Mayor Woodward says she was wrong to think city didn't need more low-barrier shelter space

click to enlarge Nadine Woodward is seen near House of Charity and the Browne Street viaduct during a 2021 press conference about conducting homeless sweeps. - DANIEL WALTERS PHOTO
Daniel Walters photo
Nadine Woodward is seen near House of Charity and the Browne Street viaduct during a 2021 press conference about conducting homeless sweeps.

At moments, Mayor Nadine Woodward's press conference yesterday had echoes of her 2019 salvos against the city's record on homelessness.

Following the Sunday shuttering of Spokane's convention center space as an ad-hoc emergency warming center, Woodward described at length the damage — over $90,000 —that she said had been done to the facility.

"For people who maybe aren't used to being indoors and have been living outside for so long, many of them have been using banquet chairs for toilets," Woodward said."Toilet seats were broken. Mirrors were smashed. Holes in the walls, lots of destruction: outlets that were kicked and no longer usable. Just the biohazard service crews who are coming in to clean the carpeting is about $40,000."
It's the sort of description she used in her
"Seattle is Dying"-style critique of the city during her campaign, arguing that the city's low-barrier approach was enabling the homeless, not helping them.

But the big difference now is that instead of being able to show those incidents as the failure of a city strategy, it's her strategy. She was the one who called the convention center to ask them to assist.


"I said, 'Hey, we've got this weather, and we need to figure something out,'" Woodward says. "'Can we use the convention center?' And that's how we ended up at the convention center."

Her administration was the one that made a decision to extend the shelter another week and her administration has now put out another call to try to, once again, find last-minute emergency warming center space.

Last June, Woodward inaccurately claimed the city's point-in-time count had concluded that more shelter space wasn't needed, and that instead "if we utilized our existing capacity in a better way, that's the way to approach it, that's the way to get more people to exit homelessness."

And in July, she slammed the City Council for proposing an ordinance to mandate cooling and warming centers, arguing that many of the proposed beds would be "never used."

Yet it wasn't just a few dozen people who showed up at the convention center needing shelter during the recent cold snap. At times, it was over 300 — and that's not counting many of the people who were staying at other shelters.


When the Inlander asked Woodward if she'd changed her mind on the need for more shelter, she said she had.

"What my position was, even coming into this office, was that I didn't think we should continue to build more low-barrier shelters. That that comes at a huge, high cost to our taxpayers," Woodward says. "But I have reassessed that philosophy and see that we do need more low-barrier space. And that's why I have another proposal for a shelter in this budget year, and we are actively looking temporarily for more shelter space, and permanently for more shelter space."

As Woodward has noted, her administration has brought more permanent shelter space online, including the Cannon street shelter and a young adult shelter. Yet her critics have also pointed to times her administration has passed by opportunities to add more shelter space.

And
like the Condon administration, the Woodward administration has repeatedly appeared to be unprepared for the seasonal surge in homeless people needing shelter.

Last April, Woodward expressed confidence that her plan to establish a permanent shelter operator would mean, "we won't be in the position of having to stand up a warming center on the fly." Last June, she told the Inlander, "we're going to avoid the scramble, the ramp-up, and then the ramp down" and that "we're going to be able to pivot very, very quickly."

Yet despite the near-collapse of the city's Community Housing and Human Services department this summer, the Woodward administration didn't seem publicly concerned about the lack of a plan for a warming center space even as winter began.

While the city council had passed an ordinance mandating the department provide a warming and cooling center plan "
no later than September 30 of each year," city spokesman Brian Coddington told the Inlander in November that they had no plan to open up warming centers, and would instead rely on permanent shelter space and vouchers for hotel rooms. City council members heard similar assurances.

"There certainly was an expectation that we had enough shelter space up until the point that it got below the 32 degrees," City Councilman Michael Cathcart says.

But the city's daily reports on the availability of low-barrier shelter beds have repeatedly come under fire, with homelessness activists and some council members arguing the city's figures have been inaccurate, miscategorized, or double-counted.

