by Rachel Rothenberg, American University student
If the public knew the stories behind the headlines and the negative images they see on the nightly news, would that motivate them to respond? If voters saw the real histories instead of the myths about those without housing would that change the way society dealt with homelessness in America? Maurice Smith of Spokane Washington is working to answer that question. Three years ago, Smith began making documentaries about homelessness in this mid-sized northwestern city that featured a growing homeless population. The documentaries revealed that homelessness was a much larger issue than the city had claimed and the population experiencing homelessness are much different compared to what is portrayed in the media.
Smith has worked alongside those without housing and disadvantaged people of Spokane city for over 15 years. Some of his experience includes operating four different homeless shelters, serving on various organizing teams for Spokane homelessness projects, and co-founding a food rescue organization. Smith’s documentary series “My Road Leads Home” spotlights the housing crisis in Spokane and addresses the way that the city is handling it. He began working on these documentaries to let the Spokane community hear from homeless people and set the tone for discussing homelessness with the practice of Shalom which is a Hebrew word meaning peace, harmony, wholeness, completeness, prosperity, welfare and tranquility.
According to Smith, the Spokane community rests on the value of Shalom to create a healthy community in which each of the members are able to fulfill the daily needs and successfully pursue their talents for the good of the entire community. “You and I look at the community and see things that are not the way they should be,” Smith said and gave examples of people sleeping on the sidewalk or young people ‘couch surfing’. Marchanuna Rodgers, an international development specialist, asks the Spokane community an important question: What would it look like if a community is defined by shalom? She shares a difficult story of her community showing up for her during a hard night. She poses the potential of a genuinely supportive community showing up for each other when the situation presents itself. Sadly, that is not always the case.
In The Night of the Unsheltered Homeless and The Hidden Homeless: Families Experiencing Homelessness, Smith specifically demonstrates the way that Spokane downplayed homelessness and was not equipped to shelter more than 52% of the homeless population. Rob Bryceson explains that Spokane’s policy on homelessness is the following: the city provides private funds to organizations that apply to provide resources for homeless people. The main three operating Catholic Charities, Salvation Army, and Union Gospel Mission. Unfortunately, Bryceson said “the need has grown” and the big three agencies need other groups to “come in and add strength” because of a “change in the homeless population.” The change in the homeless population in Spokane to “angrier and younger” has made it more difficult for the city of Spokane to manage sheltering homeless people.
Another dysfunctional “solution” to homelessness is the practice of sweeps. Law enforcement and government officials of Spokane see sweeps as a quick fix to ending homelessness, although they do not actually “go to the root of the problem,” as civil rights lawyer Andrew Biviano claimed in the video published by Smith. By shifting the issue to be the responsibility of the police, policymakers can easily adopt an “out of sight, out of mind mentality.” Along with sweeps, the Boise court decisions allows law enforcement to “arrest people for conduct crimes such as obstructing the sidewalk” which criminalizes a homeless person’s existence.
Smith’s work, along with many other advances by the homeless community also catalyzed great progress. The city has a “greater community focus on and discussion about private initiatives to address homelessness,” says Smith. Several projects are starting such as a drop-in day center and resource hub and a homeless village. All the videos about the problem in Spokane can be found at https://myroadleadshome.org/documentary/. There are still many issues to overcome for example in February 2022, the city installed chain-link fences along the viaduct to prevent tents from going up. There are still not nearly enough shelter beds, and people are still dying because of their experiences living without housing. Smith’s documentaries have changed the narrative and spread community awareness about homelessness in Spokane. They have moved leaders to open warming centers and the Mayor has had to admit that there are not enough beds and their needs to be a new strategy. We hope that these interviews and snapshots into life on the streets of Spokane will lead to meaningful change in addressing the crisis of the unaffordability of rent locally.