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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Shawn Vestal: A jumble of numbers obscures the need on the street

A man sleeps inside the Spokane Convention Center on Tuesday while seeking shelter from the freezing temperatures.  (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)

Hundreds of people have filled the homeless shelter the city hastily threw together at the convention center to prevent people from dying on the streets in the latest deep freeze.

And, inside at City Hall, the mayor has budgeted money to build a new shelter.

So how, one wonders, can the Woodward administration repeatedly assert there are sufficient beds available in the shelter system?

It is part of a persistently confusing accounting that has accompanied the administration’s feckless response to the crisis of homelessness. Over the contentions of many who work with people on the streets – some of those contentions made quietly by people unwilling to provoke a confrontation with the administration, and some made vocally by homeless advocates who are more than willing to provoke that confrontation – the administration has continually insisted that there are beds available in the system.

Yet: an emergency shelter, thrown together in days upon the forecast of brutal cold, has consistently drawn more than three times the number of beds that the city says are available in shelters.

It doesn’t add up.

Maurice Smith, a documentarian and leader in the Spokane Homeless Coalition, said Monday that some 400 people were sheltered at the convention center on a recent night, and that the group running the shelter was scrambling to hire help. The city’s count shows peak numbers in the mid-300s, and sometimes as few as 150.

Meanwhile, the city’s count of beds available in the system of permanent shelters has shown between 80 and 100 available beds per night.

“So you’ve got four times as many people needing beds as there are available beds,” Smith said this week, “and that’s taking the city’s numbers at face value.”

Smith does not take those numbers at face value, and neither do others who work with the homeless population. They say the number of available beds includes many that are not available for everyone, a point the recent tent camp at City Hall was meant to reinforce.

The administration often produces a shelter-by-shelter spreadsheet to bolster its argument that there are available beds – a spreadsheet that has, on more than one occasion, shown available beds when journalists and others have found there were none when they tried to confirm the figures or reached out to secure housing for someone. The spreadsheets also have shown that there are no shelter beds for certain people – the number of beds available for women, for example, has been zero even on days when the administration says publicly that there are open beds.

There are other limitations with the city’s spreadsheet count, Smith and others argue, most notably the fact that it relies heavily on simply redefining some beds in high-barrier shelters as low-barrier beds – particularly in shelters where some of the most stubbornly chronic homeless men cannot or will not go.

The result is public confusion about how insufficient the system really is, while we tread water on real solutions to the problem.

City spokesman Brian Coddington says that comparing the daily shelter count and the emergency shelter population is an apples-and-oranges exercise. The daily count reflects the numbers at permanent shelters that have limited check-in windows, and they show the count at that one point. The emergency shelter numbers include anyone who dropped in at any time, including many who arrive in the wee hours, however long they remained.

He also said the dissemination of the spreadsheet is not intended to suggest there isn’t a need for more permanent housing – as indicated by the mayor’s proposal to find an out-of-downtown location for a new low-barrier shelter.

“There’s been an acknowledgement that there’s a need for an additional permanent resource,” he said.

Whether this resource can come quickly into reality is a big question for the future.

But the longer-term emergency won’t vanish when the temperatures peak above freezing and the convention center shuts down. The numbers are contradictory and confusing, and they often obfuscate the underlying crisis: We are not meeting the need.

“It underscores the lack of understanding of the homeless community,” Smith said. “They’ve denied the size of the problem over and over again.”