Leading up to Expo ’74 in Spokane, 101 downtown buildings were demolished, resulting in the loss of 3,224 units of affordable housing and the gain of 46 surface parking lots. That, coupled with the census reduction at Eastern State Hospital from over 3,000 post-World War II to around 300, helped intensify homelessness in Spokane.
The problem continues as rising land values, labor and material cost increases, construction workforce shortages and increased governmental regulations are making it impossible to replace the local housing inventory lost in the past four decades.
So what does our community need to do while we wait to create more housing? Costly homeless shelters create bed space but no permanent housing. Local businesses pay private security companies to patrol over 600 locations to address loitering and camping, only serving to scatter people rather than housing them.
On the ballot, Measure 1 will lead to expanded jail capacity, providing costly housing for our mentally ill and addicted, chronically homeless population, but will not create any new housing.
What if the community stepped in to help solve the problem? What if individuals and groups started being present alongside the fentanyl users and campers?
In Italy, they use the term “mutual accompaniment” to describe the development of relationships with people who are not a part of the mainstream community. They seek to replace fentanyl and other destructive substances with a sense of meaning, purpose, belonging and a sense of community.
The folks in our community leaving trash and feces all over the place make us angry or sad or hopeless. Our government has never been good at solving the cycle of poverty, mental illness and addiction. What human beings need most is a positive connection or a sense of inclusion. If you have lost that connection, positive relationships create healing.
Some of the folks on the streets downtown have been to jail numerous times and could teach relapse prevention after being in rehab 17 times. There are some individuals in our community who need to be detained and some are destined to die on the streets.
I maintain that the vast majority of people living on the street would respond to a system and a community that met their needs.
Unfortunately, our current system lacks the ability to individualize treatment plans.
What if every church, university, rotary, club, organization sent groups of volunteers into the inner city to talk with, listen to, eat with, recreate with the folks on the streets?
If you are afraid to go down and hang out, we have social service providers, the police, people with lived experience, outreach teams who could make sure everyone was safe.
I conducted over 50 urban plunges with over 700 participants; walking the streets at night, visiting campsites and single room occupancy apartments and eating in the dining room at the House of Charity.
In all of those walkarounds there was never an occurrence of violence. I worked for 43 years in social services in Eastern Washington, was on the Governor’s Advisory Council on Homelessness and was on the executive committee of the Presbyterian Network to End Homelessness.
The streets are growing more volatile and more crowded, and I admit there is an element of danger on our streets. Nevertheless, I have been hanging out at the abandoned Starbucks parking lot, in front of the House of Charity and at the Compassionate Addiction Treatment Center. In every instance that I have visited the streets, shelters or treatment centers, I have met people who want someone to listen to them. I believe the key to healing is being listened to. There isn’t enough listening in the world.
I am just hopeful enough to believe that Spokane can do better than other communities in responding to the crisis of homelessness in our country. We do Hoopfest and Bloomsday. We could do something no other community in America has been able to do.
Let’s come together as a community and fill the pockets of toxic despair with an infusion of compassionate listening and plain old presence. It’s not rocket science.
Jerry Schwab, of Spokane, is a retired mental health clinician. He is a former assistant director of House of Charity and director of counseling at Catholic Charities. He earned a doctorate in leadership studies from Gonzaga University.