Earlier this month, Mayor David Condon stood before reporters to deliver some good news. The final numbers from a count in January of people without permanent housing had been finalized, showing that the number of homeless was 1,033, a 10 percent decrease from last year. Condon attributed the drop to better coordination between social service providers, new policies that prioritize housing for the chronically homeless and $8 million in funds from the federal government, which has prioritized ending homelessness.
But the results from the count also reveal that the number of chronically homeless individuals in Spokane had risen from 151 to 219. Sheila Morley, community homeless program manager with the city of Spokane, says that the increase is due, at least in part, to the city doing a better job connecting with and counting chronically homeless individuals.
According to Morley, there are 233 housing units in Spokane set aside for the chronically homeless; all are currently occupied. Although the city is planning on building 100 more units for this population, says Morley, that still won't meet the demand. In the meantime, one approach the city has ruled out is allowing tent cities or encampments, which have been allowed by officials in Seattle and Portland.
"Camping is not a solution to homelessness," says Jonathan Mallahan, the city's director of community and neighborhood services. Homeless encampments tend to become more visible in the warmer months, says Mallahan, as they move closer to the river. In Spokane, police will give people found sitting or lying on the street 24 hours notice before arresting or citing them under the city's sit-lie ordinance (unless shelters are full).
Mark Richard, president of the Downtown Spokane Partnership, says that downtown used to have a bigger problem with people sitting on the sidewalk blocking doorways, gathering in large, menacing mobs and openly using drugs, particularly during the summer months. City policies, he says, have given police a tool that helps push homeless people towards needed services.
A man calling himself Texas Hound has seen the other side of these policies. Last month, he was camping out to protest the sit-lie ordinance, which he says violates the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the U.S. Constitution, and also because he says he just doesn't want to go to a shelter.
Originally from a town outside of Dallas, Texas Hound says that he's been homeless for about three years and had an abusive childhood. He has a red beard and wears weathered, military-style pants and boots. He dreams of becoming a lawyer.
He receives Social Security benefits for a litany of mental health problems and avoids living in indoor environments, which he says causes him to "fall apart." Where he sleeps, he says, is often "random." Even in the winter, he says he wrapped himself in leather jackets, a trench coat and an aging military sleeping bag in the 10-degree weather, with snow falling.
"It's weird for me," he says. "I've been locked in a room as a child; I've been locked in mental institutions. When I sleep next to dirt or grass, I feel more in tune with my surroundings."
Michael Stoops, director of community organizing for the National Coalition for the Homeless, says that nationally, more cities are making efforts to connect the homeless with services, but many still approach the issue with sweeps of encampments, issuing tickets and making arrests. He says there can be a problem with the latter approach.
"This is America, and homeless people do have the constitutional right to travel," he says. "And what we've found is that requiring people or trying to force people into accepting services doesn't fly, especially with people who've been on the streets for a while."
Older individuals who have long lived on the street may be the most reluctant to go to a shelter, Stoops says, because it means adhering to rules. He says that many people on the street refuse services because of mental health or substance issues. These individuals, he says, require more persistence from outreach workers.
According to Spokane's most recent count, there were 132 unsheltered homeless individuals in the city. Spokane Police Captain Brad Arleth routinely encounters individuals camping illegally, most of whom, he says, are aware of the anti-camping ordinance and the services available. Many know where to get clothing, food or charge a cellphone, he says. Many are aware of shelters, but "a lot of them aren't too keen on it."
Rob McCann, executive director of Catholic Charities, was attending a meeting nearby when he saw Texas Hound and others being approached by the police last month. He told the campers all about the meals, housing, laundry, storage and medical services his organization offers. He says they had lunch, but left afterward.
"It's a bad thing that people are camping outside," he says. "We should give the homeless more dignity."
McCann says that getting someone off the streets isn't always an easy process, recalling a client who slept in the backyard of a duplex secured for him for months before sleeping inside. People like Texas Hound, he says, represent a small minority of homeless people. The large majority, he says, desperately want services.
He points to people like Samuel Pernell, who had a lunch of a fish sandwich, corn and salad at House of Charity, operated by Catholic Charities. Pernell, 59, says he's spent two years on the streets, and the hardest part of every day is when the sun goes down. He's applied for housing and has an interview scheduled for an apartment.
"I'd take anything with four walls and a roof," he says.
City officials are now looking at how to continue their success in reducing homelessness. The Mayor's Task Force on Urban Environment is completing a report that will include recommendations on consolidating services, helping people with disability benefits and providing more options for youth.
But camping still won't remain an option.
"I think people have a right to live their life in a way they find meaningful," Mallahan says. "The challenge is, they have to do the same thing the rest of us do and conform to the rules of our community." ♦