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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Reason for hope on homelessness, if political leaders can seize the moment

A tent city, mixed with RVs, trailers and vans, fills a city block on May 10 at Pacific Avenue and Ray Street. It’s called “Camp Hope,” a homeless camp on empty land owned by the Washington State Department of Transportation.  (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)
A tent city, mixed with RVs, trailers and vans, fills a city block on May 10 at Pacific Avenue and Ray Street. It’s called “Camp Hope,” a homeless camp on empty land owned by the Washington State Department of Transportation. (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)

Two new sources of hope for our homelessness emergency have arrived.

Neither came from the mayor’s office or county commissioners, which is perhaps not surprising. But it will take urgency and action from those local leaders – something that has been in short supply – to make the most of these opportunities and to answer the groundswell of community pressure to make more serious progress.

The first bit of good news is the announcement that $24 million in state Department of Commerce money is available to Spokane County to move campers out of Camp Hope and into housing. That’s the biggest single chunk of money for this problem that we’ve seen in recent history, and it’s targeted toward fast, flexible action.

It also comes with a short deadline: The city and county have a 30-day window to take advantage of it.

The second source of new hope is the appearance of a smart, comprehensive plan, drawing on the expertise of 39 community representatives from a wide spectrum of interests and calling on elected officials to use tens of millions of dollars in unspent federal aid to make specific investments in addressing this problem.

This plan emerged from a series of meetings organized by Empire Health Foundation, which convened people representing a wide range of interests, including government, mental health care, addiction services, housing, business and charities.

Over the course of several meetings, “there’ve been a lot of conversations between and among people who otherwise haven’t been sitting at the same table,” said Zeke Smith, the foundation president.

As the mayor’s incredibly unhurried and still – still! – unformed plan to open a warehouse shelter on East Trent to address a small part of the problem inches forward, the community group’s proposal shows us what a serious, comprehensive, collaborative effort would truly look like.

Smith said the hope is that government leaders will accept the recommendations – generally if not in every specific – but also that it might help to create more effective conversations around finding solutions.

The goal is to answer the question: “How do you build some real momentum?” he said.

State funding

The Department of Commerce initiative is targeted at moving people off rights-of-way across the state, and includes $144 million for five counties. Spokane County, thanks to the 500-plus people camped on state land along Interstate 90, was one of the five.

The proposal offers local governments flexibility in using the funds, so long as key priorities are met: making as many beds available as possible by August; the inclusion of outreach programs to contact people individually and find housing solutions; a focus on moving toward permanent housing, even if the short-term solution is temporary; and a plan for offering support staff.

The goal is to find housing for everyone camping on a right of way, but when efforts to do so are exhausted, people will no longer be allowed to camp there.

The clock is ticking for the city and county, and officials say there are talks under way to develop a plan. We should hope so: Our leaders have left millions in state funding for homeless projects on the table in the past.

If the city and county don’t sign a deal with the state to use the funds within the 30-day window, the state would try to make a deal with service providers or a nonprofit, said Tedd Kelleher, senior managing director of the housing assistance unit of the Department of Commerce.

But it’s also possible the community could lose those resources.

“If a county doesn’t step forward, we could reallocate part or all of their funding,” he said.

Community plan

The Empire Health Foundation proposal builds on ideas and contributions from nearly 40 participants.

It’s not the business community’s plan or the homeless advocates’ plan – it has buy-in from both. It’s not the San Diego model or the Houston model – it proposes taking the best from both.

Crucially, it proposes the funding source: the state Department of Commerce money and the piles of unspent American Rescue Plan Act funds.

The proposal was sent to government leaders of Spokane, Spokane Valley and Spokane County this week.

“We are not telling you how to do your job,” the group’s memorandum says. “We offer our collective, professional advice on taking action to use these once-in-a-generation resources to make the consequential, visible impacts on homelessness our entire region wants and deserves.”

Smith said that the short timeline for the funding sources – as well as the widespread consensus that we are falling behind this problem – make this an urgent moment for action.

The group agreed to a series of priorities, and the top of that list is prioritizing the needs of people on the street and “meeting them where they are” to find solutions. It also calls for investing in a continuum of services for mental health, addiction, housing and safety; fueling the growth of transitional and permanent housing; and creating a system of accurate data for outreach, case management and service professionals.

It proposes that the city use the $24 million of Commerce money to set up a project with pallet homes – prefab tiny-home-like structures with on-site services and case management.

It’s an idea that has been advanced by Julia Garcia, whose Jewels Helping Hands has been involved in organizing and helping homeless people since the initial Camp Hope protests outside City Hall.

It also includes specific breakdowns for using $65 million of the $208 million that local governments have in ARPA funds, including $35.7 million for building permanent housing units; $4.4 million to create and operate a centralized data system; $7 million for mental health treatment; and $4.5 million to minimize the effects of street homelessness with the addition of toilets, water fountains and garbage cans.

Smith said that these line items are suggestions, in the hopes that policy-makers can tailor them more specifically. He also wants the proposal to serve as a template for future collaborative discussions about the issue, and how the community can come together to solve it.

At this point, it’s obvious that solutions commensurate to the problem are not coming from the top down. The mayor’s administration has moved with the speed of a snail while the problem has grown – operating in ways that are often obscure and secretive, coming up with insufficient proposals at a bafflingly slow pace, focusing more on preventing services downtown than providing services of any kind anywhere, and often leaving major players feeling in the dark about priorities and motivations.

And all of that is better than what the county has done.

No, the solutions have to come from the community itself. The Empire Health Foundation plan and the infusion of state money offers us a chance to make major gains in fairly short order.

Let’s hope our leaders take advantage of it.

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