SPOKANE, Wash. — As the city of Spokane works to tackle the growing homelessness crisis, other cities are sharing their experiences in hopes that the Lilac City can learn what does and does not work and then apply it here.
Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward told KREM 2 that her top priority right now is getting the proposed shelter on East Trent Avenue up and running by summer 2022.
However, the proposed shelter hit several roadblocks after Spokane City Council members initially denied approval for a zoning change and a possible conflict of interest forced the bidding process to start over.
Council members also passed a recommendation to restrict the number of beds available at the Trent site.
Woodward said the city specifically looked for a facility that could accommodate a large population, which she defined as 250 or more people.
However, the recommendation passed by the city council does not require the city to limit shelter capacity.
"There's been no ordinance that's been passed that would require us to do so," Woodward said. "So we're continuing to move forward with the plan that we've initiated, and that is a larger, low barrier shelter. We need the capacity."
While the city is focused on opening a large, high-capacity shelter, some council members wonder if that is the answer.
Spokane City Council member Zack Zappone told KREM 2 that the size of the proposed shelter was based on "best practices", in which a shelter includes more services to make sure people experiencing homelessness are able to move into permanent housing.
"When one group wants to just push forward no matter what, with their vision, without compromising discussion and trying to come up with what's going to work best for our community, it really prolongs the process," he said.
Many Spokane homeowners believe the process to open a shelter is already taking too long. Neighbors in the area of I-90 and Freya Street are especially frustrated, as the tent encampment there on Department of Transportation (DOT) land continues to grow.
At last count, the encampment sat at more than 300 people in tents and campers.
Woodward said the city plans to connect the people staying at the tent encampment to the shelter and its services. Should they choose not to go, Woodward said it will be their decision.
"But we're going to make it a lot easier for them to make that decision," she added.
As part of an informal poll, KREM 2 asked 21 people in the tent encampment near I-90 and Freya is they would use a large shelter space. 57% said no.
Seattle saw a similar issue of shelter resistance, which prompted a non-profit organization to create villages of tiny homes for those experiencing homelessness in the Puget Sound area.
Woodward said she is open to the idea of tiny homes, but added that a city has to find the right place and have the right infrastructure for this to become a reality.
"There's a lot of considerations that go into that," she said. "But I think that's a great option, especially for transitional housing."
The mayor's office is currently budgeting up to $3 million to operate the proposed Trent shelter, as well as an additional $10 to $13 million to fund House of Charity's move to a new location outside of the downtown Spokane core.
However, some wonder if that money could be used more effectively elsewhere.
Sara Rankin, a professor at Seattle University's School of Law, has researched homelessness in western Washington since 2015. She said emergency shelters are not long-term solutions.
"You can invest money in that, but don't be surprised when the problem doesn't resolve itself," she added. "Don't be surprised when homelessness doesn't go down. Because you don't have exits for people who are in emergency interventions to go to."
Those interventions, according to Rankin, include long-term affordable housing and drug and mental health programs. Woodward said both are included in her Homeless Plan 2.0, but they will take time.
"If we can incentivize and come alongside some of these developers and work with them, we have funds that we can help subsidize some of those apartments with," Woodward said. "And we need more mental health counselors, for people who have a mental illness. We have a workforce shortage crisis when it comes to mental health counselors."
When asked for her response to residents who say a big shelter will not fix the problem of the tent city on DOT property, Woodward said if the shelter has the bed space, it can be used as a tool to prevent them from camping.
KREM 2 reached out to DOT for a response to the city's plans. They sent the following statement:
To remove the camp requires an adequate amount of both high and low barrier shelter space, which to date has not materialized. We are hopeful that through the current discussions taking place on adding additional shelter bed space, that once available, we will be able react quickly and remove the camp.
Spokane's latest Point-in-Time count shows there are nearly 1,800 people experiencing homelessness in the city. Roughly half are considered un-housed, meaning they have nowhere else to go but the streets.
This is one of the reasons Woodward said the city needs to start with the basics.
"We can't let perfect get in the way of good and we've been very transparent from the very beginning," Woodward said. "This isn't the perfect facility. This isn't the perfect plan, but it's the best facility and the best plan that we have right now."