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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

On World Homelessness Day, a look at how Spokane got to crisis levels

A person sleeps on a bench in Riverfront Park on Oct. 1 in Spokane.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

In the 1990s and early 2000s, homelessness in Spokane was far less visible.

“Every once in a while you’d see, underneath the freeway, little tents and things,” Spokane Homeless Coalition Administrator Barry Barfield said.

Today, on World Homelessness Day 2023, hundreds of people live on Spokane’s streets.

Homelessness has been increasing rapidly in Spokane in recent years. According to the most recent point-in-time count, an annual survey required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Spokane County in January had 2,390 homeless residents.

That’s a 36% increase compared to 2022 and a more than 100% increase since 2013. For context, homelessness statewide increased 42% from 2013 to 2022, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Maurice Smith, a documentarian and author who has worked with Spokane’s homeless population for the last 18 years, said homelessness has become more visible because the city lacks adequate shelter space. Spokane has about 1,000 shelter beds.

“The reason we have more people on the street is we don’t have any places for them to go,” Smith said.

Local governments rarely discussed homelessness 30 years ago. Today, candidates for mayor and City Council sometimes make homelessness the hallmarks of their campaigns.

Mayor Nadine Woodward, a conservative who spent years as a TV news anchor, told voters during her 2019 run for office that the city should offer homeless people “jail or treatment.” She spoke about homelessness in far harsher terms than her opponent, former City Council President Ben Stuckart. Stuckart said after the election that Woodward had made the race a “referendum on homelessness.”

The primacy of homelessness in local elections has hardly changed in the intervening four years, as Spokane’s struggles with homelessness have garnered more national attention.

Camp Hope, a homeless encampment along Interstate 90 in Spokane’s East Central neighborhood, was arguably the biggest local news story of 2022. The encampment, which has since closed, at one point had more than 600 residents, making it the largest in the state, and prompted national TV stories.

As Spokane’s homeless population has increased, so has the governmental response.

The City Council in the last 20 years has crafted new legislation. Some laws have guaranteed homeless people the right to shelter during extreme weather, while others have aimed to restrict the right to camp on public property.

Spending on homelessness has skyrocketed in recent years, too, although only a fraction of Spokane’s spending has come from local taxpayer dollars. Spokane in 2018 spent less than $10 million on homelessness. That rose to $26 million in 2022.

Most homelessness experts agree that the increase in homelessness has one primary cause: a lack of affordable housing.

Spokane, once known for its affordability, has seen its housing prices soar over the last five years.

According to Zillow, a home sales listing service, the typical Spokane home was worth $223,000 in September 2018. Now the typical home is worth $380,000, a roughly 70% increase.

Tim Hilton, an Eastern Washington University professor who studies social services and homelessness, said the dramatic spike in housing costs has directly contributed to the increase in people living on the street.

Drug addiction and mental health issues play a role in homelessness too, Hilton said, but housing affordability and availability are the primary drivers.

“When you look at homelessness across different cities, you can predict rates of homelessness very accurately by looking at things like median home prices relative to median incomes,” he said.

In the mid-2000s, it was possible to find a Spokane apartment for about $300 a month, Hilton said. That same apartment might cost $900 today. That increase far outpaces the growth in earning power of a typical worker.

Plenty of people had addiction or mental health issues in Spokane 20 years ago, Hilton said, but more of those people used to be able to find affordable housing.

Union Gospel Mission Executive Director Phil Altmeyer, who has spent roughly four decades working with homeless individuals, has a different perspective than many academics and homeless service providers.

Altmeyer agrees that affordable housing plays a role in homelessness, but he argues that addiction and mental illness are bigger factors.

“Street homelessness, you can trace that back to the beginning of legalization of marijuana and the increase of meth, really,” he said.

Altmeyer, whose views are shared by many conservative politicians, also says that Spokane is making homelessness worse by “enabling” people and making it too easy to survive on the streets – an argument with which Hilton, Smith and Barfield disagree. Spending more money on homeless services isn’t doing any good, Altmeyer says.

Barfield said he believes the news media needs to share more positive stories about homeless people. If the public only reads about crime, loitering and vandalism, homeless individuals will continue to be viewed as unsympathetic by the general public, he said.

The vast majority of homeless people have simply fallen on hard times and need help, Barfield said.

“You talk with them and your heart will break,” he said. “Ninety percent of the time you hear their stories and you say, ‘Oh my God, I never knew that was what you’re going through, how can I help you?’ ”

Smith said Spokane’s response to homelessness reveals the city’s character.

“How we as a community treat the homeless, the hungry and the marginalized is a good indication of the condition of our community soul,” he said. “We reveal who we are by how we treat people at their lowest moments.”