Spokane needs compassion and social justice, not a “cure”

Homelessness is indeed more visible in Spokane, but we don’t need a “cure”––we just need compassionate, social-urbanist policies. (PHOTO: City of Spokane)

On Thursday, local developer Larry Stone (who is leading a project called The Falls on the former YWCA site on the North Bank) released a bad “Seattle is Dying” knockoff called “Curing Spokane.” Among other things, it calls for the sale of Spokane’s landmark transit center, a new jail, and free parking downtown.

The video is so distasteful and offensive that it really isn’t worth a response.

But because it offers “solutions” which not only don’t fit Spokane’s context, but also wouldn’t actually address homelessness, I think it’s worth asking what a social-urbanist response to our current homelessness crisis might look like. Follow along after the jump to explore some compassionate solutions that would dignify human life and offer all Spokanites––regardless of income or housing status-–an opportunity to thrive.

Context

First, it’s important to understand the current state of homelessness in Spokane. As of the 2019 Point in Time Count, which occurred on January 24 in line with federal mandates and guidelines, roughly 1,300 people were experiencing homelessness in Spokane County. Due in part to the action of local officials and new strategies developed to quickly rehouse those experiencing homelessness, veteran homelessness was down 28%, chronic homelessness was down 28%, and family homelessness was down 8%.

However, as has occurred in other major West Coast metro areas, there has been a steady increase in the number of single adults experiencing homelessness. In fact, the number of single adults has increased from 673 at the 2009 Point in Time Count to 985 this year. Many of these people––around 30%––are experiencing homelessness for the first time. Many self-report experiencing a serious mental illness, substance abuse condition, or domestic violence.

Now, many of those experiencing homelessness are living in some type of shelter, but some aren’t. The number of us sheltered persons has doubled from 157 at the 2009 Point in Time Count to 315 this year. About a quarter of these people sleep in a vehicle, and 11% in an outdoor encampment. 45% sleep on the street or a sidewalk. Among this unsheltered population, people report experiencing homelessness for a variety of reasons, but family conflict, lost jobs, lack of income or affordable housing, and being evicted top the list. Almost all of those unsheltered last had permanent housing in Spokane County.

To be sure, there has been a significant increase in both unsheltered and sheltered homelessness over the past decade in Spokane, with a majority of the increase occurring in the past couple years. This is in line with what has occurred in other major West Coast metros during the economic recovery––as housing costs have escalated, so too has housing insecurity and homelessness.

What does Justice Look Like?

The Point in Time Count directly refutes the false perceptions perpetuated by “Curing Spokane.” A majority of those experiencing homelessness report that their lack of a home is a result of family disputes or economic factors––not crime, not drug use, and not some type of moral or personal failure.

Local residents are being squeezed by increasing rents and costs of living combined with flat wages and poor tenant protections. In Spokane, the median home price, a key measure of affordability, has increased by tens of thousands of dollars in the past several years. Meanwhile, developers––like Larry Stone––receive public dollars to subsidize their developments which otherwise wouldn’t pencil. Let’s be clear: those experiencing homelessness are victims of an unjust, profoundly unfair economic system––one which prioritizes private development over human lives.

Our vision should be to provide emergency shelter space for every local resident experiencing homelessness, and to quickly rehouse those who experience it. We should provide free supportive services, like mental health and drug treatment, medical care, and job training, to ensure people can get back on their two feet. Moreover, we should strive to build a resilient local economy, where homelessness is rare, transitional, and quickly-resolved. Getting there requires concrete steps, though, so let’s look at some strategies which could address homelessness more compassionately from a social-urbanist lens.

Homeless services providers assist local residents by providing lightly-used clothing at a local event. (PHOTO: City of Spokane)

A Social-Urbanist Response to Homelessness

Instead of hand-wringing and fear-mongering, urbanists should strive for concrete action that empowers and uplifts those experiencing homelessness. Let’s run down a few ways local elected officials and activists could make a concrete difference.

1. Robust tenant protections. The best way to reduce homelessness is by preventing it from occurring in the first place. Let’s ensure housing stability by enacting new protections for local renters. For example, we could limit the amount a landlord requests for a security deposit, or as move-in fees, to no more than the first month’s rent. We could require additional notice for evictions or other civil action. We could establish a Renter’s Advocate position at the City of Spokane to serve as an impartial ombudsperson in disputes and push the City to more adequately consider renters at it develops policy. We could even try limiting the ability of landlords to consider criminal history when renting a unit, as Seattle has done. At the state level, it might be worth pushing for a form of rent control.

