Jason Flaming has been homeless for a decade.
“My mom kicked me out when I was 11 years old,” he said.
Flaming, who lives in Spokane Valley, generally avoids homeless shelters. They can be noisy at night, he said, plus he hates communal showers and doesn’t like being around people who use hard drugs. Most importantly, most shelters accept either men or women – not both – which means they won’t let him and his wife stay together.
Still, if there were a safe, drug-free, mixed-gender shelter nearby, Flaming said he’d probably use it.
There aren’t any shelters like that in Spokane Valley, though. The city doesn’t have any shelters at all.
That could change soon.
The Washington Legislature passed a law this year preventing cities from banning homeless shelters. Spokane Valley hadn’t been explicitly banning shelters, but the law is forcing the city to make its zoning regulations less restrictive.
That in turn will make it far easier for a homeless shelter to open in the city. A shelter may not be imminent, but the likelihood of one coming to the Valley is much higher.
“The Valley could definitely use a homeless shelter,” said Adam Hunton, who is currently homeless in Spokane Valley. “That’d be a blessing for the community out here.”
Spokane Valley’s approach to homelessness is changing in other ways, too.
In March, the city hired Arielle Anderson as its first housing and homeless coordinator – and first employee dedicated to homelessness issues.
Anderson is helping the city develop policies for addressing homelessness and also meeting with homeless individuals, both to help enforce the city’s regulations on unauthorized camping and to help people find housing, food and other resources.
Help is coming her way. Spokane Valley recently won a grant that will pay for a worker who will take on some of Anderson’s outreach responsibilities, freeing her up to spend more time on policy.
On top of that, the city tried to get grant money to pay for an additional police officer who would specifically work with homeless individuals. Spokane Valley City Councilman Arne Woodard said that request was denied, but the city is hiring an additional officer anyway.
“We’re working through things that maybe more established communities have already tackled,” Spokane Valley Deputy City Manager John Hohman said. “This is our time to do so, now.”
Troy Rucker, who is currently homeless in Spokane Valley, doesn’t use the shelters in Spokane.
“Getting there is a problem from here,” he said.
Rucker said the trek to Spokane is expensive. He noted that a one-way bus ride from the Valley to Spokane costs $2 per trip now, which he called “outrageous.”
But if Spokane Valley had a shelter, Rucker said he would use it.
“I think it would help a lot,” he said.
Spokane Valley officials say the city’s homeless population has grown in the last three to five years. Anderson estimates there are between 100 and 120 people experiencing homelessness in Spokane Valley today.
As more Valley residents have become homeless, the city’s lack of a shelter has become more conspicuous. Spokane Valley does financially support homeless shelters in Spokane and has four allocated beds set aside for Valley residents – two at Truth Ministries and two at Hope House.
Until recently, city code only allowed for transitional housing in areas zoned for multifamily development.
“It was hard to locate anything here because our code was so restrictive,” Hohman said. “From a practical standpoint, it was just availability of property. There just isn’t anything that would work appropriately.”
Woodard said the city was already working on revising its ordinances even before the Legislature passed the law blocking shelter bans. The new legislation is just speeding up what the city was doing anyway, he said.
“We’re going to have shelters,” Woodard said. “That was never really in doubt.”
The new law specifically states that cities cannot ban shelters in areas zoned for residential use, or in zones that allow for hotels.
There’s a major caveat, however. Cities can place restrictions on shelter density, capacity and type. In other words, cities have to allow shelters, but they get to decide what they look like.
Spokane Valley adopted a set of interim regulations on July 20, just five days before parts of the state law went into effect. The action item was never publicly noticed on the City Council’s agenda. The city is already working on a permanent set of regulations, and will have to adopt those within a year after passing the interim ones.
At their heart, the interim regulations are fairly simple. They say no Spokane Valley shelter can have more than 20 beds and shelters have to be at least 1 mile apart.
Anderson said limiting shelter capacity to 20 beds will make each one far more effective at ending homelessness.
Shelters tend to be overwhelmed, Anderson explained. For instance, several Spokane shelters are full even before winter has begun. Because shelters tend to be overwhelmed, staff don’t have enough time to work individually with every homeless guest.
That’s a problem, because people experiencing homelessness often need lots of help in order to get back on their feet.
“You need someone to walk side-by-side with them,” Anderson said.
Limiting each shelter to no more than 20 beds will help reduce staff burnout and help ensure homeless individuals get the one-on-one help they need, Anderson said.
There’s a common refrain among Spokane Valley City Councilmembers when they’re discussing homelessness. We don’t want to be like Spokane, they’ll say.
