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Shawn Vestal: McCann chooses to step outside the argument and focus on the possible

A medical team with members from Gonzaga University, Washington State University nursing schools, Medical Reserve Corps and the Spokane Regional Health District, wheel in Moderna COVID-19 vaccination supplies to the House of Charity to give the second dose to HOC clients on March 2, 2021, in downtown Spokane. Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward announced on Monday, April 27, 2022, that the House of Charity plans to move its shelter to a new facility outside of downtown Spokane.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Six years ago, the mayor of Spokane and other leaders stood in the House of Charity and talked about creating a city where every human being who needs a place to sleep can find one, at any hour of any day.

The House of Charity, the shelter operated by Catholic Charities on the east end of downtown, was the center of that effort.

On Wednesday, another mayor – with a different set of priorities – all but popped a bottle of champagne to celebrate the fact that the shelter would be leaving downtown, to be replaced by an expanded shelter somewhere else.

Where would the shelter be going? How would its services be replaced and how would the challenge of fitting into a new neighborhood be negotiated?

Mayor Nadine Woodward didn’t say.

Somewhere else, that was the main thing.

Somewhere else, that was the real triumph.

Not downtown.

The refusal to consider the most logical, central locations for homeless services has been the main goal of this administration’s response to the crisis (along with her belief, recently restated, that we need to stop making homelessness so darn comfortable.) All the other bullet points in her plans seem of little importance next to that one. Her announcement, during the State of the City address Wednesday, reflected this, as did the way the East Trent shelter proposal was unveiled.

Both came with few details except the important one: Not downtown.

Rob McCann, the head of Catholic Charities and the target for years of anti-homeless attacks, can see which way the wind blows as well as anyone and so he has decided to do as much as he could within that reality.

That means, in a year or so, his organization will open a new 300-bed shelter with larger grounds and more options for people who stay there, including hospice care and the chance to keep their pets with them.

McCann said the city has committed to paying the cost of building the new facility, which could range from $11 million to $13 million, and covering operating costs for five years, as well as guaranteeing bus access to and from the location to downtown.

He understands that many will celebrate the shelter’s departure for all the wrong reasons, and that some will be saddened by the move as a capitulation to those who believe that sheltering homeless people causes homelessness.

But he doesn’t want to stay stuck in that battle while the problem worsens, he said. What he wants Catholic Charities to do is help people who desperately need the help – and to that end, he’s doing what he thinks is possible.

“We would obviously prefer to be downtown, but in the real world I have to be cognizant of the fact that there is a very real spirit of fear and anger toward the homeless,” McCann said. “We’ve decided we can do more good for more people, and protect more people, and maybe change that atmosphere of fear and anger, by moving to a different location.”

The House of Charity has served the homeless for decades at its location on West Pacific. It has operated as a low-barrier shelter, a no-questions haven for people with nowhere to go, and served thousands upon thousands of meals. It offers respite care for medical needs, and other services intended to move people toward permanent housing, including the impressive array of Havens – the permanent supportive housing projects that Catholic Charities operates. The House of Charity now sleeps about 135 people.

The shelter has frequently been the target of complaints, and sometimes more personally nasty attacks as well. It’s true that the site has often been overwhelmed by the size of the problem – as the site of last resort in a city lacking sufficient services – and that there have been crime and safety concerns.

Catholic Charities has hired its own security teams to try and manage those problems, and tried to be a good neighbor in responding to complaints, McCann has said in the past.

It has not made much of a dent in the views of some – including some of the loudest voices in the downtown community over the past couple of years.

And it has not eliminated the fact that the shelter isn’t big enough to handle a problem that is growing even as we argue about it.

“We’re not doing this to placate the angry, loud voices that have been begging us to stop serving the homeless for years,” he said. “What we have to do is the next new thing to keep people alive.”

McCann doesn’t want to say where the new shelter will go, but there are three potential locations owned by Catholic Charities that are shovel-ready. He says he wants to engage with neighbors before the plans become public; it’s understandable, though probably impossible, that he would want to avoid conflict and controversy, but the last thing this solution-starved community needs is more vague plans about what may happen months from now.

In the meantime, McCann said he wants to step outside the arguments and do more to help. In a perfect world, he would not address the crisis with a 300-bed shelter, but with six 50-bed shelters spread through the community. (This is similar to the thinking of critics of the mayor’s 250-bed proposal on East Trent, including City Council members who are asking Woodward to rethink it.)

But this isn’t a perfect world, and we can only stay stuck in the same old arguments for so long, he said.

“If you’d asked me two years ago, I’d have said no way, we’re not giving in to the anger and fear,” he said.

Now, though, “we have to figure out how to pick our battles in order to save people’s lives.”

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