2. Free transit passes for those with low incomes. Suburbanists often say “homeless people should just get a job,” but even if we generously considered that a good-faith statement, how would people do that without adequate transportation? Free public transit would chip away at this key barrier to getting out of homelessness. Seattle does it already with ORCA Lift, which offers 50% off rides to income-qualified riders. There’s no reason for Spokane not to do likewise.

3. Safe, clean, and convenient emergency shelters. We must have emergency shelters where all can feel safe, including veterans, minorities, and members of the LGBTQ+ community. Homeless advocates have in recent years asked for amenities like 24/7 access, in-out privileges, and daytime storage space, and we would be wise to find ways to make those happen. Lockers for personal items seems like it would be an easy lift, and one that would make a big difference for people, but somehow those experiencing homelessness are still expected to clear out their belongings from their emergency shelter spaces each morning.

4. Public restrooms and showers across the city. It’s wild that staffed restroom facilities are commonplace in Europe but anathema in the United States. Five or six such locations within the City would probably be plenty, and they needn’t be fancy. They could even charge a small fee––say, fifty cents––if there’s really such a concern that free toilets would lead to public disorder. But let’s be honest––if we truly believe that those experiencing homelessness, and those who aren’t, deserve to lead a dignified life, then staffed public restrooms should be an easy lift.

5. Better healthcare coverage. With a high number of unhoused individuals experiencing a major medical concern, such as a mental health issue, addiction, or something else entirely, adequate medical coverage would provide people with the baseline level of support necessary to begin moving forward. Many are eligible for Apple Health (Medicaid), but the program’s coverage remains inadequate, and some aren’t even aware that they’re eligible. Spokane should push the state to expand Medicaid coverage. If unsuccessful, it could explore a public option model which provides universal coverage in San Francisco.

6. Permanent housing as a first priority. Local leaders have already done a fantastic job making permanent, low- or no-barrier rehousing the preferred model for homeless services in our area. Catholic Charities’ Father Bach Haven and other local facilities offer supportive care and a model which has succeeded in reducing homelessness among key demographics––in other words, it’s working! We should double-down on housing-first, constructing new permanent housing across the city, including on the north side, in the Valley, and on the South Hill.

7. Make affordable housing mandatory. Today, developers in Spokane can still get away with constructing a new major mixed-use or multi-family apartment complex and not include any units affordable to those making at or below 80% of the area median income. That’s absurd. Let’s adopt mandatory inclusionary zoning across the city––including in single-family zones. In this scenario, a certain percentage of new housing units in a development would be set aside for those making below a certain level of income. Ultimately, every developer should have to “pay in” to making our city more affordable for the working class.

8. Social housing. Beyond traditional free-market solutions, we should consider alternative models of “home,” including publicly-provisioned social housing, communal “co-living” communities, and simple associations, like the German “Baugruppen,” to make housing generally more affordable. The more models we offer, the likelier that everyone will be able to identify a solution that doesn’t result in them becoming rent-burdened or homeless.

9. Sanctioned encampments. It may sound counterintuitive, but sometimes creating a sanctioned encampment––with enforced standards for cleanliness and safety––offers a means to reduce the potential harm that can occur in unsanctioned spaces. This would also allow service providers more visibility and access, and limit the risk of personal items being impounded by local police, as currently occurs. Now, to be clear, we shouldn’t be sweeping existing encampments, but rather providing options with a greater degree of stability and security. A sanctioned “car camping” lot would provide a further alternative.

10. Vastly more resources. It’s simple: to fully address the crisis of homelessness we now face, we’re going to need to invest millions more dollars every year in affordable housing, public transit, and supportive services. For too long, Spokane has limped along, believing it could address homelessness with the resources and attention of a small city, rather than those of a major urban center. As the largest city between Seattle and Minneapolis, and with our level of private wealth and low existing taxes, we also have the resources to make it happen. We just haven’t had the political will to do what’s necessary to actually make a dent in the problem. Well, it’s time. We need to invest. Now.

We already have the “Cure”

Bringing it all back together, local officials are already addressing homelessness, and we’ve already made a big dent in the unsheltered population, especially among families, veterans, and those who are experiencing chronic homelessness.

But the City needs to do far, far more to become a city guided by justice for the least among us. Hiding our most vital civic asset (our downtown transit center), more jail beds, and free parking might just appease the egos of major developers and those afraid to be confronted by their own privilege. But if we actually want to make a difference in the lives of those experiencing homelessness, we’ll need to stop making absurd, easily-disproven claims and actually get to work.