Shawn Vestal: Caught in political stalemate, the street homelessness crisis worsens

·9 min read

Sep. 14—On the question of the deepening crisis of homelessness, we're now caught in a political Catch-22.

The city can't enforce the law against sitting and lying on city sidewalks during the day unless there are enough shelter spaces to send people to. This is the view, based on a 9th Circuit Court ruling, of the city legal department.

So the mayor who promised just a few months ago to enforce the sit-lie law as part of a grandiose new campaign of street sweeps has her hands tied because she refuses to add the very shelter services that would make that enforcement possible. It isn't the first time her administration has attempted to enforce the law improperly — it had to pull back last November when the Inlander caught the police citing people when there wasn't evidence of available shelter.

Meanwhile, the problem worsens, and there is no progress toward a serious, actual solution commensurate to the need. You can see it with your eyes, starkly visible under the viaducts and in the alleyways downtown. But it's also made clear by a new set of numbers detailing the size of our homeless population: We are not remotely close to addressing the problem.

According to the state Department of Commerce, there were almost 5,500 homeless people in Spokane last January. No one thinks that number has gotten any smaller. More than 3,600 of them were single adults.

Our shelter system, meanwhile, has about 643 beds. The mayor has replaced low-barrier beds with high-barrier ones and gone all-in on street cleanups; she has continued talking about some other programs that have been in the works but not yet become a reality; and severe staffing shortages at City Hall, in combination with an ideological determination not to add shelter in the city, has slowed even the few potential areas of progress way down.

The City Council has attracted the ire of downtown business owners who believe council members have prevented the police from disappearing the problem, but the limit on sit-lie is legal, not political. The prominence of this wishful thinking — the idea that we are providing too much food and shelter for layabouts and that by getting tough and deploying police, we can make the problem vanish — is among the chief obstacles to progress.

Ironically, it is the council that has been pushing a recalcitrant administration to take steps to make it possible to enforce sit-lie, by adding services downtown and creating a single, unified plan among various city services.

"There is no plan," said Councilwoman Betsy Wilkerson. "We've kind of asked (the administration) for a plan and haven't gotten that. We asked for a better counting of homeless people and haven't gotten that, either."

Alarming numbers

You might call it ground zero of the current state of homelessness in Spokane: the two-block stretch of Madison Street between First and Second avenues.

These days, that area is often as close to a tent city as we've got. It reaches south from the viaduct toward the City Gate Fellowship, and north toward the new Indigo Hotel — the former Otis Hotel, for many years a notoriously sketchy, if affordable, place. Now there's a lovely hotel with a good restaurant, part of a stretch of businesses trying to revitalize those blocks.

The result — as I observed with a group of friends recently — is a "Tale of Two Cities" picture of a society where the comfortable and the desperate live side-by-side, each more or less ignoring the other.

This direct overlap is more common in crowded urban centers. Spokane has tended to have a little more distance between the haves and have-nots. But this nice new restaurant — which we enjoyed very much — is right on the spot where the good news about downtown and the bad news about downtown merge.

Those of us inside enjoying our good food and comfortable fellowship and specialty cocktails sat not far from the long row of tents and tarps and grocery carts and bicycles and blankets and sleeping bags — and human beings.

This is not a Spokane problem. Nor is it a Seattle problem or a San Francisco problem or a blue-state problem or a red-state problem. It's a socio-economic crisis playing out all across the country, made worse by the pandemic.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development released a national report in March, noting that Washington's homeless population increased 6.2% in 2020. That was the third highest increase behind blue California and red Texas. Family homelessness increased 20%.

That was based on the point-in-time counts conducted on one day every year in cities nationwide. The PIT counts are long known to be an undercount; Spokane's showed that there were 992 homeless people in the city, in a count limited by the pandemic.

But the state Department of Commerce used PIT counts and combined them with figures from people enrolled in social service programs to come up with a more accurate overall figure. It found that, in January 2020, there were 5,483.

When Council President Breean Beggs is asked why there are so many more people on the street right now, he points to this simple math.

"Where are they supposed to go when we don't have shelters for them?" he asked last week. "What we need is an overall, comprehensive plan and that's what we don't have now. I wish I could say we'll have one soon."

