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To Combat Homelessness, Spokane Is Starting To Put Relationships Before Punishments

Organizers of the Homeless Connect say the event outgrew its old space at the Salvation Army and had to be moved to the city's large downtown convention center.
Kirk Siegler

When the icy wind blows off the Spokane River, the temperature can routinely plunge below zero on this city's worn streets near downtown and the I-90 freeway. Trying to survive without shelter out here is almost impossible.

Just ask Mariah Hodges.

"The first night I came here I was almost frozen to the sidewalk," Hodges says.

By luck, Hodges was connected by a volunteer to a warming center, where she's now staying. It's one of three new makeshift emergency facilities that the city of Spokane, Wash., has paid to open up this winter, as demand for existing shelters has routinely exceeded available space.

Hodges is almost 40. She's frail and shivering.

"They got me in and they got me on a mat. They got me some extra blankets. They got me hot water," she says.

Hodges says she was evicted from her apartment and lost her job at the Motel 6. She's lucky to find space here. The center's 60 beds and 30 mats are taken every night.

Unlike other shelters, there's a lower bar for entry here. Hodges' boyfriend also stays in the shelter. He is addicted to meth, and Hodges is struggling with alcoholism.

"They're checking on me all the time. I'm like, 'Hey, you know, I want to go drink,' " she says. "And they're like, 'No, you don't. We're going to keep an eye on you. You're going to stay here today.' "

Wraparound care

What Hodges is talking about — the constant attention and support — is the kind of care that advocates for the poor say is crucial to at least help people get out of the spiral into chronic homelessness.

"Most of the people in this building should not be here. They have issues that need to be addressed at a different level," says Julia Garcia, founder of Jewels Helping Hands, a nonprofit contracted to run the warming center that Hodges is staying in. "But due to their circumstance or their behavior or whatever has gotten them to the place where they are sleeping outside, they don't know how to get out of that."

The more traditional approach to dealing with homelessness is tougher enforcement: ticketing people for panhandling or sleeping in doorways or busing them to shelters, sometimes in other cities.

Julia Garcia started the nonprofit Jewels Helping Hands, which began by operating mobile shower units to serve Spokane's growing homeless population.
Kirk Siegler / NPR
Julia Garcia started the nonprofit Jewels Helping Hands, which began by operating mobile shower units to serve Spokane's growing homeless population.

But Garcia says there's a growing consensus now that a more punitive approach hasn't worked for Spokane: Washington's second-largest city of 220,000 people hasn't always seen the prosperity of coastal cities like Seattle.

Nationwide, the homeless population is rising. In many communities, it can feel like an intractable problem. Yet cities like Spokane are starting to show some incremental progress with some prevention programs. Homeless prevention leaders like Garcia say it's important to highlight these — otherwise, the general public, bombarded by so many stories about how bad the crisis is, might start thinking there are no solutions.

On any given night, it's thought that well over 1,000 people are now sleeping outside here, even when there may be help available.

"It's not more services that they need — we have access to those services. It's the relationships that aren't being built," Garcia says.

A convention for the homeless

So Spokane is trying something different. This was on display in a big way one chilly weekday morning at the city's downtown convention center.

Where you might expect to see a trade show or convention in this huge, airy hall just steps from Spokane's main tourist draw, Riverfront Park, today it's a "Homeless Connect." Hundreds of the city's most vulnerable are carrying tote bags stuffed with donated food, jackets and health and housing brochures. Organizer Carrie Chapman says they moved the event here this year because they ran out of space at the old venue donated by the Salvation Army.

"It's an amazing thing to witness. We have absolutely every service you can think of — veterinary services, haircuts, showers, clothing," Chapman says.

But this is about more than just giving out free clothes or hepatitis C tests.

It's part of a delicate, more long-term plan to build trust in the system and convince people that if they get help, their lives might improve.

In a quieter corner of the convention hall, Spokane Municipal Court Judge Matthew Antush is working the "warrant squashing" table. It's for people who've been ticketed for illegal camping, or "sit and lie" as it's called here, or for other misdemeanors — and never showed up in court.

"So this person has come in, they want to get their warrant taken care of, but at least until their next court date, this person is not going to have that misdemeanor warrant over their head," Antush says.

Antush says the courts are finding that a hard-line approach on enforcement doesn't really do anything to stop the spread of homelessness. It costs the city $134 a day to jail someone.

"It is an incredible expense on the community to have these warrants ultimately served," Antush says. "I think people have to start, frankly, caring about folks, their problems, and try to help them with it."

This was a pop-up version of Spokane's community court. It convenes weekly over at the library. Judges often dismiss a warrant and combine someone's citations all into one case. Sometimes deals are made to drop fines that the city rarely collects anyway. In return, participants commit to a set number of hours of community service and agree to return to the court regularly for updates. They also get a hot meal and have a warm place to go each week that builds a routine.

It's not clear yet how much this is doing to actually build better trust or even save money. But one idea is that it at least shows people such as Shan Anderson that there is hope.

Anderson, who's 40, has been in and out of homelessness since he was 9. He has gotten five recent warrants for failing to show up in court for camping tickets.

"Makes me feel better in myself knowing that I actually have people out here that will help me and that actually try to help," says Anderson.

Anderson just got his warrants squashed. Now it's up to him to complete his supervised community service.

National Desk intern Brooklyn Riepma helped produce this report for digital.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.
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