On December 4, 2018, a panel of local service, policing, and business representatives, moderated by KHQ’s Sean Owsley, engaged in a roundtable about the efforts taking place to address complex issues around homelessness and the challenges faced by downtown property and business owners.

Watch the Live Stream

What is the plan to get the homeless not just off the street but working and healthy?

Several agencies such as Goodwill, SNAP, Workforce Development, Union Gospel Mission and Pioneer Human Services provide access to training and/or employment, but better coordination is needed.  The City of Spokane was selected to receive Federal support for the creation of a new one stop shop concept (The Envision Center) that will connect people with needed services, including employment opportunities, and their new 5 year RFP cycle should strengthen individual agencies abilities to deliver on longer term, more cohesive programs.  It was identified in the forum that additional resources are needed for both mental health and substance abuse services.

As a business owner, how do we encourage campers causing issues with our customer to move along?  They are led to believe they have a right to be there? Who pays taxes?

We recommend a multifaceted approach to this issue that starts with respectful requests and handing out our resource guide so people know where they can get assistance.  In addition, you can make a big difference by modifying the physical conditions that encourage loitering and camping behaviors such as adding extensive use of light, cameras, no trespass signage, the removal of landscape materials that allow sleeping, gating off alcoves and removing places to sit, camp or panhandle on or near your property, as well as persistent removal of graffiti and waste that make a property look unattended to.  In addition, regular calls to Crime Check help Police track trends in camping and loitering that assist them in deploying their limited resources. Posting no trespass signs allows SPD to enforce should that be needed. If your property is inside the BID boundary, please contact the Security Ambassadors at 509-353-9111 and we can assist you directly.

What resources are available to the property owners that elects to allow overnight stays (15-20) on their own porch space? City? DSP? Cleaning assistance outreach behavioral or mental health outreach?

Professional service providers strongly discourage this kind of arrangement as it is nearly impossible to manage the activity and behavior that ensues; often leading to illegal behavior on and around the property and encouraging/enabling people to remain homeless as well as putting the homeless in potentially dangerous conditions.  Directing people to one of the many sanctioned indoor shelters is vastly more successful in creating a safe environment where people are much more likely to learn about and accept the services they need. Among the new shelters the City has just coordinated to open with various community partners is one specifically for teens.

Are there plans to build anymore long term housing for homeless in our neighborhood?  With the concentration of homeless people in this neighborhood it seems like it would be fair to build any future apartments in the other parts of town.

This is a concern shared among the downtown community.  The concentration of social services and housing in the south downtown core has proven to be problematic. While it is efficient to have social services co-located, over concentration has proven to be detrimental both to the person seeking help and the community within which these services are provided.  The City, in acknowledging this issue, is now working on a number of initiatives to update the regional homeless plan in such a way that facilitates a disbursement model deemed to be a national best practice methodology. The City’s decision to reduce the number of available beds at House of Charity was the first major step in addressing this issue, with the unintended by product being a shortage of shelter space in the short term.  More recently, the City has intentionally sited warming shelters dispersed more widely across the city. A more permanent shelter to replace the loss of beds at the HOC facility is being planned for someplace other than downtown Spokane. In addition, the DSP has joined some members of Council in calling for Spokane Valley and other municipalities increasing their level of commitment to providing services for the homeless there, rather than expecting that the City bare the burden of providing care for those in need in the downtown core. Catholic Charities has two additional 50 bed facilities planned for downtown (2nd and Pacific and Sprague and Division) with the former under construction.  We have asked Catholic Charities to consider relocating its plans for Sprague and Division and to refrain from concentrating any more facilities in this area, as it simply cannot sustain the impacts, and best practice models have proven concentrating poverty in one geographic area to be detrimental to the person being served as well. and Catholic Charities has committed to not planning future facilities downtown for the time being, but is continuing with the Division property. The City is also implementing a more dispersed model by locating the HUD/City partnership Envision Center pilot project further east on Arthur.

Given Dawn’s info:  of only 20 out of 40 beds were recently used at The Cannon St Shelter.  Is there a method or policy for taking daily counts or filled /empty spaces to better track use of these facilities?

Yes, City staff in the Community Housing and Human Services department tracks use of overnight warming shelters on a daily basis and distributes that information to social service providers as well as SPD to monitor trends and identify what services may be needed at each location since the intended population for each shelter may differ (e.g. the youth shelter mentioned earlier). The City is reviewing other methods for public dissemination of this information without creating confusion or frustration due to changing populations.

Do any of the organizations represented here tonight, but mostly the city, catholic charities, or Police, have an identifiable plan for the situation on Brown under the BNSF elevated overpass?  Or is the plan not to have a plan and let it continue to grow organically?

