The weather is cold, and problems related to so-called "street kids" have faded. Last summer, perceptions were formed by breathless news reports warning of unprovoked violence; some business owners claimed they gave up because of too many menacing youths.
The problem has not gone away; when the warm weather returns, it will, too. This is a compassionate community, but patience is wearing thin. As we decide what's out of bounds on the sidewalks of downtown Spokane, here are a few guidelines for us all to keep in mind:
KNOW THEIR NAMES: Every kid has a story, and when you hear them, it can feel like we've failed them. In October, we wrote about a 22-year-old who had fled home and was left to contemplate raising her unborn child on the streets. She has a name — Harleigh Coulter — and she is one of us.
One local activist who helps young people like Coulter described them as "screaming for a purpose, for a place to belong, for a reason to be." Knowing their names and their stories is where compassion starts — and compassion needs to be the foundation for our strategy. But firm discipline needs to be part of that strategy, too.
REACH OUT: Once our rules and strategies are articulated and vetted — and this is happening — everyone needs to step up. Police, yes, but Downtown Spokane Partnership ambassadors, business owners and even the kids themselves may help enforce the rules. And instead of dropping change into an outstretched hand, citizens can send their spare change to Crosswalk or one of the many other great charities working our streets.
One public safety official in Portland described their street-kid strategy as "talking them to exhaustion" — engaging them, constantly reminding them of what is out of bounds (absolute zero tolerance for violence or threats), and pointing out when they're scaring people and hurting businesses. But also invite them to a forum on finding solutions, and introduce them — in person — to the people who want to help them.
DON'T WAIT: With the hot weather a few months away and emotions still cooled off, now is the time to be having this conversation. Everyone needs to work from the same script with the same goals — and that will take sharing a vision and a plan with the community.
We have a lot of hopes and dreams for Spokane, and a vibrant downtown is crucial to them all. We simply cannot allow our sidewalks and public spaces to be hijacked. But we have hopes and dreams for our kids, too. It's not easy to confront both challenges, but right now, that's where we are. ♦