That was the situation that Mayor Dennis Hession and his opponent, Councilwoman Mary Verner, walked into last Thursday. Their audience? The Spokane Homeless Coalition. The first question? "Can you describe what you think of when you think of homeless persons and families?"
Verner passed around a photo she had taken of a homeless woman who was resting in the Botanical Gardens in Washington, D.C. The councilwoman called it her everyday "There but for the grace of God go I" reminder. "I had my own situations where I could have just as easily found myself in her shoes," said Verner. "When I think of homelessness, I think of an old beater car, of looking for a place to go to the bathroom and getting a meal."
"Being homeless is unimaginable to me," said Hession when it was his turn. "I just can't picture myself in that situation. Those of us who have homes have such security, places we can go for refuge. Homeless people don't have that."
That was as close to the heart as this forum went. Subsequent questions took the candidates to the cerebral side of homelessness. They talked about policy and the actions the city has taken to help tenants displaced from the New Madison and Commercial Apartments and those who recently received eviction notices from the Otis Hotel. Hession referenced his task force that is studying both short- and long-term affordable housing options. He admitted that the city doesn't yet have a process for requiring anything from developers who bump poor people from their homes.
"Seattle and Portland have adopted their own processes with mixed success," said Hession. "We will get there with our own solution." For now, he says, the city has chosen to work with developers to encourage them to do the right things. "Can we create incentives for them?" he asked rhetorically. "A carrot instead of a stick? Our initial option for Kendall Yards included provisions for low-income housing, but the owner wasn't interested in that."
Hession said the city stepped in and worked to expand the original TIF (the tax increment financing district that will reimburse the developer for some of his costs of installing public infrastructure on his land) into the West Central neighborhood in order "to improve housing values and to help the neighborhood as a whole."
Verner talked of redrawing neighborhood boundaries to help the city improve its chances of landing low-income tax credits from the state. And she reminded her audience that she had asked tough questions when the council debated in the spring whether to approve the Kendall Yards TIF. "I insisted that the city create a neighborhood advisory council so that people in West Central have a seat at the table" in deciding how to spend the city's share of increased tax money created by Kendall Yards, she said.
Afterward, a small number of coalition members didn't seem too impressed. A few said they believe the city has required far too little from the developers. One said a pledge by RenCorp of $10,000 to help Otis Hotel residents isn't nearly enough to fully help displaced tenants find new places to live.
Not really campaign-related, but....
One unintended consequence of the downtown renovations is the forced relocation of the Health District's needle exchange program. For 18 years, Needle Exchange Coordinator Lynn Everson has worked out of well-camouflaged holes-in-the-wall on West First Ave., including the last seven years at the Otis. Now, with the evictions there, the program will be moved to the Health District building on the other side of the Spokane River. It's only six blocks, says Everson, but it might as well be six miles. Is the river really that much of a barrier? "It is when the weather's really hot or really cold," she says. For those who live downtown and walk or ride bicycles to get around, it isn't always an easy trek, she says.
Last year, the program tallied more than 7,000 visits and exchanged, one-for-one, 528,703 intravenous needles. In addition to clean needles, clients can pick up alcohol pads, hand wipes, tourniquets, sterile water, cotton gauze to reduce needle-related infections. They can also pick up condoms, lubrication and information about how to reduce their chances of getting sexually transmitted diseases.
The program's last day at the Otis will be Friday. Its first day at the Health District will be Monday. And Everson is anxious. "We'll be in an institutional building, which is fine for some," she says, "but not so good for others. It's just a totally different neighborhood." She worries that those who won't be comfortable with the new place will stop coming, increasing the risk of infection among Spokane's IV drug users.
You can hear the City of Spokane candidates for mayor and city council at Spokane Public Radio's debate on 6:30 pm, Tuesday, Oct. 9, at the Bing. The forum is free.