The DSP Clean Team partners with the City, BNSF, SPD and Geiger to clean the Brown Street underpass on a weekly basis and we are grateful that the City recently engaged in community policing at this location; making regular stop, warning then citing people for violations of the law and insisting that camping in this area was obstructing pedestrian traffic such that it was no longer acceptable.  

Why do we not cover downtown with Ambassadors 24/7? Their presence is so effective!

Thank you for the kind words.  What enables Security Ambassador presence is the financial support of business and property owners to fund both clean and safe services that strive to stay ahead of negative behaviors by stripping graffiti, cleaning up messes and keeping the peace.  We would welcome a discussion of the pros and cons for providing this presence in the south downtown area. Contact us if you are interested!

Regrettably, our teams do not have the proper authority, equipment and training to manage the heightened safety issues that exist in the late evening and evening/early morning.  The Spokane Police is the proper agency to serve in this role. The City Council is advancing a ballot measure, that if successful, will fund an additional team of 5 officers to expand SPD coverage to 24/7 in downtown.  we would welcome a discussion of the pros and cons for providing this presence in the south downtown area. Contact us if you are interested!

We heard the panel talk about what a great job everyone is doing to address homelessness.  If everyone is doing such a great job, why do we have such a big problem? What are we not doing? Is there a lack of funding? Lack of infrastructure?

The causes of homelessness are so wide ranging and complex as to preclude a quick answer that truly does justice to this question. While there are great initiatives and efforts underway, clearly we are far from resolving either homelessness or the adverse impacts homelessness has on the community.  What was agreed upon at the forum is the need for additional effort and potentially funding for mental health and substance abuse treatment, as well as the removal of barriers and exploration of best practices to address insufficient affordable housing that aligns with our community’s income levels.  What was not addressed, and we contend should be, is what can be done to widen access to education and the trades to prepare people for access into the workforce. In addition, and Sadly, the prevalence of opioid drugs has become a national issue that must be addressed if we are to make progress along these lines, as presently we have a growing population unable and unwilling to join the workforce; causing them to be trapped in a life of homelessness and lawlessness.  

What is your plan for a low barrier housing & long term impact of that?

Several low barrier housing projects have been built or are in the pipeline for completion over the next couple of years. While access to shelter as the first course of action toward healing has merit and has been successful in getting a few hundred people off our streets and into an apartment; of critical importance is the proper staffing of case management and security necessary to assist residents at all hours of the day.  Unfortunately, federal policy presently favors funding for brick and mortar low barrier housing units and not the staffing ratios necessary to keep residents and the surrounding communities safe. Community concerns around this and the destruction of downtown neighborhoods that concentration of low barrier housing is causing must be addressed.

What percentage of violent crimes in Spokane are committed by homeless people? I noticed that frequently lighting is not on or burned-out on downtown streets.  Is there a way that our city can keep up on this?

The City does not keep stats on the residential status of individuals who commit crimes, but we will commit to further research to see what information can be gleaned from their statistics.  That said, preliminary anecdotal evidence points to a small percentage of homeless people participating in criminal behavior but those who are, are committing an inordinate amount of crime; often non-violent theft to fund an addiction.  Your point about light is very observant. Lighting is an important element of CPTED (Crime prevention through environmental design) strategies. The DSP is working with the City, BNSF and private owners to raise the level of awareness and maintenance on lighting.  If you become aware of a city streetlight that is out, please contact 311. For private property that is underlit or dark, please contact the DSP.

What does the line between compassion and tough love look like for you and your organization? What efforts to address homelessness give you the most hope?

We believe this question is most relevant to how we as a community need to be working with people suffering from addiction as a key component of reducing homelessness.  

We believe compassion and tough love are not mutually exclusive.  We would argue it is much more compassionate, and yet a demonstration of tough love for instance, to give a person our respect, information, and access to services and a job provided by professionals in a structured environment, than to pass out money, food, and clothing on the street.  One, while making life more difficult for them in the short run, offers the best promise of that person choosing a better, more sustainable path for themselves. The other runs the significant risk of keeping them entrapped in a life of homelessness and reliance on the continued generosity of others.  

If we agree with the premise that addicts must hit rock bottom before they are ready for help, and that they must be ready for help to get help, then it stands to reason tough love is a fundamental component of the strategies necessary to reducing homelessness, for without it we will forever provide them with just enough to keep them from hitting rock bottom. Our organization believes we all should all show compassion; starting each encounter with respect and a genuine effort to empathize.  

Can the city build more public restrooms?

