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Spokane area governments can now decide whether to join centralized regional homeless authority

A group hoping to centralize the region's homeless response, argue local government's current approach hasn't addressed the underlying problems that lead to homelessness, or make it difficult to find, and keep housing.
Spokane United
A group hoping to centralize the region's response to homelessness argues local government's current approach hasn't addressed the underlying problems that lead to homelessness and make it difficult to find and keep housing.

Local governments across the Spokane region will soon choose whether to combine their efforts to address homelessness, or continue on their own. A group hoping to create a regional homelessness authority released a detailed plan Wednesday. Spokane County and several of its cities have 60 days to sign on.

A group of local leaders and others with expertise in homelessness are urging cities to join a new regional authority. They say the current approach, local governments contracting with non-profits to temporarily get people off the street, hasn't worked.

Theresa Sanders, former city of Spokane administrator and a leader of the regional initiative, said the new authority will fund mental health, addiction and housing services.

“Addressing the critical need first is really important, and often the critical need in the moment is not just housing,” she said.

Sanders said the initial goal is to reduce unsheltered homelessness by 40% in 18 months to two years.

If cities sign on, the authority will be governed by a 13-member board. The members would include five elected officials, Spokane’s mayor, a county commissioner, a Spokane City Council member, a Spokane Valley council member and a small cities representative. The board would also have eight non-elected officials, including representatives with expertise in public housing, private housing, healthcare, behavioral health, public safety, philanthropy, business, and lived homeless experience. Once appointed, the board will hire an executive director who will oversee the authority’s staff.

Rick Romero, another leader of the initiative and former utilities director for the city of Spokane, said Spokane’s regional authority would operate more like Houston’s or Atlanta's, and less like Seattle’s, which has had several high-profile controversies.

"What we're proposing is broader and it’s totally unique," Romero said. "Seattle chose not to do theirs as what I would call a public-private non-profit model. They created a governing that was solely elected officials. Then they created a separate board that had none [electeds] on it. It’s probably not a huge surprise that they've run in to some dysfunction with that. I think that we recognize from a lot of the entities some things that they're doing well, and we've also recognized things we need to stay away from."

Romero, Sanders and the third member of the team advancing the authority, Gavin Cooley, former CFO for the city of Spokane, said they hoped to balance safety, public health and housing concerns.

Sanders said if cities vote to create the authority in the next 60 days, local governments can incorporate the new authority into their annual budgeting process this autumn and fund it next year.

She said the next steps are all in the hands of local officials, and those looking to get involved should reach out to their city council representative or county commissioner.

Rebecca White is a 2018 graduate of Edward R Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University. She's been a reporter at Spokane Public Radio since February 2021. She got her start interning at her hometown paper The Dayton Chronicle and previously covered county government at The Spokesman-Review.