The common approach cities take to deal with homelessness is tough enforcement: ticketing people for panhandling or sleeping in doorways or busing them to shelters, sometimes in other cities. But as Spokane has found it first-hand, this approach just doesn’t work.
That’s why Washington’s second-biggest city is taking a whole new approach and putting relationships before punishment.
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. 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. Here, Antush helps schedule a date to take care of the warrant in court and removes the warrant from over their head until that date. 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.
The “warrant squashing” table is 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 the homeless that there are people who want to help them rather than punish.