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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Blowback to half-formed homeless project in Spokane portends murky path to a plan

By Nick Gibson and Tod Stephens The Spokesman-Review

At its peak in 2022, nearly 700 people took refuge in an encampment off Interstate 90 known as Camp Hope.

It took several state and local agencies, officials, nonprofits, service providers and community members to dismantle the camp. It took months to finish the job. And it took millions of dollars to ensure the people had somewhere to go.

A key component of those efforts was the establishment of a new facility : the Catholic Charities Eastern Washington Catalyst project. The transitional housing facility in a former Quality Inn opened its doors to about 100 people in December 2022 amid outcry from West Hills residents, developers and business owners fearful of how it would affect the neighborhood.

A lot has changed in Spokane since the days of Camp Hope. But the controversy surrounding the Catalyst, and how the city of Spokane and its partners are addressing homelessness, remains.

“It’s not that I don’t want to see something positive out of this – it’s just hard to be excited for the future anymore,” Curtis Rystadt, owner of Hotel Indigo, said.

What used to be the Otis Hotel, 110 S. Madison St., was decaying and unsightly when Rystadt and his wife, Mariajose Rystadt, purchased it in 2017.

Curtis Rystadt kept renovation costs under wraps, but said it included the installation of hardwood floors in every one of the 108 rooms and a complete upgrade to the plumbing and electrical systems. They even added murals in each room that pay tribute to the building’s past .

The efforts won the Rystadts an award for outstanding achievement in historic rehabilitation in 2021. The two, however, weren’t awarded two multimillion -dollar contracts with SkyWest Inc. and Southwest Airlines to house their employees when they stay in Spokane.

The Indigo is just down the street from City Gate Fellowship, a food bank and clothing supplier for homeless and low-income people. Rystadt said both airlines were ready to sign the deal until they witnessed what the area became when City Gate’s doors were opened for services: people lined up or lying about the sidewalks with mounds of belongings and garbage strewn about.

“They said, ‘We like it, but we don’t feel safe by your building,’ ” Rystadt said. “You’d think I’d be angry … but I know I’m not the only business downtown with this type of story – I just want it to get better and I know it can. I mean, Houston and Austin are doing great.”

But Rystadt is losing hope.

“It’s obvious that the current model of all these homeless shelters in one area isn’t working – and Mayor Brown promised to not have anymore downtown,” he said. “But now we hear she’s looking to sign a deal to make another one.”

Tensions flare

Frustrations among the downtown business community flared most recently when word began to spread that Catholic Charities was eyeing the Carlyle Building in downtown Spokane to convert into another Catalyst-like facility.

The possibility was mentioned in passing at a Spokane City Council briefing meeting last month, but spread quickly among some of the most vocal critics of Catholic Charities and the city, such as the West Hills neighbors who protested the first iteration and the downtown business leaders who’ve long called for respite after years of hosting the vast majority of homelessness services in the city.

The purchase of the Carlyle didn’t go through because the Catholic Charities offer was not accepted, CEO Rob McCann said.

McCann said the purchase would have been part of the nonprofit’s efforts to transition away from the large congregate shelter model. This would require either closing or renovating its House of Charity shelter into a transitional housing facility with individual rooms, specialists and resources just like the Catalyst.

“The people we’re serving are saying, ‘I wish you would do this different,’ ” McCann said of the current House of Charity congregate shelter model. “The downtown business owners are saying, ‘I wish you would do this different, and maybe not do it downtown.’

“So we’ve got two groups telling us sort of the same thing for radically different reasons. We’re OK listening to that, and we’re OK looking for a new way to do it in a new spot.”

Spokane Mayor Lisa Brown said her administration were approached about the Carlyle building and heard about the owner’s intent to sell. The idea of converting the building would have been in line with her shared vision with McCann, and many jurisdictions and service providers across the country, of the move toward smaller, scattered shelter sites with individual living quarters.

In March, as the Spokane City Council considered how to spend the city’s remaining funds from the American Rescue Plan Act, which must be spent or contracted by the end of the year, Brown proposed a radical shift in spending priorities. Of the $4.9 million clawed back from other projects, Brown asked the council to spend $2.6 million on a single initiative: decommissioning the downtown House of Charity congregant shelter and opening a new facility modeled after the Catalyst Project.

A Catalyst 2.0, a transitional housing property with better services than the House of Charity, stricter guidelines and a selection process modeled after the facility opened in the West Hills neighborhood in 2022, could better serve its users and drastically diminish the effect that the large congregant shelter has had on the troubled area of Second Avenue and Division Street, Brown’s administration argued.

