"This one South Hill lady came by and donated a fur coat," says Randy Somerville, who emerged as a leader of the tent city. He repeats in disbelief, "A fur coat. It was a nice one."
A fur coat -- beautiful, but not particularly helpful. Tent city residents didn't know what to do with it. Sell it on eBay? Writer O. Henry might have captured the episode like this: Plutocrats, hankering to convert cool old downtown buildings into lofts or condominiums, turn out the poor from their shabby apartments and, later seeing them homeless on the street, give them a fur coat.
Spokane is the middle of an affordable housing crisis, and all agree that it needs more than expensive furs. It needs big ideas. Three homeless people have died since January. Two of them, John Mace Beavan and Gary Hanson, were chronically homeless alcoholics who passed out and passed away underneath Interstate 90 downtown.
Some work has already begun. Former Mayor Dennis Hession created a crisis task force, and Mayor Mary Verner has extended this effort to a regional scale. This month, she met with County Commissioner Bonnie Mager, City of Spokane Valley Mayor Rich Munson and staff from all three agencies to pitch a coordinated approach to ending the low-income housing pinch.
Finally, a buzz seems to be building. State legislators -- notably Sen. Lisa Brown and Rep. Timm Ormsby -- are shepherding a variety of measures that would boost funding for low-income housing across Washington.
"There are three pages' worth of pending legislation just on homeless and low-income housing," says Jerrie Allard, director of human services for Spokane.
Spokane's critical lack of low-income housing -- there is less than a 2 percent vacancy rate -- also got federal attention this month. Cindy Algeo, executive director of the Spokane Low-Income Housing Consortium, convened back-to-back meetings. First, a broad base of local nonprofits and social service providers got to brainstorm with Brian Christianson, an aide to Sen. Patty Murray. The following day they met with Paul Carlson, the regional coordinator for the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness.
"This is our year when I think we have to come up with recommendations that make sense and try to embed those into the 2009 budget," Verner says.
So, how does Spokane become a city that provides more than a fur coat to its poorest citizens?
"The first step would be dedicating some city funds," says Adrienne Quinn, Seattle's director of housing.
Social service providers here have said this too; Spokane does not allocate general fund money to homeless or low-income housing issues. Other cities use these funds as seed money to leverage more state and federal funding for low-income housing projects.
"The city of Seattle pays probably 30 percent of the cost of homeless housing we create. The remainder comes from the state trust fund and low-income housing tax credits," Quinn says. The more the city can chip in, the greater the match it attracts, she says.
Seattle is the rare city where voters in 2002 passed a seven-year, $86 million property tax levy to generate funding to help create affordable housing. So far, the levy has helped fund 11 housing projects either built or in the pipeline.
A Tough Sell
Verner and other Spokane politicians suspect a housing levy would be a tough sell in poorer, more conservative Spokane. The city's general fund is regularly wracked with multi-million-dollar gaps between expenses and revenues. Even something less ambitious than a housing levy -- such as requiring developers to help cover tenant relocation costs -- is fiscally perilous, says Verner, who supported such a move in her campaign.
"I haven't backed away from that concept. I am not averse to asking developers to help, but where I see the ramification on the city budget is where I see it's not so hot," she says. The city would have to kick in matching funds and, Verner cautions, "We could have a wealthy developer and a hot market for high-end condos where we would have to match a large amount and the general fund would be tapped."
A big chunk of Spokane's general fund helps pay for police, fire and other emergency services. Seattle offers another counterpoint here, too. Turns out, Quinn says, that by providing housing for the poor and homeless, they end up needing and using fewer services.
"Another selling point we talk about a lot is how we have been able to save the community $4 million in just one year," she says.
In Seattle, the city doesn't own or build any low-income housing itself, but acts akin to a bank for nonprofits. One, the Downtown Emergency Services Center (DESC), has built a residence, 1811 Eastlake, targeted at the hardest-to-serve chronic homeless -- hard-core public inebriates, people who often shun help and come replete with severe mental or physical health issues. Spokane's Beavan and Hanson, who died under I-90 last month, fit this profile.
