By Lerria Schuh and Ben Stuckart
While the houseless population continues to grow, the Spokane mayor and City Council are struggling to continue the temporary Band-Aids they have created for homeless shelters and services.
Their funding decisions, costing taxpayers millions, are irresponsible and include no plans for sustainability. By their own admission at the time of vote for funding the Trent shelter location this past June, several council members stated that funding the Trent location was “the next best step with no other options to consider.” Now, seven months after opening the Trent shelter, there has been no substantial reduction in the houseless population, and the struggle to find funding continues. Council took the only option in front of them, it was by no means a “best step.”
Recently, the city of Spokane, Spokane County and Spokane Valley have agreed to a 90-day review period to consider the structure of a regional homeless authority. The hope is that a regional approach, if built with consistent input from local service providers and the voices of those impacted, will ensure a strategic approach and financing efforts that are unified in reducing the homeless population by providing housing and wrap around services to all that need it.
Until the regional homeless review is complete and the new structure is in place, the City Council and the mayor’s administration should not make any additional decisions regarding homelessness, and instead should keep all facilities operating as well as providing any necessary emergency services for inclement weather.
Most pressing is recent indication from Mayor Nadine Woodward that the Cannon Street shelter may close at the end of May, and all residents will be moved to the Trent shelter. The most obvious concern with this is the fact that Trent shelter is full most nights at 350 persons, a number the Salvation Army has said is the maximum manageable number .
The Trent shelter is already suffering through a large number of challenges. The congregate setting does not provide adequate privacy and does little to prevent the spread of illness. During a recent visit I (Lerria Schuh) made to the Trent shelter, a staff member said that “no one with PTSD should stay at Trent” because of the lack of privacy, numerous persons and constant presence of possible triggers, including the large number of physical altercations that take place on-site (and low number of staff to guest ratio to deal with outbreaks), other guests experiencing mental illness, emotional distress, etc. Trauma of various forms and resulting PTSD are often a contributing factor to someone becoming homeless, while being homeless also can lead to PTSD that needs to be addressed with professional guidance. Our city and mayor believe in a congregate shelter that is not set up to handle a critical mental health issue faced by the homeless population.
In addition, moving persons to the congregate setting without running water, no kitchen, no laundry services, minimal transportation support (provided only when bus passes are donated), no on-site housing navigation assistance, no on-site addiction treatment provider, and a behavioral health provider that is only contracted to serve 175 persons (far below the 350 capacity) is not an action that will help houseless individuals into permanent housing. It will overload the Trent facility that is already crowded and lacking much needed services. These types of decisions are difficult to undo, and will decrease resources available to a potential regional organization.
There are proven strategies to reduce houseless populations. For instance, the city of Houston reduced its homeless population by 63% over the past 10 years. They did this by creating a regional organization with a strategic plan created with the input of service providers and those with lived experience. They built the necessary housing and ensured that all services each individual needed was located on-site and accessible without barriers. We can follow their strategy while creating a plan that fits the specific needs of this region.
It is time for the mayor and City Council to pause all further decisions on homelessness. They need to let the review and possible creation of a regional homeless authority take place without dismantling any of the current shelter or services. Without a pause, further decisions will not only be detrimental to our current homeless population and entire community, it will further deepen the chaos that is our city funded shelter system, the Band-Aid the mayor and city have no idea how to continue to fund.
Ben Stuckart is the executive director for the Spokane Low Incoming Housing Consortium and Lerria Schuh is the executive director for Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund. Both are advocates for reducing the houseless population with a method of providing housing and on-site wrap around services.