Two months later, the mayor and Catholic Charities leadership still believe this transition remains a priority, but the path to getting there is murkier. Council members, eager to fund smaller community projects in a tough budget year, had offered two amendments slashing the amount dedicated to transitioning away from the House of Charity. And with the clock ticking on dedicating ARPA funds to a project, Catholic Charities has not been able to identify a location that would work for a second Catalyst project.

In a Friday interview, Brown said she is changing direction, focusing instead on investing in changing the city’s own shelter model and decommissioning Spokane’s largest congregant shelter, the Trent Resource and Assistance Center.

“I think we’ll be moving in that direction still,” Brown said of transitioning away from the House of Charity.

“It didn’t feel, timing wise, that it made sense to tie any specific move of theirs to the ARPA funding. They didn’t come up with a location that made sense.”

Brown said she’s not certain what the timeline is for decommissioning the House of Charity and moving forward with a second Catalyst, but that Catholic Charities remains committed to the plan.

“They also have significant resources to be able to move in that direction,” she said.

For downtown business owners and developers, the purchase and transformation of the Carlyle would have been another stick in the eye from Spokane’s elected leaders who have said for years they aim to decentralize the slew of homelessness services downtown.

Months before Camp Hope was dispersed, former Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward touted an ambitious plan to move the shelter out of downtown – a plan met with trepidation and celebrations.

Two years later, that plan is still yet to be realized.

McCann said conversations with the Woodward administration about the plan never really went anywhere, and the organization has shared those frustrations publicly in the past.

When Brown came into office earlier this year, she reached out to restart that conversation, McCann said. He said they’re continuing to search for a property that would be a good fit for such a facility, and if they can’t find one, Catholic Charities may renovate the House of Charity.

“One of those two things is going to happen, because we know that if someone’s choosing to stay in a tent in negative 2-degree weather, as opposed to going to a safe, warm shelter bed, then we know we need to do our shelter beds differently,” McCann said.

Catholic Charities may have to take on that task without support from Brown. Later this year, the mayor said she will be putting out a request for proposals from service providers looking to set up some of those smaller shelters. Any available funding will not be earmarked for the House of Charity transition.

Sheldon Jackson, owner of Selkirk Development, manages an email newsletter among Spokane’s business leaders where they share concerns and grievances over the city’s response to homelessness and other challenges. He’s the most vocal of the group, providing long explainers and opinions on moves the city is considering or excerpts from news articles that support his idea that Spokane is deteriorating.

“Spokane is a beautiful place, we all know that, but it’s just getting harder and harder to stay here just because every day is a trial,” Jackson said. “It’s not fair to downtown, that we take on these burdens.”

Jackson’s company specializes in the rehabilitation of old buildings, he said. He owns multiple properties on Riverside Avenue, just west of Maple Street, that house businesses like Ladder Coffee Roasters and Fern Plant Shop. He also owns the Pappion Building, a building sandwiched between Riverfront Park and the Spokane Arena that his company revamped.

“All of them have been affected by this stuff and every administration that has been working with this has said the same things,” he said.

Tensions seem to have reached a boiling point for at least one businessman, Larry Stone, who announced last week he is creating the Spokane Business Association.

According to Stone, the group will act similarly to the Spokane Chamber of Commerce before it was merged with the Spokane Area Economic Development Council in 2007 to create a nonprofit, Greater Spokane Incorporated.

Greater Spokane does well lobbying at the federal and state level, according to Stone, but his group will differ.

“Our organization has only one purpose and that’s to advocate for business in the city limits of Spokane,” he said.

There is still much unknown about the new organization, but its early initiatives are roughly a dozen items; the four with the highest priority are related to homelessness, he said.

“It’s terribly overwhelming small businesses – they’re leaving,” he said. “We’re seeing the deterioration of downtown.”

Stone owns the building leased to the city for the Trent Resource and Assistance Center.

“I think she made a good decision to put it in an industrial area,” Stone said of former mayor Woodward. “Shelters should be either in an industrial area or by the airport, or wherever there aren’t people, offices or retail.”

That may not fully align with Brown’s plan, which includes the closure of the Trent shelter.

“My personal feeling is it’s a terrible mistake to spread it all over the city,” he said. “Spreading something that’s bad already in the poor neighborhoods to downtown and to other neighborhoods is not a solution – it’d just make the problem worse.”

