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Spokane, Spokane County return to idea of creating regional homeless authority

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(The Center Square) – The City of Spokane is returning to the idea of a regional homeless authority after its city council killed the initiative last summer over several concerns and potentially unrealistic goals.

Spokane County Commissioner Amber Waldref refreshed the council’s memory during a meeting last Thursday before discussing how to potentially revive the idea again.

“We have new leadership at the city; we have new council members,” Waldref said. “We needed to kind of take a step back and let folks catch up on the conversation.”

Despite the county’s first year-over-year decrease in overall homelessness in January, more and more people are turning to life on the streets. While many municipalities across the region tout their own five-year plans, Waldref said the lack of a regional approach limits the overall impact.

Waldref said those communities are becoming overwhelmed by the homeless population’s growing needs, which housing and comprehensive support services can’t keep up with. Now, the communities are rallying together to give the idea some momentum again.

She said the relevant committees and task forces across the county are informally coordinating to identify overlaps between their plans and areas for collaboration.

“They would like with the five-year plan updates to coordinate and make sure that if the city’s going to prioritize X investments, that maybe the county would then prioritize Y,” Waldref said. “There seems to be an opportunity to take that from informal to more formal.”

Prior plans for a regional approach included propping up a public development authority, or PDA, consisting of elected officials and representatives across Spokane County.

“I know, putting on my nonprofit hat, having to apply to multiple jurisdictions for dollars can be challenging,” Waldref said. “There’s a lot of competition for the dollars, and were potentially making our nonprofits work harder to get out those services for those who need them.”

A 14-member board would have led the effort while coordinating with other organizations, such as the Regional Continuum of Care, local coalitions and others. However, according to The Spokesman-Review, those same organizations led to the council pitting the idea.

While a PDA makes it easy for individual municipalities to transfer funds to the authority, there were concerns about too many and too few elected officials on the board. Waldref also cited concerns over some of the recommendations received from volunteer consultants.

Those included increasing the housing supply to reduce unsheltered homelessness by 40%, establishing an integrated resource center and expanding diversion and detention efforts, among other recommendations, all in two years.

King County’s Regional Homeless Authority recently received pushback from Seattle over its spending of tax dollars despite a lack of progress on mitigating the crisis. Seattle ultimately decided pull $11.7 million in annual funding; however, it still allocated $109.3 million toward KCRHA in 2024.

“Should the authority have oversight over all affordable housing, homeless and mental health funding streams,” Waldref said. “That was the recommendation, to look at all the funding streams between the city and the county, but that’s a lot to bite off.”

Waldref said a 40% reduction in unsheltered homeless over two years is unrealistic considering the county’s growing trend. While 2024 represented the first year-over-year decrease since 2016, it also represents a 106% increase in overall homelessness since 2016.

Not long after receiving the recommendations, the group charged with leading the discussion decided to abandon the recommended guiding principles and instead focus on structure; they wanted to emphasize funding streams, board make-up and the length of the commitment.

“There’s a lot of different timelines for a lot of these different funds,” Waldref said. “The state’s on a July 1 to June 30 calendar, the federal government’s on a fall-to-fall calendar, we’re all on a January to December calendar, so it would take several years to get all of these RFP processes put together into some sort of calendar.”

She said there were concerns that the communities would not see any benefits because the timeline had been stretched out so far, but now, Waldref wants to get the conversation rolling again. The group met last month and agreed to continue moving forward.

Waldref and the council discussed the possibility of looping in private funds to further support a regional homeless authority, similar to how Houston’s model works. Councilmember Jonathan Bingle said that despite Spokane’s smaller size, there are still plenty of companies willing to help.

“This next meeting is really critical; we need to decide if we want to work on some short-term strategies or if we want to keep working toward a regional organization,” Waldref said, “and then who’s going to roll up the sleeves and be working on that.”

The conversation around a regional homeless authority will likely continue over the next year with an eye toward considering propping it up to benefit each community.

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