For half a year now, local governments have debated the pros and cons of pooling their resources and forming a single organization charged with reducing homelessness in Spokane County.
Despite dozens of hours of discussion, elected officials still haven’t agreed on how the regional homeless authority would work or where its responsibilities would begin and end.
They also don’t know exactly how much it would cost, even though the organization would take control of local homelessness spending.
It hasn’t always been obvious how much Spokane and Spokane County spend on homelessness. Politicians from both jurisdictions have said they don’t know.
“I don’t know, currently, sitting here, what funding we are giving and providing to homelessness,” Spokane County Commissioner Mary Kuney said in a July 10 meeting. “I don’t know what our contracts are and what we’re doing.”
Defining homelessness spending can be tricky. Money comes from numerous sources, including multiple federal agencies, the state of Washington and several taxes.
But by adding up all the different funds, it’s possible to come up with a single dollar amount. In 2022, Spokane and Spokane County spent about $30 million on homelessness, according to spreadsheets and presentations provided by staff.
Gavin Cooley, one of the three former city of Spokane employees leading the homeless authority effort, calculates homelessness spending differently, but agrees with the $30 million estimate. He said a regional homelessness organization could start out with a roughly $30 million annual budget if it becomes a reality.
The $30 million figure from 2022 only includes dollars put toward shelters, street outreach and other programs that directly address homelessness. It doesn’t include investments in affordable housing or rental assistance, for example.
Cooley pointed out that the $30 million number fails to capture indirect costs of homelessness, such as impacts to law enforcement, fire departments and hospitals.
It also omits any dollars local governments directly received through the American Rescue Plan, a federal stimulus bill aimed at helping the country recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Local taxpayers only pay for a small fraction of homeless spending. The vast majority of the money comes from the federal government and state.
Of the $26 million Spokane spent on homelessness in 2022, $19 million came from the state and federal governments.
About $3.8 million came from Spokane’s general fund and donations. The remaining $3 million came from document recording fees – which people usually pay when buying a house – and some of the city’s portion of a voter-approved, county-wide 0.1% criminal justice sales tax.
Spokane’s homelessness spending has nearly tripled over the last five years. In 2018, the city spent $9.7 million, followed by $14.1 million in 2019, $19.1 million in 2020 and $18.9 million in 2021 and last year’s $26 million. For context, Spokane has a $1.2 billion budget.
The county doesn’t spend nearly as much on homelessness as the city does.
George Dahl, Spokane County’s housing and community development administrator, has told the commissioners that the county spends about $4 million a year, mostly using money from document recording fees and state grants. That figure excludes the county’s investments in affordable housing, rental assistance and other initiatives that may indirectly address homelessness.
Cooley said the regional homelessness authority wouldn’t use money that local governments could use to address budget shortfalls. It would primarily take over management of restricted dollars that have to go toward homelessness reduction efforts anyway.
“We’re not asking for a single dollar that would ever be able to be used for their budget problems,” he said. “They’re separate buckets by law.”