McCann understands why business owners and neighbors near service provider organizations complain about some of the problems they see. He’s not a fan of the trash and groups that tend to congregate outside some shelters either, but a lot of those frustrations are due to things outside his control, he said.

An average passerby of the House of Charity may see between 20 to 30 people huddled outside the facility. Some of them have refused service, but want to stay nearby in case they are assaulted, have a health emergency or want a sense of safety. The cameras outside are monitored by employees, McCann said, who would be able to call for help if any of those things occurred.

Others have more sinister intentions that critics may not realize, McCann said.

“We’ve asked the police, ‘Please move these people out of here,’ ” McCann said. “They are preying on our residents. They are preying on our clients at the House of Charity. They are assaulting and robbing them. They are trafficking them, please move these people out. And the police are so under-resourced, they’re not able to do anything about it, either.”

McCann said the outward appearance can eclipse a lot of the good work done in shelters, and the good conditions they’re kept in. It’s part of the uphill battle he faces trying to correct the misgivings surrounding the homelessness crisis.

Around 93% of the people Catholic Charities served through their multiple low-barrier shelters, transitional housing facilities and affordable housing programs across Eastern Washington end up in stable, long-term housing, McCann said.

But those successes tend to be overlooked because the 7% who do fail, fail “spectacularly,” McCann said.

“It involves the front page of the paper and then sometimes the SWAT team and a bunch of police cars and ambulances and fire trucks, and that’s what people see,” McCann said. “So their perception is that that’s a mess, but the reality is yeah, 7% of the time it doesn’t work, but 93% of the time, it does.

“If my kid comes home from high school with a 93% average, I’m a happy parent.”

Perceptions and reality

McCann said his organization, and anyone working to provide social services and address homelessness, is facing an uphill battle when it comes to perception.

The Catalyst has dealt with its own fair share of perception issues, many of which stem from upset West Hills neighbors.

“Anytime any social service agency builds any building that is going to serve poor people, you’re going to see local neighbors have lots of questions, lots of fear and anxiety, and that’s OK,” McCann said. “We’re used to that. We are good at talking people through that.”

But there are some people who are not willing to have an open dialogue, and he’s run into West Hills residents with that disposition time and time again, McCann said.

West Hills residents were not the first to share such grievances. And they won’t be the last Spokane neighborhood to stand in opposition to a shelter or service provider putting down roots in their area either if Brown is successful in standing up her scattered-site model.

The pushback that erupted when the news broke that the Catalyst facility would replace the Quality Inn on Sunset was rooted in a belief the city and the nonprofit colluded to keep the project quiet until it was off the ground. McCann said that’s not accurate; staying silent about the purchase was a requirement of the sales agreement requested by the hotel owner due to concerns with disruption to staff and hotel operations if word leaked.

“We had to sign a document saying we were not allowed to disclose to anyone about us considering that location, which is not normally how we do it,” McCann said. “That led to the West Hills group on that Facebook group, and a handful of West Hills people saying, ‘They tricked us, they did the bait and switch, they were sneaky.’ ”

McCann said they attempted to do outreach as soon as they were able to speak about it, but that neighborhood meeting erupted into disarray, with attendees lamenting the lack of input before the purchase was finalized.

“They would ask a question, and before we could even get the answer out to have a conversation, a mature adult conversation with them, they would interrupt us and start screaming …” McCann said. “Now there’s not a lot we’re going to do in that scenario, other than try and be good listeners.”

McCann said he’s seen a lot of pushback to Catholic Charities’ projects over the years, but he’s never seen a response quite as vitriolic as their reception in the West Hills.

He said they’ve been able to bridge the gap with most of the neighborhood, but a small, vocal minority remains active on Nextdoor and Facebook.

Only a handful of the some 400 members of the West Hills Neighborhood Facebook group post regularly, warning others to “stay vigilant” for any proposed shelters or affordable housing developments, so they’re not “ambushed” by the city and Catholic Charities again.

Several neighbors in that group declined to speak on the record about their concerns, citing fears of retaliation and other concerns. In February, Catholic Charities sent cease and desist letters and trespass notices to a handful of neighborhood critics for allegedly stalking, threatening and spreading false information about McCann and the organization.

“Some things go beyond just Facebook hate speech,” McCann said. “Some things start to get into the legal realm of defamation and libel and slander and death threats and threats to burn the building down, then you have to get the police and the lawyers.”

But in their postings, they espouse a belief the neighborhood is worse off, with crime on the rise, natural areas in disarray and developers leery of doing any work in the area.