DESC and county service providers tracked down the most-expensive street people -- the ones in and out of emergency rooms, detox centers, jail, ambulances -- and, as Quinn relates, "said if we give you housing and you can drink if you want to ... will you come in?"
They only had to ask 79 people before the 75-bed facility was filled, disproving, Seattle officials say, the stereotype that chronic homeless don't want shelter. At 1811 Eastlake they are encouraged, but not required, to seek treatment provided onsite, and sobriety is not required.
The project (along with Mayor Greg Nickels) was ripped as a tax-payer-funded party house for hoboes, and the permits were fought all the way to the state Supreme Court, Quinn says. But surprising things have happened, according to the first-year results of a three-year study to evaluate the effectiveness of 1811 Eastlake -- one of only a handful of such projects in the country and first of its kind in Washington.
The first is the savings in emergency services and public unsightliness. Jail bookings are down 45 percent, use of the detox center is down 87 percent and emergency shelter use is down 92 percent. Also, the number of public drunkenness incidents reported by the Downtown Seattle Association are cut in half, and medical expenses are down 41 percent.
But perhaps more important, the first year shows the number of days residents drink to intoxication are halved, and six residents -- including one man who started drinking when he was a soldier in Vietnam, Quinn says -- have become sober.
A New Way
The 1811 Eastlake facility follows a model known as Housing First, trumpeted by the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness and currently getting a lot of interest around the country. A similar shelter for Spokane's hard-core chronic homeless seems a long way off, however. Some providers have said it is too expensive -- focusing expensive treatment and services on too few. Others object to a "wet" shelter. At least one shelter in Spokane gives breath-alcohol tests to people coming in the door.
But Allard, the city's human services director, says this could change as the regional 10-year plan to end homelessness is being revised to reflect changes just since 2005. The less dreamy, more reality-based update will include a pitch for a Housing First approach, Allard says.
That would put Spokane on the cutting edge of homeless programs in a place where officials are still cautious even to ask for tenant relocation funds. There are developments on this front, too.
Several people have told The Inlander that Don Barbieri, who recently completed upscale condos near the Spokane River's Upper Falls, is making a pitch to create a developer-funded pool of money that could be used to help build low-income projects.
Newly elected City Councilman Richard Rush says Barbieri and Sharon Smith suggest a program where developers of high-end projects that qualify for the 10-year multifamily tax deferments be allowed to kick those accumulated savings into a fund.
"They want a vehicle to allow that to go into a fund for affordable housing," Rush says.
"I think Don is onto something," Verner says. "It comes out of his frustration that there is no mechanism to contribute back into a low-income housing solution."
There also seems to be momentum building to use the city's comprehensive plan to attract mixed-income apartment projects into the neighborhoods.
"The comp plan has a whole chapter on affordable housing," says Rush, who campaigned heavily on the virtues of the comp plan as he unseated incumbent Brad Stark.
Verner, too, cites the centers-and-corridors components of the comprehensive plan -- referring to neighborhood hubs like the Garland District -- as a way to attract affordable housing throughout the city.
On March 27, she says, "I am hosting a roundtable on the development process in centers and corridors ... to find out what will it take for a developer to build a mixed-income high-rise residential complex with retail on the bottom in one of the centers and corridors in the city.
"I can't say what the magic level is from my chair on the Fifth Floor of City Hall. I need to bring people together and try to accelerate this dialogue so we can find a solution," Verner says.
As encouraging as some of these developments are to people in the trenches, Algeo, of the low-income housing consortium, says her eyebrows really shot up when she saw a copy of Verner's first State of the City speech. "What I was excited about was seeing a whole paragraph on affordable housing."
Sure, it was one paragraph in the middle of an eight-page speech, "but that had not shown up on any [State of the City] radar before," Algeo says.
Maybe this is the year Spokane wraps its homeless in shelter instead of furs.