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‘Don’t study the problem to death’: San Diego shares lessons on homelessness as Woodward administration pushes for East Trent shelter

UPDATED: Wed., May 11, 2022

Public and private partnerships should be forged quickly, even if they’re imperfect, to address rising homelessness in Spokane, leaders from the city of San Diego said Tuesday.

“Inaction is no solution,” said Kevin Faulconer, the former mayor of the city of 1.4 million people who described success in reducing San Diego’s unsheltered population through a combination of services and enforcement of camping and loitering laws. “Don’t study the problem to death.”

Faulconer, along with the former head of San Diego’s Housing Commission, spoke to a Spokane crowd of about 200 people as part of a symposium organized by Hello for Good. The Washington Trust Bank-backed business organization was formed to address homelessness in Spokane, to include housing, education, job training and more.

The panel said the approach that worked in San Diego included immediate bridge shelters, which prohibited drug use and other illicit activity, free storage areas to allow people to place their things without fear of them being confiscated by law enforcement and safe parking lots, allowing those staying in campers and recreational vehicles to stay but also be paired with housing and counseling services on-site.

Faulconer acknowledged all those things cost money.

“All things we’re going to talk about today require investment, requires political belief,” he said.

The symposium was held just days after the city of Spokane released its most recent point-in-time count of people considered homeless in the community. According to that count, the number of unsheltered people counted increased from 541 in 2020, the last time a point-in-time count was conducted, to 823 in 2022, an increase of 52%.

The panel was joined onstage by City Administrator Johnnie Perkins, who worked with Faulconer during his time in San Diego. Perkins said San Diego’s success in getting people off the streets and into housing and other assistance programs was predicated on available shelter space, and made an appeal for attendees to support Mayor Nadine Woodward’s efforts to locate a homeless shelter on Trent Avenue.

“We’ve found one on Trent, that is an ideal location,” Perkins said. “Is it the best? No, because there really is no best location. But in terms of meeting the needs of the most vulnerable population, this site is going to do that.”

The Spokane City Council last month voted not to approve a zoning change that would have allowed the shelter proposal to move forward in a building owned by Larry Stone, who is also a member of Hello for Good’s steering committee. Chris Patterson, a former Woodward adviser and Housing and Urban Development regional administrator who is coordinating the Hello for Good effort at Washington Trust, acknowledged Stone’s involvement and said the group supported the Trent Avenue proposal.

“It’s a building that has a lot of opportunities,” Patterson said, adding the site also needed an operator that would not just “warehouse people,” but provide assistance. The symposium closed with a request from organizers to contact city council members by email, and specifically mentioned the Trent shelter.

“There’s a commitment to ensure that will be operating as a good neighbor,” said Katy Bruya, chief human resources officer for Washington Trust.

Spokane City Councilman Michael Cathcart was the only member of the council to attend Tuesday’s symposium in person. Other Spokane City council members cited previous engagements for missing the presentation, but said they were largely supportive of learning more about successful programs for assisting those who experienced homelessness while remaining wary about the Trent proposal.

“The council is supportive of a shelter,” said City Councilwoman Betsy Wilkerson. “My hang-up is it feels like a blank check.”

Faulconer said he tried to sell communities in San Diego on the need to place shelters around town, including large, “sprung” structures provided by the Lucky Duck Foundation, by suggesting they would make neighborhoods cleaner and less prone to crime. Doing nothing, and allowing people to continue living in tents, was not an option, he said.

“I felt so strongly that we were going to get folks off the street and not allow folks to kill themselves in tents on the sidewalks,” Faulconer said. “That’s what happens. The reality is when you’re seeing heroin, methamphetamine, fentanyl, they’re happening in these tent communities, people will die there.”

That includes a 53-year-old man who overdosed on multiple drugs and died earlier this year at Camp Hope, the large homeless encampment near Interstate 90 and Thor Street, according to the Spokane County Medical Examiner’s Office. The drugs contributing to the man’s death, which was ruled an accident, included fentanyl, heroin and meth.

Drew Moser, who grew up in Spokane and is now the executive director of the Lucky Duck Foundation, said the organization began investing in shelters quickly after pivoting to assistance for those experiencing homelessness in San Diego, even as political leaders pushed for permanent housing.

“When you look at the crisis that’s on the streets, it’s not a realistic, immediate strategy,” Moser said. “It’s like telling people on a sinking ship, ‘Hang tight. We’re going to build you some lifeboats sometime in the next three to 20 years.’ ”

Wilkerson said encampment areas, including Camp Hope, have been demonized, though crime and drug use happened in other parts of town, too.

“Crime is happening at Camp Hope. That’s true,” Wilkerson said. “But crime it happening everywhere. To make it sound like we now have a crime-infested location, I’m not going to quite buy off on that.”

Bryson Bigwolf, a 16-year-old who spent his first night at Camp Hope on Monday, said he would use a homeless shelter if one was built. He said he would love to see showers, bathrooms and washers and dryers at a shelter.

He said Camp Hope isn’t safe for children. He said he smelled drugs and a couple people asked if he had methamphetamine his first night.

Helen Klemp has lived on the streets of Spokane for the past decade and now stays at Camp Hope with her pit bull mix, “Mamas.”

“I personally don’t think a shelter’s gonna do anybody any good,” Klemp said. “I think that we should have literally a better version of (Camp Hope).”

Klemp said she doesn’t like being judged and “if I’m in a shelter, I can see the judgment on their face,” she said of shelter employees.

City Councilwoman Karen Stratton said she also had a conflict that kept her from Tuesday’s symposium. She said she’d had good conversations with Patterson and supported bringing ideas to Spokane but questioned the timing, given that the administration already seemed intent on opening a shelter in a specific location and that Hello for Good fully endorsed that proposal.

“All I see is a warehouse that needs work,” Stratton said, adding that Hello for Good’s steering committee included influential and well-to-do members of the community who could also help fund any such work without government involvement.

City Councilman Zack Zappone said he’d requested additional information from Woodward’s administration on the effectiveness of large shelters, and that the data from San Diego might help bolster the argument for a similar system in Spokane. But that hadn’t been shared directly with the council.

“You need to make the case for why this is going to be successful,” Zappone said.

Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs was out of town on Tuesday. He said by phone he supported the Trent shelter and any movement by the administration to get more low-barrier beds – those that don’t require sobriety of their guests, for example – available, though he noted the “devil is in the details” on the project.

“You have to have a shelter bed of some kind to do anything,” Beggs said, noting the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling out of Boise that requires housing options before anti-camping ordinances can be enforced.

“Housing first is the way all the science says this should be done,” he added.

Rick Gentry, former chief executive officer of the San Diego Housing Commission, said his organization was governed by a nonpolitical board appointed by the mayor and the city council. Gentry said he’d joke he had “17 bosses” while at his previous job, where the commission was able to find housing for more than 10,000 families over a seven-and-a-half-year period.

The key, Gentry said, was getting community leaders to “accept responsibility for the problem,” and making citizens realize that shelters, housing and other services needed to exist in communities, even where there may be clamoring from neighbors to put them anywhere else.

“There’s not just accountability in the hearts of the recipients of the programs,” he said. “But also of the larger society, to take care of the most vulnerable, and to provide options and opportunity.

“To sit back in a comfortable, suburban setting, and to say, ‘That’s not my problem, they need to fix it,’ I think is irresponsible,” he continued.

S-R reporter Garrett Cabeza contributed to this story.

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