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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Shawn Vestal: A stray comment, a controversial figure, and the push for a homeless plan draws fire

Tracy and Justice Andino, two of the first residents to arrive at Camp Hope in December 2021 and now the last to leave, pack up their belongings June 8 at the now-closed homeless encampment located on state Department of Transportation property north of Interstate 90 in East Central Spokane.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Four years ago, developer Larry Stone offered his cure for Spokane’s homelessness – and drove a wedge into the political debate about the issue.

In his video “Curing Spokane,” the developer and big-time spender on conservative campaigns unfolded scene after scene of aggressive, frightening homeless people, linked them explicitly to crime and proposed building a big new jail to put them in.

It infuriated homeless advocates and those calling for a housing-based solution to the crisis, while delighting those supporting police sweeps and a heavy reliance on incarceration.

The video became one of many bright lines between then-mayoral candidate Nadine Woodward, who was running on jail-or-shelter ultimatums for homeless people, and then-Council President Ben Stuckart, who argued for treating homelessness as primarily a housing issue. Woodward praised Stone’s video and thanked him for “calling for a stronger, more visible police presence” downtown, and Stuckart criticized it as “embarrassing, inciting and shaming our people to make a political point.”

Spokane hasn’t been “cured,” by any means. But Stone’s prescriptions are alive and well, and he has become a singular figure in our politics of homelessness, one of the most influential and divisive players on the issue, if largely behind the scenes.

He arranged to purchase – and earn $1.6 million in rent on – the beleaguered Trent Avenue shelter, a project where costs have escalated even as its results have been questioned. He’s funneled thousands of dollars in donations to support Woodward’s re-election and other candidates, even as a proposal to raise $1.7 billion in new sales taxes to build a bigger jail and pay for criminal justice programs moves toward a vote.

He is on the steering committee of Hello for Good, a business group that has been a major supporter of a regional homelessness authority, and was an officer in the business association that made loud, continual calls for a faster closure at Camp Hope. And he is the primary funder of a ballot initiative to greatly expand the city’s anti-camping law.

He released another election-season video last week in a similar vein to “Curing Spokane,” which blasted the planned “road diet” on North Division as a project of liberal City Council members who want to force people to ride the bus – when in fact it was supported by public officials across the spectrum.

“He knows how to get people riled up and how to create fear in people,” said City Councilwoman Karen Stratton. “He just throws money to get the drama out there, and the fear and the anger and getting people worked up – and then he disappears.”

It wasn’t surprising, then, that recent statements that Stone had been represented at Hello for Good meetings by one of the three architects of a proposed regional homelessness authority left homeless advocates up in arms – people who support a regional approach in principle, but not if it’s another Larry Stone production.

“We all know we need a regional authority to consolidate things, and we were all so desperate for it that we took it at face value without realizing we were being handed a Trojan horse,” said Maurice Smith, a longtime homeless advocate who worked for a time as camp manager at Camp Hope. “We thought we’d been given a solution, when in reality we’d been given a problem.”

Smith is a documentarian who has made films from a very different perspective than Stone. He is one of many in the service provider community, and on the political left, who felt misled when they heard that Stone had “sent” Theresa Sanders to represent him at meetings of Hello For Good, according to comments made by the group’s co-chair, Katy Bruya.

“It’s tainted the entire process so far,” said Stuckart, who said that on the issue of homelessness, Stone is “wrong on everything he’s done.”

Stone didn’t respond to a message seeking comment last week. Sanders emphatically denied that she was representing Stone during her work on the regional plan or meetings with Hello for Good.

“I don’t represent Larry and he doesn’t represent me,” she said in a text message. “But it is a convenient excuse for the haters who refuse to act on a broken homeless response model.”

The Stone factor is one of several challenges facing the Spokane Unite proposal to create a public development agency, such as STA, to pool resources from local governments and build a unified system to manage homelessness. The plan is moving toward a soft October deadline for the Spokane City Council and Spokane County Commission to vote on whether to proceed.

It’s becoming clear that the very political divisions organizers were hoping to avoid – the divisions built into the response to “Curing Spokane” – are threatening to derail a plan in which so many have placed high hopes.

‘Very little trust’

Gavin Cooley, a former longtime chief financial officer for the city and one of the leaders of Spokane Unite with Sanders and Rick Romero, said that as they have moved from generalities toward specifics, criticisms have begun flying in from all sides.