There are differing views on the benefits and outcomes of providing public restrooms for people who are homeless. While we want to treat every person with dignity, and we know the need is there; dozens and dozens of businesses have had to lock their restrooms due to illegal activity, property damage and the conditions left that make them unusable for customers and employees. This has occurred in portable restrooms as well, and evidence indicates they are often not used for their intended purpose. Thus far we have not found a community where public restrooms have become a viable solution.  If you are aware of research to the contrary, please let us know.

How many cities have you (catholic charities) researched to learn successful management for permanent homeless housing? Sent the !#1 rule to disperse housing to avoid normalizing unhealthy behaviors & creating gang behaviors.

We will request a response from Catholic Charities and get back to you.   

Why do we allow cities to purchase one way bus tickets for homeless to Spokane?

We have heard a lot of anecdotal information indicating that this is occurring but it is hard to prove, and even harder to stop if it is happening.  The last and previous year’s Point In Time Count of the homeless indicates that the approximately 20-30% of the homeless population in downtown is from out of the community.  There are a variety of theories behind this, but his is average for communities of our size across the country that conduct similar counts.

Do we have any plans for a semi-permanent tent city in our downtown area?

No and we certainly do not condone a tent city in downtown for the reasons given above.  

How do we know that shelters work? How do we fit into the big picture of homelessness?

We believe shelters work when they are properly staffed and have clear expectations, rules of conduct and a defined path to programs and services proven to break the cycle of homelessness. If your second question is how we as a City fit in the big picture; we are not unlike many cities our size dealing with these challenges.  We believe that having enough best-practice services that include rules, expectations for outcomes and proper staffing are all important aspects for a successful outcome. Having expectations and laws that are enforced to address the small but destructive segment of the homeless population that suffer from addiction is equally important, as is sufficient law enforcement and detention services to hold those accountable who wish to violate our laws.  If the question was more directed to how we can affect change as individuals, we would suggest being a part of the message; sharing what you have learned and believe with those you know and with your elected officials. We also recommend volunteering and financially supporting best-practice nonprofits that provide expertly run programs and access to services and employment that include adequate expectations such that people in need regain their self-worth.  Steer clear of unorganized and/or street level charities that do not include those elements. It might seem like noble work but pop up charity efforts often equate to enabling people to stay homeless and attract homeless people, some of whom, without walls or rules, present very real challenges for the property and business owners and the employees and visitors who otherwise would support them.

I understand the need to provide more services for people who are homeless, but doesn’t that attract more people from outside the area and increase the community problems that we are already experiencing?  It seems like an unsustainable solution for Spokane. Crime, panhandling, sanitation problems, etc.

It can, if not properly staffed and managed.  Please support us in calling upon the City to make these and other conditions (proper design, decentralized locations, and accountability for actions) are included for service providers receiving local funding.   

Is there another city that in a 5 block area has 5 housing first + 2 low barrier shelters and not seen a skid row?

You raise a very valid question; one that we will research because we too share your concern for the deteriorating conditions in this area of downtown

Can we do something to discourage the influx of so many homeless in the direct downtown area, such as making panhandling illegal?  We have provided them so much, they don’t want to change. If it’s harder for them they may change because they have to.

Unfortunately, the reality is that most activities that are problematic including panhandling, sitting-lying on sidewalks or in building entrances, camping on sidewalks or other public spaces, public consumption of alcohol and other intoxicants, and public urination or defecation are already illegal. It is absolutely crucial to the future of downtown that we enforce these and other reasonable laws against a small percentage of homeless who are destroying our community’s good will toward all who are homeless, and our city in the process.  Downtown is the proverbial goose that is laying the golden egg- creating the highest number and concentration of jobs and tax revenue in the entire region. Please write your Council and Mayor and get others to do the same. Tell them how important downtown is to the economic and cultural vitality of the entire region and that you are looking for solutions that include accountability and consequences for offensive and illegal activity.

What percentage of crimes is caused directly by the homeless vs ‘regular’ criminals?  By crime I mean, violent crime i.e. assaults etc.

We are not aware that the Police track this data, but we will do some research and update you if we find some.  

Do we have enough alcohol and drug rehabilitation facilities/services in Spokane county?

We think the panelists were in agreement that we do not have sufficient treatment services; creating backlogs and lack of treatment when people are ready to get the help they need.  This issue has been raised to Council and needs to be shared by citizens as well so please, write your elected officials.

Supportive Services/Security/Accountability and ‘supportive services’ with Catholic charities $120,000 in security annually is extremely low for the amount of residents/housing specifically what is that money spent on? What’s a breakdown of costs?

It is our sentiment that insufficient security and case management is cause for many of the problems plaguing the south downtown area where the highest concentration of services and housing exists.  We will request some information from CC and do some research on similar facilities before updating this thread.