'You don't make any sense'

Woodward did announce a homelessness plan in 2020, sold at the time as a 100-day plan, and it had a lot of positive characteristics.

As time has gone on, though, it's become clearer that, in execution and subsequent decisions, the impetus has been to reorient basic, low-barrier shelter programs — the key first step to getting people of the streets — with "accountability" programs that are very effective for some people, and not at all for others.

She has been also been committed to preventing the expansion of services downtown, saying there is too much concentration of those already. Among her supporters, and particularly an increasingly vocal contingent of downtown property owners, it is an article of faith that services attract more homeless people, and that all that's required is some muscle and determination to drive homeless people away.

Her spokesman, Brian Coddington, said it's not fair to say Woodward is refusing to adopt new services. He points to the accomplishments of opening a bridge shelter, and establishing the Cannon shelter space as a drop-in center during the summer — a plan that has been in the works a long time, but not yet in place.

He also insists that when low-barrier beds have been removed at one place, they've been replaced in other shelters, as well as noting some of the other accomplishments often cited by the administration — beginning a regional conversation on the problem with other regional governments, some of which have contributed funding to existing services.

"There is no resistance or reluctance to add shelter space or grow the system," Coddington said. "There's a desire to make sure we're complementing the rest of the system in the most efficient and effective way to get services to the people who need services the most."

He also said that the street cleanups are meant to make the areas more sanitary for everyone, including homeless people, and that city workers are being careful not to throw away the belonging of people involved.

Others point out that waiting on other jurisdictions to step in and provide more shelter beds has simply not resulted in any more shelter beds and does not seem likely to. And adding low-barrier beds in high-barrier shelters — as the city has done at Union Gospel Mission to meet the requirements of a law banning the elimination of low-shelter beds — does little to nothing to get at the population of chronically homeless individuals.

On the ground, the barriers to shelter are greater than they were before, as the need grows.

"The mayor has committed, in word and deed, to eliminating low-barrier shelter beds and replacing them with high-barrier beds," Beggs said.

Wilkerson said a lot of people have a simplistic view of homelessness — as if people on the streets are all drug addicts who could just instantly hop into an apartment and a job if we only had the collective grit to force them to.

She cited the continual complaints about homeless people going to the bathroom in parking lots and alleys. It's a real problem. And yet there is determined opposition to providing bathroom services downtown, based on the idea that providing services actually creates more homelessness.

She said she was recently told by a constituent: "'They'll just use that bathroom to shoot up.' "

"They can shoot up anywhere!" she said. "I said, 'You know you just don't make any sense.' "

'Going to get worse'

Councilwoman Lori Kinnear said she wants the city to be able to enforce the sit-lie law for the very same reasons the administration does: She's concerned about health and safety, unhappy about the places where downtown streets are becoming impassable.

Like other council members, she wants to see the city find a way to provide the shelter and day-use services that would make it possible to enforce sit-lie. Operating under legal advice based on the 9th Circuit opinion in a case out of Boise, the city cannot force people off the sidewalks if it doesn't have a place for them to go.

"The most important thing is to have a place 24/7 where people can go so we can enforce our laws," she said. "If you don't have low-barrier shelter 24/7, you can't enforce the law. We were told that by our city attorney. We are not making that up."

There are millions upon millions of dollars available right now to the city, county and other jurisdictions from federal pandemic relief funds. Many have advocated applying those funds to a more robust effort to combine new services with the enforcement of sit-lie.

But the mayor — and the downtown business interests who are applying daily pressure to City Hall for a nice, neat solution — does not want to do that, and she is an unlikely candidate to take on the large, expensive and difficult task of single, unified, collaborative system — from low-barrier entry points and day-use facilities to full-accountability programs.

What seems to be happening is something a lot of people have likened to a game of whack-a-mole: the streets are cleaned up and the homeless people moved along, only to return hours later.

Meanwhile, we have a serious housing crisis. Deep poverty has been stubbornly resistant to recovery. Rents are skyrocketing and evictions returning. And the resources to help people with mental illness and drug addiction are scarce.

"We have to put it all together," Beggs said. "The longer we don't do it, the worse it's going to get."

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