The Spokane Police Department has received more calls for service in the area since Catalyst opened, but only marginally. Spokane Police spokeswoman Julie Humphreys said the data may not provide a complete picture, since multiple calls for service came from a handful of individuals and many of the calls were related to crisis situations, behavioral health or welfare checks.

Last August, a 53-year-old homeless woman set multiple fires in Dishman Hills and the West Hills areas, one of which scorched a large section of the John Finch Arboretum behind the Catalyst. She told police the arson was motivated by a frustration with the lack of support she’s received after being homeless for 12 years.

The incident gets pointed to as an example of the impacts the Catalyst facility has had on the neighborhood, but the woman was never a participant of the project or its programs.

The concerns over the lack of development in the West Hills, and being left behind as Spokane continues to grow, do have some weight.

The Catalyst is neighbored on South Rustle Street by the Garden Springs Professional Building, owned by the Brumback family. The interests of development firm Brumback Inc. include the QualMed Building, bought in 2019 for $1.2 million ahead of a $16 million renovation into medical offices.

The Brumbacks also own a collective 38,350 square feet of land separating the Quality Inn and the Garden Springs building. Donald “Gib” Brumback, president and founder of Brumback Inc., told The Spokesman-Review shortly after Catalyst opened that they halted plans to use that land for 72 garden-style apartments.

Brumback said in 2022 that housing project, another in the Sunset Hill area and some plans he had for retail development in the neighborhood, are all on hold. None of those plans has since moved forward.

Stuart Lee has lived in West Hills for about 30 years. He said he and his wife have always gone on walks around the neighborhood and over time, they have noticed an uptick in encampments.

“We live in a rural urban setting, five minutes from downtown, but there’s lots of empty ground,” Lee said. “We have experienced some degree of campers and things close by and in the last few years, it’s certainly gotten a lot worse.”

The two often make the roughly 1-mile trek from their home past Catalyst. He views the shelter as an inefficient use of government funds.

“It cost millions and millions of dollars to buy and rehab that facility,” he said. “In a couple of years since they’ve been open, they’ve housed what, like 52 people? I hate to say it, but the whole thing seems like a money grab to me.”

With regards to the experience of sharing a neighborhood with the shelter, Lee changed his tone.

“I find it hard to be offended, because it appears to be clean and in control,” he said. “They keep the trash picked up and all their stuff inside the big fancy fence – I need to congratulate Catalyst for that.”

Lee also pointed to other properties in the area – a Motel 6, the West Wynn Motel and a vacant building that used to house the Econo Lodge Inn & Suites – as properties more troubling than Catalyst.

When asked whether he’d prefer to hypothetically keep the other buildings as they are or have them replaced with another Catalyst-like operation he responded: “If it’s run like Catalyst is, with a big fence around it, and they keep it clean – sure. That’s fine,” he said. “I can’t afford it, but I guess that’d be an upgrade to the neighborhood.”

Another member of the West Hills neighborhood is John Mark, president of Dorian Studio Inc., a photography firm with a location between Catalyst and the vacant Econo Lodge.

He was worried when he learned that Catholic Charities was opening a shelter that would be visible from his office windows. But since then, his worries have been settled.

“The West Hills Neighborhood has a lot of homelessness and people milling around, but Catalyst didn’t bring that,” Mark said. “If anything, it brought a decline.”

Another Dorian location is on Mission Avenue near the TRAC center.

“Having a business by the two shelters are vastly different experiences,” he said. “People don’t like to hear the word ‘shelter,’ and nobody wants it in their neighborhood – but they don’t realize there are different kinds.”

Mark was adamant that his thoughts are his own and do not represent his business or his neighborhood.

“I know there are still people who are angry with Catholic Charities and I understand that anger,” he said. “This is a very hard topic and we all want to see this area thrive. I view Catalyst as a help to that, not a hindrance.”

Mark said he even donated to the organization at a Catholic Charities event.

Gordon Wright, director of the Catalyst project, points to Mark’s shift from a skeptical owner of a neighboring business to a check-cutting supporter as an example of what can happen when Catholic Charities can express the success of their programs.

He extends the offer to take a tour to see the good work being done at the Catalyst to those still questioning the viability of the model.

As of May, 51 people have graduated out of the program into stable, permanent housing, Wright said.

The model works because there are resources on-site, including care coordinators who connect clients with the services they need, whether it’s primary medical care, behavioral health, employment resources, education services and other public benefits.

“You won’t find a lot of success throwing keys at people if you do not provide holistic care, if you do not address whatever may be the root cause” Wright said.