That’s been discouraging and difficult, but he said the need for a coordinated, collaborative regional response to the crisis is too great to give up.

County Commissioner Amber Waldref said the proposal has entered a “crucial juncture,” with many questions and concerns from many different directions. The elected officials at the city and county each have concerns about the nuts-and-bolts details of the proposal.

Waldref said she views the Spokane Unite proposal as a suggestion that can be modified in an eventual interlocal agreement, and that people should stay engaged in the process even if they have criticisms.

“If this was easy, it would already have been done by now,” she said, adding, “I’m really committed because I believe the regional approach is the best approach. Now we’ve got to get down and dirty into the details.”

Ironically, Stuckart was the first to publicly begin evangelizing for the “Houston model” – two years after he lost to Woodward.

Houston’s creation of a regional authority has been seen as a model to emulate across the country. That governance structure was a crucial element of Houston’s success in driving down homelessness, though its abundance of cheap permanent housing is a major factor, as well – one that isn’t remotely matched in Spokane.

Last year, Stuckart, now the executive director of the Spokane Low-Income Housing Consortium, raised funding – including from the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund – to travel to Houston with Cooley and a documentary team, to make the first in a planned series of videos. Early on, organizers decided Stuckart should not be the public face of the effort.

As someone whose political profile and record make him a divisive figure – not unlike Stone’s, but flowing in the opposite direction – the goal was to avoid politicization and pursue unity around shared goals.

Stuckart said he understood and agreed with that at the time and later, as the Spokane Unite effort was formed. But he now feels that he and homeless advocates have been “left out in the cold” to avoid politicization or because they were perceived as biased – even as the influence of Stone and other power brokers who share his views was not.

As an early proponent of the approach – “It was my idea,” he said – he now says he’s lost faith in the current effort.

“I think the whole process stinks,” he said. “It’s not trustworthy.”

Stuckart and Jewels Helping Hands have filed a lawsuit against an initiative to greatly expand the city’s anti-camping ordinance, an effort funded largely by Stone, arguing the measure is illegal under state laws that grant authority over homelessness programs to municipal governments.

Current City Council President Lori Kinnear said the disclosure of Sanders’ connections to Stone added to her questions about what else is going on behind the scenes and whose voices are being heard – and whose are not. Stratton said she was concerned that the regional push has not been transparent, has been rushed and has excluded input from service providers.

“I still have people coming to me saying, ‘They’re not listening to us,’ ” she said. “I have very little trust in their plan.”

Councilman Michael Cathcart said he has a different set of concerns about the regional push – including “a significant lack of communication” that has left him with myriad questions and the promise to reduce homelessness by 40% without presenting a specific plan.

If there’s a plan to meet such an ambitious goal, he said, “you better share that with the community.”

‘Out with the bathwater’

On the question of Stone’s involvement, Cathcart and several others noted that there are political associations and differences of opinion throughout the community, and that the idea these associations could be kept out of it were never realistic.

Cathcart pointed out that the principal players in Spokane Unite have political leanings in both directions.

“Theresa endorsed and gave to the mayor. Gavin endorsed … Lisa (Brown),” he said. “I think that all goes out with the bathwater.”

Those who defend Stone’s efforts as positive and community-minded tend to point across the divide and accuse Stuckart, Jewels Helping Hands, the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund and others as nefarious schemers – though they have not been accused of secretly pulling the strings on Spokane Unite or Hello for Good.

Chris Patterson, co-chair of the Hello for Good steering committee, has little patience for what he sees as conspiratorial concerns about Stone’s involvement. He said the region faces an urgent call to do something unified on homelessness.

He said any collaboration is bound to involve people who disagree with each other.

“I don’t care if it’s Larry, I don’t care if it’s Don Barbieri … I don’t care if Ben Stuckart’s involved – I only care that we get it done,” he said. Don Barbieri is a former hotelier who once ran for Congress and has helped fund progressive causes.

Patterson, Cooley and Sanders all said that Stone has not been active in Hello for Good meetings, though he is a member of the steering committee.

But Patterson said Stone has been “generous” in his help for Hello for Good and in purchasing the Trent property for the city’s new shelter, and that the developer is trying to use his resources to help the community.

‘No Plan B’

Most members of the City Council don’t see the Trent shelter deal as an example of generosity.

