Mayor, city council president candidates answer questions about homelessness in Spokane

Candidates for Spokane Mayor and City Council President gathered in front of an audience at the downtown Spokane Public Library on Thursday to discuss the most pressing issue in this election cycle: homelessness.

The candidates were asked a series of questions, ranging from their belief about why people are homeless, to their stance on the development of a new shelter.

Mayoral candidate Ben Stuckart was the first to answer the question regarding the reason for homelessness in Spokane. Stuckart said there is not one specific reason, but many. He referenced the Point in Time count, citing lack of income, domestic violence, family issues and substance abuse as a handful of the many reasons people suffer from homelessness.

His opponent, mayoral candidate Nadine Woodward, said the Point in Time count is not the best representation of the whole picture.

“That point in time survey is one day out of 365,” Woodward said. “It is a snapshot and not an accurate reflection of what’s going on. Unfortunately, we’re using that as a base for a lot of our decisions.”

Woodward said the vast majority of those dealing with homelessness suffer from mental illness and addiction problems.

“It concerns me when my opponent doesn’t use the data that we have and instead uses anectodal data from talking to a couple people,” Stuckart responded.

“It’s beyond a couple people,” Woodward fired back. “If you were out there talking to non-profits, you would know!”

The 2019 Point in Time Count indicated there are around 1,309 people dealing with homelessness in Spokane. The count dives into who is experiencing, their familial makeup, where they are living, and what caused them to be homeless, among many other things.

Stuckart said the data provided insight into the variety of individual problems each person experiences, adding that those people all need individual solutions.

Woodward doubled down on her belief that mental health issues and addiction are what cause homelessness in the Spokane community.

“We have plenty of programs for those kinds of people in transition, but we need to do a better job of getting people the mental health that they need, and the addiction treatment that they need,” Woodward said. “If you know anything about addiction, people have lost connectivity in their life and they’re finding community on the street and we need to shepherd these people through a process. They’re gonna fail, they’re gonna come back through the process, but that as a community is where we need to be.”

She said she wants to reach the homeless where they are, then give them a choice if they have a pending charge or warrant out for their arrest. Woodward added they would have the option of going to jail or going through programs that provide job training, addiction treatment and mentorship.

City Council President candidate Breean Beggs quickly chimed in, arguing that those experiencing homelessness are not synonymous with those in the criminal justice system.

“There are plenty of homeless people who also have substance abuse issues and there are a few of them that commit crimes,” Beggs said. “But there are plenty of people with homes that have substance abuse issues and plenty of them that commit crimes — in fact, the majority of people who commit crimes have that.”

City Council President candidate Cindy Wendle also added that those experiencing homelessness are not criminals. She said the top two reasons people experience homelessness are from family conflict and lack of income. She blamed lack of foresight, saying it is important to project what will happen going forward as Spokane continues to grow.

“If we’ve got vacancy rates that are low and housing prices that are high, what has been going on and what has this council done to help us get better?,” she said. “It’s too late now for many people.”

Another question that drew varying perspectives from the candidates was the creation of a new emergency shelter and its location.

The question stemmed from recent controversy over the City of Spokane’s proposal for an emergency shelter in the former Grocery Outlet on East Sprague Avenue. The shelter was proposed as one that would be funded by the city of Spokane, city of Spokane Valley and Spokane County, but was met with criticism from people living in the area.

Woodward was the first to answer.

“I do not believe 24/7, low barrier shelters are the answer. That last plan on Sprague was a disaster,” she said.

Woodward said the city should have collaborated with the community on the proposal. She said she believes city government should wait to move forward on the development of a new shelter pending an outcome of the Martin v. City of Boise case.

The lawsuit concerns how West Coast cities enforce laws about sleeping in public. The Supreme Court is deciding whether to address the case, which could directly change how cities treat those experiencing homelessness.

“I don’t think we should be investing in anything before we know exactly what we can and cannot do as a city,” Woodward said. “I say we wait a year and we see what happens. We can do the warming centers like we did before.”

Woodward’s comment was met with vocal opposition from the crowd.

Stuckart argued that a solution needs to be done now, to avoid having to rely on warming shelters, like the city did last year.

“If you don’t have shelters, you can’t enforce the anti-camping laws. We have to have shelters. If we don’t, we’ll have public camping in every city park and there’s nothing we can do about it,” said Stuckart. “One in 10,000 cases that are appealed to the Supreme Court get taken, so I’m not gonna take that gamble and not follow the law.”

“We need shelters, we just do,” Beggs said. “We had this warming center substitute for actual shelter. Didn’t work. We kicked people out at 7 in the morning and there were essentially refugee camps around them.”

Beggs referenced the decision to close over a hundred beds at the House of Charity last year. He said the issue has not been made a priority and the reliance on warming shelters is not a viable substitute.

“There is going to be no perfect place, but it’s worse to not do it all,” said Beggs.

Wendle recused herself from answering the question citing a conflict of interest. Wendle’s husband is the executive director of the Hutton Settlement, which currently owns the former Grocery Outlet on East Sprague.

The candidates spoke for nearly an hour and a half on Thursday. They spoke about their leadership and how they will seek to protect those who are vulnerable. There was no public comment due to a lack of time, but audience members were encouraged to submit their questions for the candidates to answer on paper at a later time.

Watch the full forum here.

RELATED: Point-in-Time study sees decrease in homeless families since last year

RELATED: Neighbors, non-profit voice concern over proposed homeless shelter on East Sprague