Peer support specialists, like Jimmy McLean, are on-site to assist residents with their transition. McLean said it can be intimidating for the formerly homeless to make the leap back into “regular life.”

“They’ve been away from it for so long, homelessness is a way of life,” McLean said.

Life inside the facility is much more tranquil and community-oriented than critics may realize. Flyers advertising nature walks, bingo games and educational opportunities litter the walls, many of which are organized among the residents. McCann noted a group of residents came to him and Wright with the desire to form a sober floor, which is the first time in his 24 years with Catholic Charities a client has done such a thing.

“I’ve never had homeless clients come to me with that idea. It’s usually the opposite, like, ‘Why do you guys have so many rules about using drugs in your building?’ ” McCann said.

McCann said he wouldn’t be surprised if they create another sober floor within a year, but that won’t become a requirement of residency.

“That’s an option for people who have made the choice to stop using, but still, we have open doors and unconditional love for the people who aren’t quite there yet but want to get there,” McCann said. “They’re not there today, we want to have a space for them. Catalyst has space for both.”

Wright maintains that the facility is not only improving the lives of the residents but also the state of the neighborhood. The hotel was severely dilapidated before Catholic Charities took ownership and was a magnet for crime and bad actors, he said. It took weeks to remove more than s 6½ tons of debris out of the building, clean the property and perform much needed maintenance, including fixing the failing roof.

Wright said he knows Catalyst is much better for the neighborhood than the hotel because he’s seen both as a decadeslong West Hills resident. He often walks to work through the arboretum.

“I feel pretty blessed to come to work every day,” Wright said. “If people are still concerned, come volunteer with us. Come tour the property and walk with me. We’ve had an amazing amount of success.”

Stalled regionalism

If local business owners and Spokanites are expecting to see the House of Charity and other shelter sites relocated soon, they would be disappointed to learn of the lack of progress that’s been made to establish a regional authority to address the crisis.

Several cities have created regional authorities to take on homelessness and have seen success, with Houston and Atlanta serving as shining examples.

Generally, these organizations pool funding and oversee a wide range of services including outreach, diversion and prevention, emergency shelter, rapid rehousing and permanent supportive housing, and services such as mental health and addiction treatment. Some are organized as nonprofits and some as special-purpose government districts.

The model allows local jurisdictions and service providers to collaborate on a response, instead of competing for grants and contracts or letting politics enter the fray. It also spreads the load between multiple jurisdictions and areas, so not one government or neighborhood is forced to shoulder it alone.

Last year, elected leaders from Spokane, Spokane County and just about every smaller jurisdiction within the area began meeting with service providers, formerly homeless individuals, the business community and tribal representatives to formulate a regional authority.

They met weekly, then biweekly and then on an ad hoc basis to lay the groundwork for what the structure of the board would look like, how it could be funded and what would make it sustainable. It was an intentional move to put “structure” before strategy in the planning process, Spokane Councilman Jonathan Bingle said.

But on Thursday, in their first meeting in six months, the prospects for creating the group appeared to be on shaky ground. Brown, the newest addition to the table, disagrees with the work done so far.

Brown told other officials she has concerns over the funding model they selected when their 2023 meetings concluded, which would have designated the board a public development authority to allow all the parties involved to apply for grant funding and administer services as its own entity.

Brown said in an interview Friday she suggested an independent nonprofit could oversee it instead of the elected leaders from the county, the city and the smaller jurisdictions like Spokane Valley and Cheney.

She laughed at the suggestion that the work to put a structure in place before developing strategies would somehow remove politics from the policy equation. The county and the city have long struggled to see eye-to-eye on issues, and that tension can be exacerbated by a complicated topic like the response to homelessness.

At the end of the day, no matter what the board looks like and how it is funded, the politicians involved still will be held accountable by the public for the authority’s decisions, Brown said.

“If politicians aren’t on the board, then politicians have to appoint the people on the board,” Brown said. “You can maybe obscure the relationships a little bit, but we’re elected officials and it’s incumbent upon us to do this.”

Brown said she would like to work toward implementing coordinated solutions and strategies now, instead of waiting for the coalition to be fully organized. She’s still interested in continuing conversations about what a regional response should look like, but noted the timeline to do so may be much longer than many anticipate.

Bingle noted during the meeting that it took years for Houston, the gold standard, to form a regional coalition.

“We could and should continue to talk about what kind of entity we should form, but that’s not going to provide on-the-ground solutions tomorrow,” Brown said.

Spokesman-Review reporter Emry Dinman contributed to this report.