And based on the new regulations, Spokane Valley’s homelessness response efforts will continue to differ dramatically from Spokane’s. Some Spokane shelters have more than 120 beds. Plus, Spokane’s homeless services are consolidated in the downtown area, whereas Spokane Valley shelters will have to be at least a mile apart from each other.
“The approach is significantly different than I think others have taken,” Spokane Valley Mayor Ben Wick said in an Aug. 24 public hearing on the interim regulations. “But I think it’s a good one and one that more fits our community.”
Woodard said he generally approves of the interim regulations, although he noted the 1-mile radius rule might allow for too many shelters.
Spokane Valley City Councilwoman Linda Thompson said she thinks the new regulations are a step in the right direction for the city.
“I think we have to take responsibility to address the impacts of homelessness in our community,” Thompson said. “When we can help those who need help most, that helps everyone.”
Outreach and officers
Spokane Valley leaders want outreach to be the main focus of their homelessness response efforts.
“Outreach does more than tell people to leave,” Woodard said. “It puts a face and a name to the (homeless) people.”
Spokane Valley received $100,000 of Homelessness Housing Assistance Act grant funds that will pay for an additional outreach worker. The city may hire a dedicated employee to assist Anderson with outreach or pay someone on a contract basis to do the job.
Wick said Anderson’s job is simply too much for one person to do alone.
“We’re stretching her pretty thin between outreach and also this policy development,” he said. “We need her in both worlds, really. We don’t want to burn her out.”
Right now, Anderson is spending much of her time on outreach, interacting with homeless individuals directly. That makes it tough for her to find time for policy work, Hohman said. He said the city needs Anderson to spend more time putting together thorough plans for tackling homelessness.
For example, the city is working to amend its comprehensive plan in order to include goals for addressing homelessness. Once adopted, the comprehensive plan amendments will help guide the city’s homelessness policies. The city will also be putting together a homelessness action plan. Those are the kinds of projects Anderson needs more time for, Hohman said.
Rucker said giving Anderson more help with outreach could be useful.
“If she needs help,” he said. “It’s a big area for her to cover by herself.”
Spokane Valley is hiring an additional police officer too, who will specifically work on homeless issues. The city’s request for $160,000 of Homelessness Housing Assistance Act funds for that officer was denied, but the position is already in the city’s budget and an additional officer will be joining the Spokane Valley Police Department anyway.
Woodard said adding a police officer is essential in order to keep the city’s outreach workers safe.
Spokane Valley Police Chief Dave Ellis has said it’ll be more efficient to have a dedicated homeless officer. This way the officer won’t have to bounce around to different types of calls, he said.
Flaming, Hunton and Rucker all said an additional officer could be beneficial, but it entirely depends on what the officer will be doing.
Rucker explained that if the officer tries to help people get back on their feet, that would be good. But an officer who just tells homeless people to move, or clean up their mess, wouldn’t be helpful.
“I don’t like getting messed with by the police,” Flaming said. “It’s not that I don’t like the police, but it’s not like I’m doing nothing wrong, do you know what I mean? Just because I’m sitting somewhere charging my [expletive] phone doesn’t mean I’m doing something wrong.”
More helping hands
A shelter isn’t just a place for people to stay, Anderson said.
Shelters can help people get fed and clothed. They can have showers. They can even help connect people with mental health or addiction services.
“That’s why we want people to go to a shelter,” Anderson said. “That way at least all of their basic needs are being met.”
Flaming said that homeless people need more help. People don’t understand how difficult it can be to get off the streets, he said. Getting a job might seem simple to someone who’s never been homeless, he said, but it’s hard for those who lack ID or suffer from mental health issues.
Rucker said having more homeless services in the Valley is important because some homeless people need help even when they don’t seek it out.
“Most homeless folks are stubborn – like me,” Rucker said. “I don’t want to be helped; I want to help myself.”
Providing homeless people with more resources could go a long way, Flaming said.
“I just think that people should give homeless people more opportunities to do right with their lives, instead of drag them down and yell at them on the corner when they’re flying a sign, calling them bums and lazy,” Flaming said. “I’ll tell you what, I’m not lazy. I work every day. I don’t have a job, but I work. I work to keep myself warm and keep myself fed.”
People shouldn’t reduce homeless people to stereotypes, he said.
“The family that I have is not blood at all, it’s people I’ve met that have shown me love,” Flaming said. “Most of them are homeless. There’s a lot of nice-ass homeless people out here that deserve a chance – that should get it. I think a lot more people should realize that.”
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