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Get treatment or go to jail: Would an ultimatum help Spokane's homeless problems?

Get treatment or go to jail: Would an ultimatum help Spokane's homeless problems?
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Get treatment or go to jail: Would an ultimatum help Spokane's homeless problems?

SPOKANE, Wash. -  Is a possible answer to homelessness in a town of 70,000 people, just north of Seattle? 

Concern with homeless around Spokane has intensified with the campaign to vote in the city’s next mayor. Some say Spokane’s compassion has enabled the problem, making it too easy to be homeless. 

“When you give to a panhandler, you’re giving them the ammunition to a weapon that they already have to kill themselves,” said mayoral candidate Nadine Woodward. 

Months ago, Woodward praised the town of Marysville, Washington for the “zero tolerance” way they handle homelessness in their community.

So, 4 News Now went west to see the program firsthand. 

The program is fairly simple. It forces each person to make a decision in their own life: get treatment or go jail. 

Marysville’s approach may be zero tolerance, but that does not mean zero compassion. It is a team effort, with social workers and police responding to emergency calls. 

The program is also a community effort. City leaders encourage people to give to charity, just not to the person on the street with a sign. 

“If somebody can go out on the street corner to get 60 to 70 bucks and feed their drug habit every night… it’s a lot harder for our social worker to convince them they need to get help because we’re enabling that lifestyle,” said Marysville Mayor Jon Nehring. 

Nehring said the city’s social worker program works when homeless people battling addiction are depleted of money, which helps fuel their bad habits. 

At that time, social workers and law enforcement will meet with the homeless people, buy them coffee and food, and discuss the resources available. 

The city of Marysville created a fund for moments like this. If a person shows up, it marks a sign of commitment. Snohomish County Human Services funds rehab treatment and the first six months of housing in the program. 

“We have options for you, to provide you a shelter and drug detox. If you’re not going to avail yourself to those, we will prosecute any and all outstanding warrants and look to put you in jail for as long as we can,” said Nehring. 

Unlike Spokane, Marysville has its own city jail, which allows law enforcement officials to cycle people in and out, no matter how long it takes. 

“They actually get in there and detox in jail, and you only have to be in jail about three days to detox right. And then they’re actually in a moment of clarity where, yeah, they can get out in another four or five days, but they think ‘Do I really want to come I here again and detox again?’” said Nehring. “From what I understand, I’ve never been through it, but detoxing in jail is a miserable experience.” 

That is the option many are left with if they choose to bypass treatment. Many end up back on the streets or living in homeless camps. 

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Once a camp is found, those trespassers have five to seven days to get out or get arrested. 
Spokane has a similar program in place and sends social workers out to clear out camps. 
So, why is Spokane’s approach not working? 

“We’re on a five day average right now when it comes to [clearing] camps,” said Spokane City Council President and mayoral candidate Ben Stuckart. “They’re being removed within five days, but our problem is those camps are popping back up because there are not enough shelter spaces open.

There are not enough treatment centers and mental health is not coordinated in our community.” 
While Stuckart and Woodward disagree on many other things, both agree Spokane needs a different approach. 

Stuckart said it should start with getting 24-hour shelters open with services like Marysville. 
Woodward said the City of Spokane needs help from its neighbors. 

“It is just a matter of identifying where the programs are outside of the city, said Woodward. “We’re talking about collaborating with the county, with the Valley, neighboring cities that will join us in the process because, again, Spokane cannot doing this along.” 

While Marysville’s program is seen by some as a model, there are still people out on their streets. 

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