by Cara Gardner

"Christ said, 'The poor will always be with you,'" says Mike Cain, program coordinator for the House of Charity as he considers the plight of the homeless in Spokane. "When people come through here on a tour, they ask, 'Where do all the people go after staying here,' and I point out to the population and say, 'Right there.' The poor will always be with us."

By the best count available, the City of Spokane has around 8,500 homeless people, 1,000 of whom are "chronic" homeless, with no support other than charity. Spokane's numbers rival that of Denver, Colo., a city with more than half a million people, which reports about 9,700 homeless. By comparison, Spokane's population is right around 200,000. Because of discrepancies in the way cities count and define homeless populations, it's hard to confirm whether Spokane has a disproportionately large homeless population, but as Cain points out, "Spokane is a logical place to come because it's the major city between Seattle and Minneapolis. I-90 runs right through it, and there are major social services here."

How major those social services are seems to be an emerging question in the wake of public debate over the camping ban signed by Mayor Jim West this week. The mayor has asked a team of human services experts to make recommendations on how Spokane can handle the homeless issue, but Spokane is in the middle of cutting $5 million from its budget -- some of which may come directly out of human services. The Transition Taskforce will make its suggestions to the mayor about the same time the camping ban goes into effect (around the second week of August). Already it's clear that the taskforce's recommendations will be based on providing additional revenue for social services, like the House of Charity and the YWCA.

"We are going to have to come up with new revenue," says Monica Walter, executive director of the YWCA and a member of the Transition Taskforce. "You cannot do this on existing resources."

The city and the Transition Taskforce don't agree with the one solution some homeless people are suggesting, even though it wouldn't cost additional revenue: a tent city on public property, somewhere outside of the downtown core.

Opponents cite a long list of problems associated with tent cities, but the city of Portland pays virtually nothing for its tent city, which runs successfully as a nonprofit organization. Dignity Village is located by the Portland airport on an old leaf-composting site, and is drug and alcohol free. Plus, it validates Portland's camping ban because it's much harder to challenge the ban in court when there's a legal campsite for the homeless.

Some human services experts say a tent city, while not an ideal or long-term solution to homelessness, would make it easier for human, health and law enforcement authorities to find people, check in, provide services and get information. When people are scattered, the network breaks down. Tent cities exist throughout the country, including Seattle, Portland, Aurora, Ill., and Denver. But some members of the Transition Taskforce are doubtful.

"We'll try to address not just temporary fixes, but a more systemic approach," says Walter. "Many cities, like Seattle, understand they have to have a local revenue base to address homelessness and more resources to work with. The will is there in terms of dedication to provide support, but we simply can't do it with fundraising and grants alone. We need local resources."

So the question is, if the city doesn't want homeless people camping on public land and doesn't want a tent city, can it provide additional money?

"More mental health services must be available," says Walter. "We need good case management, capacity to deal with drug and alcohol issues. We need housing for people who are not sober, but who need a safe place to stay, where they don't have to participate in religious services because they are not ready or able to do it. That should not exclude them from having a safe bed. And we need it for a lot, we're talking at least 1,000 people."

Publication date: 07/15/04

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