“I look at it and think, ‘Oh my God, we got hosed,’ ” Kinnear said.

The complicated arrangements around the way the warehouse was identified and the purchase was structured have been the subject of continual debates at City Hall.

Stone purchased the property immediately after the Woodward administration proposed it as the shelter site, and he raised the rent on the property significantly. The city agreed to a five-year lease of $1.6 million and has since been on the hook for annual costs of $13 million – including $1.4 million in improvements such as bathrooms and showers for a property the city doesn’t own.

Simply finding enough money to keep the shelter going has been a serious challenge.

Cathcart said the city doesn’t know how it will even pay for the Trent shelter in 2024.

When the deal was first proposed, it included an option to buy. Council members later sought to exercise that option rather than continue to spend money to improve a facility the city doesn’t own, but Stone set a purchase price of roughly twice the appraised value.

Beggs, Kinnear, Stratton and others on the council have said they felt they had no choice but to approve a deal that had been orchestrated in the dark. Winter was approaching, Camp Hope was growing and there was no alternative in sight.

Kinnear said the council felt, “We’re stuck. There is no other option. There is no Plan B.”

Range Media recently reported that Sanders had been part of a tour of the property in March 2022 with the mayor, council members and a representative of Stone’s company. At that time, Stone had not yet bought the building – he did so shortly thereafter.

In a $500 donation to the Woodward campaign made six months later, Sanders listed her employer as LB Stone Properties, and her occupation as a manager.

Sanders’ involvement with Stone came as a surprise to some, as did comments late last week by Katy Bruya – a senior vice president at Washington Trust and co-chair of Hello for Good – at a meeting of the Spokane Homeless Coalition.

Bruya was asked about Stone’s involvement with Hello for Good, and she replied that he had not been active in the group, attending only three or four meetings himself.

“He ultimately sent Theresa Sanders,” she said. “He said, ‘Can I just send Theresa in my stead?’ ”

Smith responded in shock, and shot out an email to community partners, saying he could not support a regional authority built on the foundation of “Curing Spokane” and tainted by a conflict of interest that “borders on open disdain for the very people it should be intended to serve.”

Stuckart said the relationship had not been disclosed, and that, “You can’t say she’s representing him over here, but not representing him over there.”

Many of Stone’s critics see the shelter as a kind of Potemkin Village – created to present the illusion of sufficient shelter beds, in order to justify the enforcement of the sit-lie and anti-camping laws and the jail-first ideas built into Stone’s video. Under the prevailing law set by a federal court in a case known as Martin v. Boise, cities may not cite or arrest homeless people if there isn’t sufficient shelter space.

To them, the ties between Sanders and Stone only fueled these suspicions. And given Stone’s beliefs, they wonder about the impetus behind incarceration-oriented language in the proposal by Spokane Unite, including a guiding principle that says, “Detention remains a necessary accountability tool.”

The final push

Representatives of Spokane Unite and Hello for Good insist that the concerns are unfounded. Sanders said she has attended only three or four Hello for Good meetings, and never on Stone’s behalf.

“I’ve only ever represented my own views,” she said in a text message. “If Larry felt informed knowing I was there, that’s up to him.”

She also said, “I don’t work for Larry.”

In an email, Bruya said her comment was being taken “wildly out of context,” and that Stone had merely suggested she meet with Sanders.

Cooley said Stone has not been involved with the Spokane Unite effort, and that the political disputes over the proposal – from both sides of the spectrum – have become deeply discouraging.

He said that he sees the most important element of a regional approach is the creation of the governance structure. He wishes they had avoided trying to identify principles and philosophical goals, and proposed a completely “agnostic” approach based only on governance, leaving philosophy to those who would eventually run the organization.

Several people said the detention language in the Spokane Unite proposal is not something only Stone might favor – in a communitywide conversation, with a proposal that needs to win the favor of the left-leaning City Council and conservative-leaning County Commission, the idea of incarceration as one part of the picture is by no means an outlier.

It’s basically the Woodward philosophy, and she won the last election, they note.

Trying to thread the political needle on homelessness is a big lift. From the start, the push to emulate the Houston way has been almost universally supported in the abstract, even as people have tended to qualify their support – “the devil is in the details,” more than one official has said.

Stone and his involvement – or at least suspicions about it – is not the only devilish detail, but for those who reject his cure, it’s become one of the biggest.