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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Mayor’s new shelter budget is a just one step, but it’s promising

Mayor Nadine Woodward, center, stands with county commissioners Al French, left, and Josh Kerns in July. Woodward released an early draft of her budget proposal on Monday calling for more spending on homeless shelters.  (Jesse Tinsley/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Mayor Nadine Woodward, center, stands with county commissioners Al French, left, and Josh Kerns in July. Woodward released an early draft of her budget proposal on Monday calling for more spending on homeless shelters. (Jesse Tinsley/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

The good news is that Mayor Nadine Woodward has proposed building a new emergency shelter to address the number of people living on the streets and the possibility that an already-dire problem could worsen.

There is a long way to go, and many concerns and obstacles sure to arise, before the city finds a location, builds a shelter, and begins putting bodies into beds. And there are obvious pitfalls onto which a skeptic might latch, some conditions imposed by the mayor that might undermine the shelter’s effectiveness, and other signs at the front end that might give pause – a major one being the Exodus-like exodus of employees in Woodward’s administration, a crisis that is imperiling work on all homeless efforts right now.

Still, given how unlooked-for this was from Woodward – who has so far reduced the number of low-barrier beds during a time of rising need – let’s appreciate it for what it is: a positive first step toward meeting a serious need.

It will take many more steps before we get there, as city spokesman Brian Coddington acknowledges.

“It’s going to be a difficult ask,” he said. “It’s going to be a difficult project to move forward.”

In the mayor’s proposed budget for next year, she has included $4.3 million for a “rapidly constructed navigation center” that would be low-barrier, include wraparound services for things like behavior health and addiction, and work with the people who stay there to move on toward the next step in getting off the streets.

About $1.5 million would come from American Rescue Plan Act Funds, and $2.8 would come from an affordable housing fund of sales tax revenues. The idea is to bring in regional partners from other governments, service providers and private actors to bring it to life, staff it and make it work.

There are almost no details established yet, including a timeline, location or number of beds. The plan is to find a place to put up, as quickly as possible, a shelter on a piece of land that is not in the downtown core. Avoiding downtown services has been a chief goal of the mayor’s – and the increasingly active anti-shelter business owners downtown – so this is not a surprise.

It might be an obstacle to effectiveness, however; there are many reasons that people congregate in the center of the city, including the fact that it’s where so many of the related services are located, and attempting to shuffle homeless people off to a distant site adds a degree of difficulty to the entire process.

Coddington said finding the right land will be important, because it will need to be near transportation and in a spot where services will be accessible or can be brought in.

“The vision would be something that could be erected fairly quickly on a piece of property so we can get something stood up in relatively short order,” he said.

The plan is to build a structure that is between a brick-and-mortar building and a temporary shelter – a building that could go up quickly, be adapted or even moved, and be suitable for cold weather.

There will be inevitable challenges from neighbors and other competing interests. There will be inevitable pushback from the no-services crowd, who seem committed to the idea that all we lack is a tough-enough police response. This is where questions about the mayor’s commitment to this project, and the consequences of the staffing crisis in her administration, might come into play.

Pushing any kind of homeless shelter forward is a tall order; the last administration, after encountering opposition to one proposal, basically gave up. Working to resolve the many forces that are arrayed against such projects – and the inevitable resistance from anyone who lives or works around such projects – will take dedicated leadership.

Given the mayor’s reluctance to add services and her past resistance to adding low-barrier shelters, will she be the one to drive the project with the kind of commitment required?

Coddington says she is.

“She’s demonstrated first and foremost that she doesn’t give up,” he said. “That’s a big piece of being a leader. … She’s also shown incredible flexibility.”

He noted that she has established important, ongoing relationships with partners in regional governments, and has changed course when she encountered better ideas.

The staffing shortfall among the people who work on homeless projects is, meanwhile, a huge problem. The departures have been coming steadily. In one case, the director of Neighborhoods, Housing and Human Services, Cupid Alexander, resigned while bluntly criticizing the administration’s failure to support his department and accusing city administrator Johnnie Perkins of racism. An internal investigation into those accusations is expected to be released in the near future.

In the last two weeks, an additional three employees announced they were leaving the city’s homeless team – literally emptying the department that works on this issue at City Hall.

Won’t this hamstring efforts to move forward with this project?

Coddington said that, while the staffing shortage is affecting operations and the city is responding to it by creating “strike teams” to handle the workload, with regards to this particular project, it shouldn’t be directly harmful to efforts to move the shelter forward.

“They’re obviously important in terms of how we allocate money and ensuring that it’s tracked appropriately,” he said of the empty positions.

But at this stage of the shelter project specifically, he said, those vacancies won’t be a big drawback.

The need for more low-barrier shelter in the city – shelters that take in people even if they don’t go to group prayer or get sober – has been glaringly obvious. To date, Woodward’s administration has reduced the number of these beds, in favor of the accountability programs she prefers. Those are fine programs, but helping the easy-to-help won’t really address the main problem, which is complex and large, and which includes people suffering from a variety of problems for which we offer very little help, and which includes some people who are resistant the options we do have.

It’s a huge, difficult problem, and it grows out of long-standing cultural and socioeconomic factors. Anyone who thinks they’ve got it figured out is likely wrong.

The first step, though – the very first step – is not complicated: If you want people off the streets, give them somewhere to go. You’ll have to accept that they may not be ready to leap straight from life on a cardboard box under the viaduct to prayer groups and jobs training. That step might need to come later, however frustrating we might find it.

First things first. Get people a bed, a place to be other than the places you don’t want them to be. Begin to form relationships and discover what people need. And then begin working with them to move in that direction.

This is the notion behind the emergency shelter in the mayor’s budget – a navigator station.

It’s only one step. But it’s pointed in the right direction.

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