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'You have to keep people safe': Affordable housing may ease Spokane's homeless crisis, advocates say

Affordable housing options in Spokane are slim but more availability could be a solution to the ongoing problem.

SPOKANE, Wash. — The homeless rate in Spokane is up 13% in the past two years. While city officials and advocates try to figure out the best way to keep people safe and off the streets, Steve Berg with the National Alliance to End Homelessness said the solution is multifaceted.

“Being homeless, outside is dangerous,” Berg said. “You have to keep people safe, and the shelters do that but if that's all you do, then you're just going to have more and more people living in shelters.”

The city of Spokane has proposed a new shelter that would be located in the eastern part of the city, but Berg said that should just be the first step.

“The shelter is definitely part of what needs to happen,” he explained. “But you need to have a how an approach to getting people in housing as quickly as possible. Ideally, people stay in shelters for a couple of days, and then they get a place to live.”

Unsheltered populations are not only increasing in Spokane and the state of Washington: the crisis is spreading across the country.

“We saw a lot of places where there were definitely more people on the streets,” Berg said. “But since COVID, it's a lot more people sleeping on the trains, people sleeping outside because they don't feel like they're safe in the shelters."

Shelters can be a lifeline for some people experiencing homelessness, but many advocates want to see more resources put toward permanent solutions like access to affordable housing.

Studies from Harvard, the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Department of Health and Human Services consistently show that access to affordable housing is a key component to decreasing rates of homelessness.

“Housing is the foundation on which everything else is built,” said Pamela Parr, the executive director of the Spokane Housing Authority. “You have to provide that foundation for folks in order for them to address any other issues. If you're talking about homelessness, homelessness is not the problem. It is a symptom of some other problem.”

The Spokane Housing Authority owns or operates 817 affordable housing units in Spokane County, but with a waitlist that’s been closed since 2016 and hundreds of people still waiting to use their approved vouchers, they are in desperate need of more.

“The largest source of financing for affordable housing is low-income housing tax credits, and they're competitive,” Parr said. “And Spokane can only get one project a year. So that means we're going to build 80 to 100 units per year using that financing vehicle. And unfortunately, that is not going to keep up with the demand.”

The city of Spokane recently opened up requests for proposals for $10 million in funding for affordable housing projects. The City Council hopes to review these proposals starting in July.

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