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Spokane Mayor, City Council candidates face questions on homelessness at forum

The candidates faced audience questions on issues relating to homelessness at the hour-and-a-half long forum at the downtown Spokane Public Library.

The above video is a report on what endorsements Spokane mayoral candidates have received.

SPOKANE, Wash. - The candidates for Spokane Mayor and City Council fielded questions regarding homelessness in the city during a forum at the downtown Spokane Public Library on Thursday morning.

The forum was sponsored by the Spokane Homeless Coalition, the Spokane Low Income Housing Consortium and the Spokane Library.

Mayoral candidates Ben Stuckart and Nadine Woodward and City Council President candidates Breean Beggs and Cindy Wendle took the stage and answered audience submitted questions about homelessness.

Stuckart has been the Spokane City Council President for six years. Woodward is a former broadcast journalist who worked at KXLY and KREM for 28 years before retiring this Febraury.

Beggs has served on the Spokane City Council representing south Spokane's District 2 since 2017. Wendle is a businesswoman and former banker who serves as co-owner and manager of North Town Square mall.

The candidates were allowed two minutes to answer each question, and after all candidates had answered, they were each allowed a 30 second response. In total, six questions were asked in addition to opening and closing statements. The main topics in the debate about homelessness were what causes homelessness and how to fix it, where new housing or shelters should be built, and how to protect vulnerable populations.

Watch the full debate below, or click here to watch.

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Cause of homelessness, possible solutions

One of the biggest issues the candidates had to face in questions during the forum were what they thought caused people to be homeless.

Stuckart was the first to answer the question, and cited the reasons given by people during the January 2019 Point in Time count. He said there were at least 20 different reasons given for homelessness, ranging from domestic violence and lack of affordable housing to substance abuse and mental health issues.

He said the city needs to focus on providing people paths out of homelessness, such as housing vouchers and job programs.

"We need to be providing people ways out," Stuckart said.

He also said income hasn't kept up with housing costs, putting a strain on buyers and the market.

Woodward said social workers she has spoken with claim that most homeless people they interact with suffer from either substance abuse or mental health issues. But when it comes to other issues, Woodward said resources already exist for those going through a hard time and not suffering substance abuse or mental illness.

"I agree other issues exist. We have plenty of programs for those kind of people in transition," Woodward said.

Woodward also said that Spokane should look toward other cities, like Marysville, for ideas on how to combat homelessness. In addition to saying people need to be held accountable, she also said resources need to be brought to people suffering homelessness instead of only in one central location.

"We need to shepherd these people through the process, they're a community," she said. 

Beggs was the first council president candidate to answer the question, saying that community court, an outlet mentioned by Woodward, was a great resource but can't help everyone.

"Community court is great, but that only helps people in the criminal justice system," Beggs said.

Beggs also said that those who are homeless are more vulnerable to substance abuse and mental health issues, and that current resources for these issues don't have the capacity to take on more people.

He also said when it comes to crime, more criminals have homes than criminals that are homeless.

Wendle started off by also mentioning the Point in Time count, saying that the top two issues she saw were lack of income and family conflict. She said the city needs to ask those affected by the issue for help coming up with solutions.

"We need to ask better questions. If we just assume, its not going to work," she said.

Wendle, along with all of the other candidates, also said this was not a new issue, and that the city knew it would be an issue in 2015.

"We had a plan in 2015, but now its 2019," she said.

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Location of new housing, shelters

The building of new housing and possible new shelters was also a hot topic, as a proposed homeless shelter at Havana St. and Sprague Ave.earlier this year drew strong reactions from the community.

Woodward said she doesn't believe Spokane needs another 24-hour low-barrier shelter, which means that no one can be turned away based on protected class status. She called the plans for the Havana and Sprague shelter a disaster.

"These things take planning and organization, and that was an absolute disaster," she said.

She said that she wants the city to wait for the Ninth District decision on an appeal in Boise v. Martin, which currently mandates that a city without enough shelter beds for its homeless population can't enforce a sit-lie ordinance.

Woodward said Spokane should look to building more downtown and encourage condominiums, as well as a vibrant downtown. She also said the city knew a housing crisis was coming.

"That warning came four years ago, and we didn't respond correctly," she said.

Stuckart said the city needs to provide shelter because "every human deserves dignity," and part of that is having shelter.

He said it was unrealistic to not build enough shelter for everyone, and that if people die over the winter because they don't have a place to stay overnight, that responsibility will fall on the public. He also said without shelters that people would be camping in every park come winter.

"If we don't have shelters, we will turn into Seattle and there will be people camping in every park this winter," he said. "If you don't want public camping and you don't want to be Seattle, we must open a shelter."

Stuckart said affordable housing should be built downtown and in vacant parking lots, making downtown and main corridors more dense. He also argued against waiting for the Ninth District's decision in Boise v. Martin.

Wendle recused herself from a question about where shelters should be due to a conflict of interest due to her real estate background.

As for locations, she said Spokane needs unique solutions and shouldn't rely on the federal government to help, as that's what led to the homelessness issue originally. She also warned against letting corporations buying up housing-coded land, as that makes it more expensive.

Beggs said at the end of the day, the most important thing was getting a shelter built. He said that when Spokane Mayor David Condon closed one of the shelters last year, the city council asked that he do so only if plans for another shelter were confirmed.

"A year ago, the mayor closed about 150 or 250 beds at House of Charity, and the city council said,'we get it, too much concentration in one place is a problem, but make sure you have another place'," Beggs said.

Beggs said he didn't know an exact location for a new shelter, but that staff are working on it.

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How to protect vulnerable populations

Candidates also faced questions on how they would try to protect vulnerable populations, in particular the homeless and those who are homeless and identify as transgender.

Wendle said the best way to protect vuleranable populations was to prevent people from being in vulnerable situations in the first place.

"I want to protect our most vulnerable by not having any vulnerable in the first place," Wendle said.

She also said that being proactive and actively trying to help those experiencing homelessness is a way to lower the number of people vulnerable.

As for those identifying as transgender, Wendle said she may agree or disagree with different private groups on how they decide who to serve, but that its not the government's place to tell them how to operate.

"It is unfair of this community to tell people and organizations what to do. Its not our job to tell you what to do," Wendle said.

Beggs said Spokane needs to ask the Washington state legislature for more help as the city itself doesn't provide social workers.

"We need more, and we need to go to the legislature and say this is not enough," Beggs said.

For the transgender homeless population, Beggs spoke about his experience as a civil rights attorney and defending transgender people.

"In my legal life, I have represented many trans people to vindicate their rights," he said.

He also said that law requires those receiving public funds to serve transgender individuals, and that he disagrees with organizations that don't provide service, but understands from a faith standpoint that different groups hold different beliefs.

Stuckart gave a short answer to the first question about vulnerable people, saying shelter was the best way.

"First thing you do is provide shelter and a safe place to be, because if they're on the streets, they're 24 times more likely than a person with a home to be a victim of crime," he said.

Stuckart also said he doesn't agree with allowing organizations to discriminate against someone based on gender identity, and cited the rule that makes it so high-barrier shelters, which are privately ran and can pick and choose who to provide service to, aren't counted toward a city's total shelter bed count.

Woodward cited her plan to bring back a police precinct to downtown Spokane and putting more police foot patrols downtown to prevent crime that victimizes the homeless.

"We need to start enforcing our laws, even the small ones," she said.

As for the transgender population, Woodward said private organizations can do what they want, but if they take government resources they must serve everyone, per state law. She also said some private groups have done great work in Spokane.

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The following video is a report on voter turnout in the 2019 Spokane County Primary Election.

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