And when the temperature dropped below freezing, it meant many of the people who had been camping throughout the entire region needed a place to seek safety. 

Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer says he witnessed vehicles arriving with 20 to 30 people at the convention center, including from
"camps in Mead, camps in Spokane Valley, and camps from the west side of Spokane [County]."

Councilman Zack Zappone was critical of the mayor's rhetoric around the damage to the convention center, suggesting the city bore part of the blame for the damage done.


"I think this focuses on dehumanizing people and paints them as criminals," Zappone said at a council study session today.  "It sounds like we created a situation for damages to occur."

As a teacher, he says, if half of his class fails his test, he doesn't blame his students.

"I look at it as a reflection of my lesson," Zappone says. "What can I do better?"

Kinnear struck similar notes, arguing that only having a single major warming center location was setting the convention center up for failure.


"If you put 300 Boy Scouts in a space you're going to see damage and mayhem, quite frankly," Kinnear said.

Zappone and four other council members signed a letter on Tuesday asking the mayor and city administrator a number of questions they'd received from the community, including why the city hadn't published an emergency shelter plan. The two conservative council members, Cathcart and Jonathan Bingle, declined to join in, expressing concern that the letter could be seen as blaming the Woodward administration for the situation.
In fact, unbeknownst to the council until recently, the city had been scrambling to find an official warming center space since even before the cooling sites opened last summer.

"I have been calling facilities for months, quite bummed and disappointed that we weren't able to connect more with our faith-based organizations in our community," Sarah Nuss, the city's director of emergency management, told the council today. "It wasn't because work isn't going on. It's because we're not able to find anyone to work with us."

The Public Facilities District, which runs the convention center, was one of the only places actually willing to offer up their space, even temporarily.

"The trouble is that I knew we didn't have the proper space for this," PFD CEO Stephanie Curran says. "But I didn't feel like I could say no. We didn't want people to freeze on the street."

Woodward asked council members to help her administration in the search for new warming center locations. 

"If you stand ready to help, I have an ask for you," Woodward told city council members today. "I am going to ask each one of you to provide a list of three locations in your districts that have already been vetted out."
Woodward's long list of stipulations for what she wants to see in a warming shelter or site takes many potential locations off the table.

"We want to keep that space out of neighborhoods and away from commercial business districts because we know what the impact can be with those," Woodward says.

It has to be away from daycares and schools, she says. And it has to be a larger building with at least 20,000 square feet.

But a larger size may just mean replicating the problems seen at the convention center, Kinnear says.

"We’re looking for a model that is going to house a great number of people under one roof," Kinnear says. "To me, it spells disaster."

Curran agrees that putting 300 people in a single space is not the answer. Last week, she wrote a response to Sheldon Jackson, a local business owner who organized other business owners in objecting to the city's response to homelessness. In her email, she briefly summarized the sheer quantity of problems her staff faced, from the vandalized bathrooms to the sheer amount of weapons that had been confiscated.

"My staff deserves medals for all they put up with. People urinating on our carpet simply because they don't want to put shoes on to walk to the restroom," Curran wrote. "We need to differentiate between those who need help and want help and those who do not and treat them accordingly."

But by that, Curran tells the Inlander, she doesn't mean that people who don't want help should just freeze. She argues there needs to be a different kind of response to help both groups.

The eighty-some banquet chairs ruined, the carpet a warming-center guest casually drug his knife through, those are just things, she says.

"Damage is damage," Curran says. "Those are all things that can be replaced. What is more upsetting to me, is what got a person to a place where they did this damage."

The silver lining, she says, is showing the Inland Northwest community the sheer scale of what it has to grapple with when it comes to trying to reduce homelessness.

"We did have a shelter. We did bring people inside," Curran says. "It showed Spokane how many people are out on the street. There is a problem. It's not going away."

And Woodward, for her part, says she's learned — and not for the first time — how much more challenging homelessness is than she thought when she was running her campaign.

"Even those who are passing laws requiring me to do certain things I don't think understand how extremely complex and challenging this is," Woodward says. "Otherwise we'd have it all figured out."