IT guy Eric Finch helped stop the collapse of the city's housing services department — but actually fixing homelessness will be tougher

click to enlarge IT guy Eric Finch helped stop the collapse of the city's housing services department — but actually fixing homelessness will be tougher
Young Kwak photo
Eric Finch says there may be intense disagreement about homelessness, but there's common ground the city and nonprofits can pursue.

As the sun set last week on the final night of Camp Hope, the homelessness encampment that activists pointedly set up out front of City Hall, the cold is sharp enough to bite through your gloves.

But John Jans, one of the homeless campers, isn't wearing any. As he talks about his frustrations with Mayor Nadine Woodward's rhetoric about homelessness, the fingers holding his hand-rolled cigarette are bare.

"Are we any different from her?" Jans says about the mayor. "We bleed the same, we breathe the same, we pee the same, we eat the same."

From inside a nearby tent, another camper — who identifies herself as just Luna — chimes in. "Human is human."

Luna has tied poster boards to her tent poles with the messages "God loves me. Do you?" and "How much 'F—- off' can you stand?"

Both Jans and Luna were chronically homeless during the last iteration of Camp Hope, too, back in 2018.

That year, the hybrid homeless camp and activist demonstration successfully thrust the issue of the lack of homeless shelter space into the headlines: And the next year, conservative mayoral candidate Woodward harnessed the same issue to run a tough-on-homelessness campaign, narrowly defeating liberal City Council President Ben Stuckart.

But under Woodward's leadership this year, the department that manages the city's response, Community Housing and Human Services, saw a mass exodus of employees that brought the department to the brink of collapse.

And just before Thanksgiving, the mayor put the city's head IT guy, Eric Finch, in charge of the division that oversees that department. By Finch's own admission, he's hardly an expert on homelessness.

But instead of Finch's appointment inspiring derision, some of the Woodward administration's toughest critics have responded by heaping on praise: Now chair of Spokane's Continuum of Care Board, a group that coordinates regional homelessness policy, Stuckart says Finch has already racked up several achievements.

"I am a believer," Stuckart says. "I would say that Eric Finch is a game changer."

Finch specializes in dealing with disasters.

He's been Spokane's chief innovation and technology officer for a half-dozen years, but before that, he was with California's National Guard, where he says he's helped respond to over 20 different crises.

"I've been incident command and helped manage operations and response for earthquakes, floods, riots, fires," Finch says.

Most recently, he'd been a key player in the area's COVID response.

And to the list of disasters, you could add another: train wreck. "Train wreck" was how Finch's predecessor, Cupid Alexander, has described the City of Spokane since his June resignation.

Alexander's departure accelerated an exodus of CHHS staffers that had begun in early 2021. By August, eight of 22 positions in CHHS were vacant.

Alarm bells were going off inside and outside City Hall.

"There's no way you can go through and lose 40 percent of staff and all the senior leaders and be able to get the work done," Finch says.

By early September, Woodward made Finch the head of a "strike team" to try to keep the department afloat, along with other longtime high level staffers like Public Works Director Marlene Feist and Kris Becker, then the city's community and economic development director.

Most of them had already worked together last year as part of the mayor's emergency COVID task force.

"It was like getting the band back together," Finch says. "We were used to 'We've got a complex problem, we need to get solutions, we need to go through triage.'"

Finch downplays his personal role, happily sharing credit with the other strike team members who picked up tasks to keep the department afloat.

At first, the staffing deficit grew. By October, two more key staffers in the CHHS department had left, leaving the city's homelessness response team completely unstaffed.

That month, Stuckart sent a scathing letter to city leaders, warning that the region was at risk of losing $4.3 million annually if the understaffed department didn't complete a federal application with a fast-approaching deadline.

"In short, if Spokane loses this funding, we will never get it back, and the homeless response system will collapse," Stuckart wrote, calling for the city to hire a series of consultants to help out.

But Stuckart says Finch swiftly implemented some of the most important recommendations in Stuckart's letter, bringing on multiple former city employees in temporary roles to help stanch the department's bleeding.

Finch says that some of that was already underway when Stuckart sent his letter. In some cases, all he had to do was to pick up the phone and tell former employees their plan.

"In a lot of cases [they say], 'Yeah, I'd love to be able to help. I didn't think that someone was going to be wanting to help move this forward,'" Finch says.

For example, CHHS employee Matt Davis had applied for the grant to target youth homelessness four different times since 2016. By the time the city finally won the grant this year, Davis had left the department for a state government job, leaving Spokane without the expertise to roll out the $2.5 million.

Davis says it didn't take much to convince him to return part time.

"Honestly, this grant means so much to me, and the fact that we were finally able to get it," Davis says.

Alexander, Finch's predecessor, had come from Portland brimming with deep experience and strong opinions. After he left, he characterized the mayor as a newscaster who "knows nothing" and her staff as incompetent "clowns," while some city staff and leaders called him angry and arrogant and described him as someone who felt he was the "smartest person in the room."

