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Spokane Coalition Urges ‘Bold Action’ on Homeless Crisis

(The Center Square) – A coalition of 122 businesses in Spokane have decided it is time for “bold action” to address the homelessness crisis in Washington’s second largest city, and they intend to drive change. 

“We don’t think it’s dignified or respectful to allow people to live in unsupervised tent cities, street corners, or abandoned cars,” said Katy Bruya, co-chair of Hello for Good’s steering committee. “Providing safety, security and wraparound services to address any addiction or mental health needs is key.”

She said the word “Hello” was chosen for the group’s name because it is both a friendly salutation and the acronym for Helping Empower Lifelong Opportunities (for Good), the official title.

Since Hello was formed last year, Bruya said its steering committee has “huddled” every Thursday to identify gaps in area service provisions and strategize about how to fill them.

“We are private industry so we have the ability to work in ways that might not be open to a public agency,” Bruya said.

Hello for Good is advocating for the Spokane City Council to approve a lease agreement at Monday’s meeting that will allow a shelter to be sited at 4320 E. Trent Avenue.

Mayor Nadine Woodward has negotiated an agreement with developer Lawrence Stone to lease a 33,000-square-foot vacant warehouse at the site from Aug. 1 through July 31, 2027, with the option for one five-year renewal.

The cost of the lease in 2022 would be $145,770 and, the total for all other years combined is calculated at $1.86 million. The shelter would house up to 250 people, or more during extreme weather events.

Councilors Michael Cathcart and Jonathan Bingle are bringing the proposed lease to the table for consideration during the 3:30 p.m. briefing session on June 27.

Bruya said Hello for Good is also interested in providing funding to fill gaps. One way the group might do that is to offer scholarships for people wanting a career in the mental health field, which is struggling with a workforce shortage.

“We are still meeting with service providers and are not yet ready to announce a big campaign, but that is an example of the type of outreach we might do,” Bruya said. “Our goal is not to take over, to try to solve homelessness overnight. We just want to help drive change where we can.”

The coalition wants to use “compassionate capitalism” to help the homeless. Bruya said accountability is also necessary to bring about true change. She said it is important that local governments choose to fund programs that provide people with resources and tools that help them stabilize their lives and move off the streets.

She said policies that enable people to stay in a state of addiction, mental illness, dependency, and vulnerability to predators will not accomplish that goal.

For example, Bruya said the Washington Legislature’s push to decriminalize drugs in 2021 has contributed to addictions and led to higher crime rates.

“There are a lot of complex issues involved with homelessness and we believe there needs to be more education and awareness to help all of us better understand how to help this population become successful citizens,” Bruya said.

Bruya and other Hello for Good members have spent months researching homelessness to learn why it is a growing societal problem. 

They believe that America planted the seeds for modern homelessness when the practice of institutionalizing patients against their will ended in the mid-1960s. The move to shutter psychiatric hospitals followed abuse scandals and the development of new psychotropic medications.

As the doors to mental institutions closed, there was nowhere for some former and probable patients to go.

Then the push to convert former flophouses or single-room hotels to market rate rentals, condos and co-ops began.

The situation worsened in the 1980s when the economic recession, combined with severe federal cutbacks for low-income housing and poverty assistance programs forced more American families into homelessness.

The federal government reported 515,000 multifamily homes built in the U.S. in 1985 but that number had dropped to 140,000 by 1991.

During those years, well-paid manufacturing jobs moved overseas. An oil crisis drove up fuel prices, which caused another spike in rents.

Once “gentrifiers” discovered the architectural character of historic neighborhoods, construction began on high-end residences, but not multifamily rentals or affordable housing

Bruya is the Chief Human Resources Officer for Washington Trust Bank, which is part of the coalition and committed to helping with positive change.

In her professional role, Bruya said it became clear by last year that something needed to be done to keep employees safe and protect business viability. She said having homeless encampments downtown is driving away customers and making workers feel insecure about walking the streets.

Some cities are using innovation to turn things around and Spokane needs to be one of them, Bruya said.

She said Houston, Texas, enacted programs that have gotten 25,000 people off the streets and into homes through a variety of new programs. The region’s homeless population has been cut by 63% since 2011, according to information provided by officials from that city.

Like Houston, Hello For Good wants homelessness in Spokane to be only “rare and brief.”

To learn more about her group, visit the coalition’s website, helloforgood.org.