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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

The push for a regional homeless authority gains steam

Kevin Degerman, on left, and Jimmy Aaron have a chat while sitting on their beds in the Trent Resource and Assistance Center.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

The long-discussed idea of creating an independent regional agency to coordinate and depoliticize homeless services is taking some large strides toward reality.

Starting next month, a 90-day period of community-wide “due diligence” will begin to study how such an agency might be organized and how it could operate. To succeed, a regional authority would need buy-in from local governments and nonprofits involved in homeless services now – a daunting challenge, but one that so far seems to be finding widespread support.

“I think there’s really broad, almost universal interest in exploring it, and that’s the stage we’re at,” said Gavin Cooley, a former longtime chief financial officer at Spokane City Hall.

Cooley and two other former City Hall officials, Rick Romero and Theresa Sanders, are volunteering to lead the effort, and have been organizing meetings and conversations among government officials, service providers, the business community and others. They are volunteering their time, and raising private funds to cover other costs – including bringing an official from Houston, which has had great success with a similar model.

The trio, who helped devise and coordinate some of the most creative, large-scale projects during the administration of Mayor David Condon, are widely seen as pragmatic problem-solvers with little political baggage. On an issue as fractious as homelessness, that will be crucial.

“They have a history of doing things in the community and are trusted by just about everybody,” said Breean Beggs, president of the Spokane City Council. “A lot of people think if anybody can do it, it’s them.”

Brian Coddington, the spokesman for Mayor Nadine Woodward, echoed that sentiment.

“The three of them have collective credibility in many, if not most, rooms in the county,” Coddington said.

Woodward has been calling for a more regionalized approach to homelessness since her election campaign, though the largest financial and on-the-streets burden of the problem has continued to rest chiefly with the city.

More recently, she has been talking specifically about the formation of a regional authority, including in a comment in a video news release noting her goals for the new year.

“Right at the top of my list is establishing a regional homeless authority to address the needs of the unhoused in our region as a true collaborative,” she said. “Much of the groundwork has already been done and there is great interest as we embark on what will be a generational change.”

Coddington said that it is still early in the planning stages, and that officials are trying to capitalize on the experiences of other cities in terms of what’s worked and what has not.

“There are still many, many details to be worked out,” he said.

According to a one-page description of the plan, which is being circulated among public officials and which The Spokesman-Review obtained, there will be a public announcement in early February kicking off the process in greater detail.

Starting Feb. 11, the 90-day due diligence period will commence, with the goal of producing recommendations for creating ordinances and enabling actions for a regional entity; identifying what kind of board would oversee it and what the membership would be; initial funding and staffing questions; the roles of elected leaders; and protocols for community participation.

If all goes as hoped, a regional authority of some form – perhaps a special-purpose district, such as those governing the library and parks systems – would be formed to develop a plan to integrate homelessness services and create timelines, goals and benchmarks; manage current funding from different sources and identify new sources of funding; create analytics, data and information systems; and develop a plan to centralize and coordinate communications, the document says.

In short, the idea is to combine the money and resources that now go to different governments and nonprofits, each doing their own thing, into a coordinated, unified system. It’s an idea that almost everybody seems to like; it’s also one that will require a lot of very detailed work to satisfy the different parties’ interests and objectives.

Among the key challenges would be the deep philosophical differences among different parties, and the possibility of turf battles and questions of control.

County commissioners have also been involved in the discussion, as have representatives of Spokane Valley and other regional cities. County Commission Chairwoman Mary Kuney traveled to Houston with Woodward last fall to look at their system, and has been involved in ongoing discussions. She was out of town Thursday and unavailable for comment.

Commissioner Amber Waldref said the idea is broadly appealing, and that the process of involving as many people as possible will be important. All the interested parties have to be included and their interests considered to develop something that will work.

But she said that in her efforts as project director of the Zone Project, the northeast Spokane initiative that has built a collaboration among 50 community partners to help children and families thrive, she worked with a similar framework of unifying many disparate players.

“I really believe that the only way you’re going to make long-term, measurable impact is to get everybody rowing in the same direction,” she said.

That includes the business community, which has been very active on the issue in recent years. Chris Patterson, who is coordinating efforts for Hello for Good, a nonprofit coalition of Spokane business leaders, said Thursday that he’s optimistic about the progress toward a regional plan.

“I’m 100% behind it,” he said.

It’s important that the city of Spokane not continue to bear almost the entire brunt of the problem, when it also affects the entire wider region, he said.

“Why not collaborate and why not work with each other?” he asked.

He emphasized that it would be vital to stand up a regional authority before the political season reaches full heat – taking the politics out of it would be key to making it work.

Rob McCann, the CEO of Catholic Charities Eastern Washington, said he’s been hoping for a regionalized approach for a long time.

“The idea of a regional authority structure of some kind to try and bring the community together to solve homelessness is something I’ve been wanting for 23 years,” he said, referring to the time that he’s been working with homelessness in Spokane.

“I think it’s not just the best solution, I think it’s the only solution,” he said.