Finch was different.

"Cupid came in with a lot of experience and ideas that I think were a little too advanced for Spokane," says City Council member Betsy Wilkerson. "Eric came in right where we're at. He didn't come in with this big grand vision. He came in saying, 'These are the challenges; this is what we've got to do to get back onto the right plan.'"

Finch argues that his lack of specific experience in the local homelessness debate actually helped him. He didn't have a reputation, good or bad, in one side of the city's debate over homelessness or another.

"I had an advantage, in terms of not being an expert. I just listened," Finch says. "I think people felt refreshed that someone was just listening."

Stuckart celebrates Finch for his clear communication and his ability to follow through.

"He's super organized. Part of that comes from his military background," Stuckart says. "Everything he says he's going to get done, he's done."

In fact, that military background has given Finch experience working with homelessness. Responding to disasters with the California National Guard meant helping a homeless community living in a dry riverbed in the region.

"They had a lack of trust in government," Finch says.

The key, Finch says, was partnering with local charities and religious groups, embedding workers the community already trusted into his outreach teams.

He wants to forge similar relationships in Spokane.

"When trust and communication is gone, even if you have the best idea, if no one is listening, how are you going to make it better?" Finch says.

That's why, he says, the CHHS department started sending out weekly email blasts to over 400 recipients, including leadership of the Spokane Homeless Coalition, a network of over 200 agencies and nonprofits focused on helping the needy.

"I'm just trying to be honest about where we are and what's happening, good, bad, and ugly, and then inviting people into that conversation," Finch says.

To some degree, that approach has worked.

"He's open. He wants to learn," Barry Barfield, administrator of the Homeless Coalition, says about Finch. "I love his approach. I love what he's saying."

But it's one thing to trust Finch. It's another to trust the mayor.

"I have no confidence it's going to go anywhere," Barfield says. "His boss wants it go to nowhere."

Homeless Coalition leaders were in the middle of a meeting with Finch last week when they got the news that the police had given Camp Hope 48 hours to vacate.

"Up until that moment, it was a productive meeting. Why would we ever go into another meeting with the city if that's what they're going to do?" says Maurice Smith, a local documentary filmmaker who's served on the Homeless Coalition. "We got blindsided."

An email from Jewels Helping Hands co-founder Julie Garcia, heavily involved with Camp Hope, speculated that the city wanted homeless people to die. In another e-mail, Smith compared the city's approach to imperial Japan's at Pearl Harbor — a surprise attack launched amid ongoing diplomatic talks.

"The current administration simply can't be trusted as a rational partner on addressing homeless issues," Smith wrote.

Several nonprofit leaders challenged the city to back up claims that there were enough low-barrier beds in existing shelters, noting that their totals included organizations that typically won't allow intoxicated patrons to sleep at their facility.

Finch, who says he didn't know the police would be serving the 48-hour notice when they did, says that measuring the amount of low-barrier shelter availability is always going to be tricky. Reserving specific shelters for specific populations — Hope House, for example, is only for single homeless women — is crucial, he says. But that means that shelter isn't available to other populations.

He argues that the ongoing debate about the mix and amount of shelter space required is valuable. He also stresses that upgrading the region's shelter system is only one piece of the puzzle.

"It's not just about an emergency shelter. It's not just about permanent supportive housing," Finch says. "There's like 17 areas of this, and we need to kind of find a way to improve several of those at the same time."

By Thursday, many of the Camp Hope tents were relocated to a vacant lot in the East Central area.

"I feel that we're just this little mouse on this treadwheel, chasing our tail."

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Even when there are enough empty beds at shelters, neither Jans nor Luna has been willing to sleep there. They both think the city needs to provide more shelter space — but they're personally looking for housing, not just temporary shelter.

Jans cites a bad experience with bed bugs at a shelter a few years ago, and the lack of freedom the shelters give guests to come and go at night. Luna's first visit to a shelter was so awful, she says, she'd have a "panic attack" if she went to a homeless shelter again. She's 28 now. She says she was 18 when she left foster care and landed on the streets. It's been a long 10 years.

"I feel that we're just this little mouse on this treadwheel, chasing our tail," Wilkerson says. "We've never had adequate staffing to be strategic about where we want to go."

But Wilkerson is hopeful that's beginning to change. The city has hired Jenn Cerecedes, a former case manager for SNAP, to start as the new CHHS director on Jan. 3.

"Eric is very transparent," Cerecedes says. "I am also a very direct person... upfront and honest about where we're at and where we're trying to go."

For all the praise Finch has gotten, once the system stabilizes, he says, the city should do a national search for a more experienced replacement.

"They would be far better than me in that role," Finch says. "I will be here until we find that person." ♦

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About The Author

Daniel Walters

A lifelong Spokane native, Daniel Walters is the Inlander's senior investigative reporter. But he also reports on a wide swath of other topics, including business, education, real estate development, land use, and other stories throughout North Idaho and Spokane County.He's reported on deep flaws in the Washington...