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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Another lousy, doomed idea to deal with homelessness, as the crisis worsens

Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward takes a question on Wednesday during a news conference on homelessness and updates to Spokane’s sit-lie ordinance.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward takes a question on Wednesday during a news conference on homelessness and updates to Spokane’s sit-lie ordinance. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

So: Criminalizing homelessness is all there is, then.

Following 2½ years of ineptness and inaction on homelessness, Mayor Nadine Woodward has returned to her campaign roots and proposed an incoherent, mean-spirited, politically doomed plan to deploy police to sweep homeless people out of downtown without providing anywhere for them to go – apart from the neighborhoods, that is.

Once this is done – or so the mayor and the downtown wishful-thinking brigade imagine – homelessness will vanish without the need for any more beds.

“We make it easy to be homeless,” Woodward said at a news conference Wednesday, returning to the ignorant, simplistic refrain that has framed her entire approach to the problem.

She aims to make it harder. Her proposal would prohibit camping, or sitting or lying in parks, under viaducts, and anywhere in the downtown business district, among other places. It would remove exemptions, intended to meet the prevailing legal standard established in Martin v. Boise, for homeless people when there is not available shelter – which is every single day and night in Spokane.

Meanwhile, she proposes no sufficient solutions for shelter. In fact, she made it clear that she has given up on the idea of housing solutions at the dog-and-pony show announcing her awful proposal.

“You will never have enough beds for every person who is homeless,” she said.

Why try?

Sounds like a re-election motto.

Re-election is relevant here, because this proposal has more to do with trying to score political points than finding serious solutions. The only possibly good news coming out of it is how politically dead it is. Woodward, in keeping with her general leadership style, hasn’t even pretended to try and build support for it among the City Council, which seems certain to reject this bad idea.

Either she doesn’t understand how to get anything accomplished or isn’t truly trying to accomplish anything, and it’s all a cheap political gimmick aimed to heap criticism onto the City Council when they eventually reject her plan.

In Woodworld, after all, they’re to blame for what’s happening.

Which is absurd. There are around 800 unsheltered homeless people in Spokane, according to the most recent point-in-time figures. That’s probably an undercount. We have all watched this disaster grow while Woodward has stubbornly kept the Titanic sailing straight at the iceberg – refusing to attempt serious solutions, failing to build coalitions, catering to special interests in secret, and clinging to uninformed and ineffective notions about deploying cruelty to drive the problem away.

We are far too deep into this problem for such a lousy proposal. Many serious ideas have arisen from the community, and the city has tens of millions in resources as its disposal. Instead, we get a plan to use cops to drive homeless people out of downtown – and away from the well-heeled supporters of the mayor who see themselves as the true victims of this crisis – and into neighborhoods.

Her plan emerged from efforts to revise the city’s camping and sit-lie ordinances among City Council members. Council President Breean Beggs and Councilmember Lori Kinnear proposed updates that included defining some limited areas, such as under the viaducts, where camping would be prohibited for safety reasons.

Woodward glommed onto an alternative from Councilmembers Michael Cathcart and Jonathan Bingle, and expanded the exclusionary zone to essentially all of downtown, among other spots. Crucially, it removes the exemptions for times when there is insufficient shelter – which, again, is all the time – or for homeless people.

This would seem to directly contradict the controlling legal ruling of Martin v. Boise, which held that cities cannot prohibit camping on city property if they don’t offer sufficient shelter.

Woodward claims to be following Martin v. Boise by proposing to do what it prohibits – banning camping when there isn’t shelter. She and her supporters insist it would be legal, and the loophole they have in mind seems to be that so long as there is camping available somewhere in town – i.e., in your neighborhood – then banning it in huge swaths of town wouldn’t violate Martin.

The very best you could say about that is it’s arguable. It might win in court, but plenty of folks with a solid understanding of Martin doubt it.

At the end of the day, the mayor proposes nothing but moving people from here to there. Her plan is so blatantly insincere that, in attempting to explain it Wednesday, she seemed unaware that she was contradicting herself at every turn.

She said she wants to “push people into assistance.”

Then she immediately acknowledged there aren’t enough services for mental health or addiction, and she surely didn’t propose adding any.

She said she wants to push people into shelters and out of homelessness.

Then she immediately acknowledged there aren’t enough shelter beds to push people into and said we don’t need more.

She said she wants to push people out of homelessness and into a better life – but proposes no mechanism for achieving this beyond a cop and a citation.

She wants to simply push the problem away. There’s no reason on earth to think it will work.

We have a serious problem, and we need serious solutions. Those solutions have to address the camping problem from a foundation of housing.

Instead, we get Spokane’s Nero, fiddling furiously in the firelight.

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