 100 emergency beds that the city was still scrambling to replace last week.

In addition, he said the city’s tracking system for shelter beds had been consistently showing around 100 beds available for several weeks . (A high proportion of these beds are at Union Gospel Mission, which does offer some low-barrier beds but which is a shelter that many chronically homeless people say they avoid because most stays there require sobriety and other conditions.)

The availability of low-barrier beds is an important figure for the city, because it can only enforce the sit-lie law when there are enough such beds. Lots of people who work with the homeless community said all winter long that they did not believe there were enough beds available.

At the heart of the Woodward approach lies a determination not to add shelter services in the city center. She believes other regional jurisdictions should take up that responsibility, which sounds like a fine idea, but she is willing to let the problem go unaddressed, or try to sweep it under a code enforcement rug, if they do not.

She merely asserts, based on nothing, that more shelter isn’t needed.

Her news release said that, despite the fact emergency shelter use has steadily increased since 2013, it’s better to focus on other services other than “increasing inventory.”

This seems like wishful thinking. The annual “point-in-time” count of the homeless population is a limited measure in the best of times. Teams of volunteers comb the area one January night to find and tally the number of those who are without housing. The statistic is widely believed to be an undercount, and some think it’s a significant undercount.

Still, it’s the best yardstick we have for looking at the population and seeing how it might be changing. This year, a normal survey was made impossible by pandemic protocols, and so the city essentially counted the number of homeless people in the shelter system.

The resulting number, 992, is a measure only of system capacity.

Still, the administration has been hinting that the count shows us the problem is abating. Cupid Alexander, who oversees city homelessness efforts, characterized it to City Council members this way: “What we’re seeing is almost like a flattening.”

The mayor’s news release last week used similar language: “At 992, the number of people counted as sheltered remained relatively flat over the past five years.”

That’s true. Our shelter system has not grown. But you know what has not been flattening at all? Our unsheltered homeless population – the number of people who, on that one January night each year, were living outside.

Ten years ago, we counted 74 such folks.

In 2020, it was 541.

As our sheltered population was “flattening,” the unsheltered population soared, increasing more than sevenfold, and the use of emergency shelters rose year after year.

Does it seem as if that changed in the past year? Is that what your eyes are seeing on the streets downtown and increasingly in the neighborhoods?

And, most important, does it seem like a solid foundation on which to build a “no new shelters” argument?

The unsheltered population, which includes the chronically homeless who are the hardest to help, those with serious mental health and addiction problems, and those for whom there is simply no room at the inn, is probably the most important part of the issue to understand if we’re going to try and meet the need realistically. They are also the ones most intertwined with the litter and public safety angle that most concerns the mayor.

Ignoring them – or moving them off this sidewalk to shuffle over to that one – does not make them disappear.

Contact Shawn Vestal at shawnv@spokesman.com or (509) 459-5431.

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