Make them “less comfortable"
These words of City of Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward might be her credo: “I think we need to get to the point where we’re working to make homelessness less comfortable and get people connected to services.” [the bold is mine]
Woodward uttered that sentence in April of 2022 as she defended a plan to lease, at an exorbitant fee, a large building on east Trent from Larry Stone, a local developer, major campaign contributor, and the instigator and money behind “Curing Spokane”.* Woodward’s experience with homelessness consisted of a brief, televised campaign stop in 2019. She visited a site where volunteers were serving food to people living without conventional shelter downtown. From her 2019 campaign onward Woodward’s plans were focused more on moving the visible unsheltered out of downtown than they were on questioning and dealing with the “why” of the unsheltered population or on offering them a lifeline to becoming sheltered.
Advocates with actual experience working with people living unsheltered raised concerns that trying to warehouse hundreds of people in a one-size-fits-all shelter would produce more problems than it would solve. Ignoring those with actual experience—and a City Council resolution making the same point, Woodward pushed forward with plans for the Trent Shelter (aka TRAC, aka “Woodward’s Warehouse”).
Woodward’s Warehouse is the embodiment of the “less comfortable” solution: Entering the TRAC shelter means giving up most of one’s limited independence to live far from services, crammed together with hundreds of other unsheltered individuals with varying levels of mental stability, drug use, and sexual predator tendencies in a facility without indoor plumbing. In exchange, Woodward’s Warehouse offers heat and the minimal assurance that police and city workers won’t sweep you away and throw your belongings in a dumpster.
The 2018 U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit case, Martin v. Boise, prohibits government from enforcing anti-camping restrictions unless there are shelter beds available. Were it not for Martin v. Boise one has the feeling that the Woodward administration wouldn’t have pursued any expansion of shelter capacity whatsoever. After all, behind the “less comfortable” mindset is the worldview that people only leave their derelict ways and seek betterment when being unsheltered becomes sufficiently miserable. Offer them some help—but don’t make it too easy for them to access that help—after all, that would rob them of initiative. In Woodward’s worldview, finding oneself without shelter is a moral failing—the result of “bad choices”. For the Woodward crowd the “bad choice” of drug use is what leads to losing one’s shelter. She cannot consider that the reverse might be true, that the despair, the hopelessness of living unsheltered, shunned, and demeaned might trigger drug use as the only visible escape from one’s predicament.
One of Woodward’s most glaring failings as a Mayor is her insistence that it is her way or the highway. She seems incapable of collaboration, incapable of acknowledging what advocates for the unsheltered population keep telling her: 1) that each unsheltered person has their own story, their own barriers, their own despair, and 2) that a one-size-fits-all congregate shelter of hundreds of people is a potential nightmare. For Mayor Woodward, former County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich, and Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl, the people of Camp Hope were a threat to be cleared, pushed out, made invisible. Even though the Woodward administration did not possess and could not offer shelter, Woodward, instead of offering collaboration, spent our “hard-earned taxpayer dollars” (to highlight Republican buzzwords) to fund legal challenges threatening the residents of Camp Hope with forceable clearance. Simultaneously, the administration engaged in passive aggression by refusing to offer a water hook up, threatening neighbors who did, and withholding police assistance from Camp Hope, even when Camp administration requested help.
In stark contrast to Woodward’s my-way-or-the-highway confrontational approach Washington State’s Right of Way (ROW) Safety Initiative (early 2022) offered help in a collaborative manner. Funds voted by the legislature and administered through the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) were directed at providing shelter and housing options to those encamped on WSDOT-owned lands in four counties, including Spokane. Woodward would rather that no one understand that the ROW Safety Initiative provided two million dollars to support Woodward’s Warehouse (aka TRAC, aka the Trent Shelter). Jewels Helping Hands, the organization that managed Camp Hope, led by Julie Garcia, received 1.56 million dollars via a subcontract with Empire Health Foundation (EHF). The 1.56 million part of the 3.47 million is shown in the table below. (From the 1.56 million, Julie Garcia, as founder, chief officer, and in-the-camp administrator of Camp Hope, billed EHS for less than $40,000. All the rest of the money supported the basic functions of Camp Hope.)
Bottom line: While the Washington State legislature via WSDOT was providing funds in a collaborative way to tackle a large and growing problem, Mayor Woodward was spending City money on threats and lawsuits and withholding City assistance, all in an attempt to sabotage an effort that conflicted with her pre-conceived notions. This is no way to run a city.
Keep to the high ground,
* “Curing Spokane” was a widely circulated, 17 minute YouTube video modeled after “Seattle is Dying”. Both videos showcase the unhoused population of each city with emphasis on footage of the mentally ill and the most depraved individuals the videographers could find, footage meant to demonize the entire unhoused population. Both offer punitive or inane solutions. (Example: put the Spokane downtown bus station underground.) Both videos are essentially campaign ads for candidates favoring sweep-them-away, get-them-out-of-sight policies. Since neither explicitly names candidates, the people financing these productions manage to dodge campaign finance regulations while (mostly) concealing their names.