Though voters in Seattle appeared last week to dismiss the notion that their city is “dying,” the November general election is shaping up to test if Spokane feels sick.
Even as anxiety over the prevalence of visible homelessness failed to spur a rejection of political leadership in Seattle, it has struck a nerve in Spokane, which saw voters support new leadership in last week’s primary election.
Mayoral candidate Nadine Woodward, a former television news anchor, has made homelessness a central issue in her campaign, and found success in doing so. Last week, she took first place in a crowded primary field, leading City Council President Ben Stuckart by 1,091 votes as of the last tally on Friday.
While two incumbent members of the City Council fared well, voters boosted newcomer Cindy Wendle into second place in the race for council president over two-term Councilmember Mike Fagan. Breean Beggs came in first.
Already fully engaged in campaigning for the general election in November, both Woodward and Stuckart warn that the other’s approach to the issue will result in more homeless people on the streets of Spokane.
Woodward’s strategy throughout her campaign has centered on convincing voters that she will “preserve” the Spokane they know and love — and prevent it from becoming the crime-ridden, drug-addled and homeless camping city depicted in the controversial KOMO-TV special “Seattle is Dying.”
“The reason why that video resonated here is people in Spokane don’t want it to get to that point,” Woodward said.
Separating Spokane from Seattle has been a part of the message from the start. When Woodward stood behind a podium in Riverfront Park to announce her candidacy for Spokane mayor, she told the crowd that “we are not California. We are not Seattle. We are Spokane and we’re proud of it.”
An independent advertisement, paid for by the Spokane Good Government Alliance political action committee, was mailed in support of Woodward’s primary campaign and warned that “without strong leadership from our next mayor, and a new City Council, our Spokane will look more and more like Seattle.”
Rejecting data that suggests otherwise, Woodward believes the “vast majority” of those experiencing homelessness have a substance-abuse problem, and has advocated for “effective compassion” that prioritizes addiction treatment.
“Voters are looking for sensible, practical ways to address this huge challenge, and Ben wants to open more low-barrier shelters and supports public injection sites, but I want to reduce the number of our homeless. Nobody else is talking about that,” Woodward said.
To “bash” on Spokane is unproductive, Stuckart argued. He said the city’s “inferiority complex is creeping up again, and that’s disappointing because we’ve had a really successful last 7 1/2 years.”
“Spokane always had a chip on its shoulder,” Stuckart said, and its residents “find it really hard to celebrate our successes,” even at a time when Spokane has seen substantial private and public investment.
“Now that it’s election time, everybody just wants to bag on Spokane because it’s the only way they can win,” Stuckart said.
Woodward disputes that argument, saying that she “loves this city” and is fighting for it.
Quantifying the problem
According to the point-in-time count conducted on Jan. 24, there were 1,309 homeless people in Spokane County. For most of the last decade, the number of unsheltered homeless people during the point-in-time count hovered around 150. But in 2018, that figure rose sharply to 310.This year it was 315.
On a more hopeful note, there was a 21 percent decrease in people who were chronically homeless between 2017 and 2019.
From a low of 508 people in 2013, the number of people relying on emergency shelters during the point-in-time count in 2019 was 780. During that same period, the number of people in transitional housing dropped from 462 people to 214 in 2019.
The survey found 318 adults reported a serious mental illness and 159 reported a substance-abuse problem. More people reported a family conflict, money, lack of affordable housing, or losing a job as a primary driver of their homelessness than drug use.
The link between property crime and homelessness is also not direct, according to police statistics.
From its peak of 19,531 in 2013, the number of reported property crimes in the city dropped to 15,697 in 2017, according to the most recent available data in the FBI’s crime database — despite the fact that the reported homeless population rose during that same time frame.
Property crime dropped about 4% in 2018 compared with 2017, according to the city’s CompStat crime tracking system. The most recent CompStat report, released Aug. 3, shows property crime has dropped more than 16 percent citywide from the same time last year.
Woodward said that by opening or funding low-barrier shelters — which do not impose requirements such as sobriety — the city is “enabling people who come here to take advantage of our programs.”
Woodward said homeless people facing criminal charges should be given a choice — jail or addiction treatment.
A network of nonprofits, she said, would “help every step of the way,” from initial detox, rehab, transitional housing, job skills training and community mentoring.
“We have to start dong something. We cannot just continue to warehouse people,” Woodward said.
Stuckart noted federal law requires that cities enforcing laws that prevent homeless encampments first must provide enough low-barrier shelter beds to accommodate its homeless population.
If Spokane does not build shelters, homeless camps will emerge in public parks, Stuckart said. That’s not fear mongering, he argued, responding to a recent criticism of Woodward’s.
“The mayor doesn’t get to decide that [federal law] doesn’t matter,” Stuckart said. “People backing ‘don’t become Seattle’ don’t understand government, the Constitution, and what they’re actually advocating for.”
Stuckart, pointing to the available data, pegs the blame on a housing crisis, not drugs.
He’s campaigned on a platform of investing in affordable housing and using tools like tax incentives to spur more housing development, which he believes will help alleviate the issue. He’s also proposed establishing a Housing Trust Fund with a goal of adding more than 100 affordable housing units every year.
Stuckart supports increasing housing density around the city’s business centers and corridors through zoning changes and other measures, while ensuring that design standards are in place to protect neighborhood identities.
Comparisons to Seattle are not new to Spokane politics. Lisa Brown, a former state senator, knows what it’s like to be on the receiving end of criticism that her policies are more aligned with Seattle values.
Brown was criticized for embracing “liberal Seattle politics” during her unsuccessful bid to unseat Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers.
“There are similarities between Seattle and Spokane when it comes to the growing visibility of homelessness and that’s true all over the state, it’s not just Seattle and Spokane,” said Brown, now the director of the Washington State Department of Commerce.
But on the question of whether the Seattle vs. Spokane approach affected the Spokane mayoral race, Brown isn’t certain.
“My sense is it tends to speak to people mostly where they already are, not as a big element of persuasion,” Brown said.
When people talk about Seattle values vs. Spokane values, Brown said, it “plays on stereotypes” and “it’s a way to not talk about solutions.”
“It’s a bit of a cheap shot … if you don’t have a track record of working on solutions,” Brown said.
Mark Richard, director of Downtown Spokane Partnership, declined to endorse a specific candidate, but said “it’s very right for all of them to be talking about these issues, researching these issues, and developing strategies on how to address them,” though he acknowledges that “Spokane is overall in very good shape.”
Like Woodward, Richard argued homelessness “itself is not the issue, it’s not the driver of the problem.” Rather, he said, homelessness is a byproduct of a rise in abuse of drugs like opioids and methamphetamines and frequently coupled with mental health issues.
To boost his chances in the general election, Stuckart will have to convince Spokane voters that the city is heading in the right direction.
“Our job over the next three months is to make people proud of Spokane and hopeful that we can confront these challenges, but do it in a responsible manner,” Stuckart said.