homelessness 04 17

SPOKANE, Wash. - Imagine a Spokane where homelessness was a thing of the past.

It's a vision Catholic Charities Executive Director, Rob McCann, believed could have been a reality by this year or next.

In December of 2016, McCann told the Spokesman-Review, "We think we can reduce homelessness to next to nothing," he said. "The goal should be to end homelessness, and not just someday, but by 2019, 2020.”

It's an ambitious and noble goal that should be applauded. And when McCann told the Spokesman-Review his hopes for the future of homelessness, it wasn't just talk; He was doing something about it.

According to the story, Catholic Charities helped 73 people go from the streets to a permanent apartment that year.

Fast-forward to today, and Spokane's homeless population is more or less the same.

According to the Annual Point-in-Time Count, which is a snapshot census of people experiencing certain categories of homelessness throughout Spokane County, there are currently 1,309 people experiencing homelessness.

Of those people, there are stories of continued successes and clear challenges.

The results of the count showed continued progress in reducing homelessness for several populations, including: continued decrease in veteran homelessness (28 percent since 2017), a decrease in chronic homelessness (21 percent since 2017), and 8 percent fewer families experiencing homelessness.

However, results also indicate an increase in homelessness among single adults. Also, 30 percent of those surveyed indicated they were experiencing homelessness for the first time.

So, how can the City of Spokane help make McCann's goal come true? It's a debate city leaders, police, firefighters and even mayoral candidates are all weighing in on.

While the City has spent millions of dollars on trying to solve homelessness, including laying boulders beneath I-90, the issue is still as visible today as it's been for the last several years.

"Twenty-five years ago when I first started, if I saw three people downtown that were homeless, that was considered an anomaly," said Spokane Chief of Police, Craig Meidl, during a testimony in front of the House Civil Rights and Judiciary Committee on April 2. "Now you can find three people on one block."

Meidl says while homelessness doesn't contribute to an increase in crime citywide, it has skewed statistics in specific areas of downtown.

For example, Chief Meidl says officers responded to more than 300 calls at Spokane's three warming shelters between Nov. 2018 and March of this year, a time when the House of Charity ended it's 24-hour shelter program.

Meidl says officers responded to just 35 total calls for service at the same warming shelters the two years prior combined.

"So we know we have some issues we're struggling with there," said Meidl.

Among several factors like giving cash to panhandlers or a lack of drug addiction treatment, Chief Meidl says the four Catholic Charities apartment buildings meant to house the homeless isn't working because it concentrates crime in one area.

Many business owners around the House of Charity are concerned about the rise in the homeless population downtown, saying that it's hurting business. Other business owners are choosing to leave the area.

While some attempts to solve homelessness aren't working, Chief Meidl says things like Community Court and accountability programs through the Union Gospel Mission and Salvation Army appear to be helping.

Either way, he says there is no one solution when it comes to the fight against homelessness.

"Compared to what I saw in the past, it's much more complicated and more complex" said Meidl. "If you say homelessness is because of mental health you'd be partially right but not completely right. If you said it's because of drug addiction you'd be partially right but not completely correct. Job loss, domestic violence, and a lot of people are homeless because they have a choice or desire to be homeless."

Meidl says Spokane does not lack in services, but the issue is getting more homeless men and women to use them.