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It’s time to stand up for our most vulnerable

By Rob McCann

In my first month of work at Catholic Charities Eastern Washington, over 24 years ago, I pulled up to the House of Charity and saw two men engaged in a terrible fist fight down the street. They were surrounded by a crowd of on-lookers. I parked my car and ran over to try and break up the fight, only to learn that these two men had been paid $100 each to fight by a group of college-age kids with video cameras who were filming what they called “bum fights.”

I was reminded of this sobering experience when a shooting occurred at Division Street and Short Avenue on June 7. Police responded to reports of a man harassing houseless folks, yelling at them, provoking them to respond and claiming he felt threatened. Then he drew a gun and fired. One unhoused man was shot and a week later was clinging to life at a local hospital. The incident was live-streamed by the individual who fired the gun.

Recent years have seen an explosion of antagonistic, inhumane and dangerously disrespectful video content targeting houseless individuals and people who are suffering from behavioral health disorders. It has become commonplace for those who are angry at or afraid of unhoused people to film them in their most vulnerable, most fragile moments, and then post those videos as a means to convince others to also be angry at or afraid of them.

We know about hate crimes and hate speech. This is hate video. It strips the weakest among us of their basic human dignity and only serves to radicalize cowards. Here in Spokane, we’ve had unhoused citizens beaten with baseball bats as they slept; we’ve had unhoused persons set on fire where they sat; we’ve had unhoused persons assaulted and killed on our streets by people who have been fed a steady stream of videos like the one shot on June 7.

Enough is enough. As a civilized community, we have to be better than this. It is time for the exploitation of our unhoused population to stop, and for Spokane, as a community, to condemn such heartless cruelty.

As a Catholic organization, our work is based on the belief that every human being is made in the image and likeness of God. Every human being deserves basic dignity, respect, safety and compassion. We feed the hungry, heal the hurting and welcome the stranger. That’s our mission.

We also recognize our sacred obligation to speak up for the voiceless and to protect those who cannot protect themselves. When it comes to the houseless, we offer a hand up by providing housing and the support services necessary to help folks overcome the challenges they are facing. And it’s working: 93% of the folks we serve in permanent housing maintain their permanent housing year-over-year.

And through the hard work of many other organizations in our community including Volunteers of America, Union Gospel Mission, Transitions, Spokane Neighborhood Action Partners, Jewels Helping Hands, Family Promise and the YWCA, the number of people experiencing houselessness in Spokane County is down 15% from 2023, according to the January 2024 point-in-time count, We are grateful for the grants and program opportunities from city, county, state and federal governments, and support of private organizations, foundations and individuals who help fund these operations and services.

None of this can be done without the work of thousands of volunteers who simply care and show love without judgment to all they serve.

We applaud the efforts of city of Spokane and law enforcement agencies to tackle the fentanyl crisis, starting at Second and Division, hopefully adding resources to arrest those who harass ordinary citizens and prey on those experiencing houselessness.

We all must stand up against intolerable actions by others who harm our most vulnerable citizens. If you witness this kind of behavior, please call 911. People must be held accountable for their actions.

As members of this wonderful community, it is all our responsibility to be part of the solution to houselessness. These are our brothers, sisters, who need our love and support. One day it could be one of us. None of us are immune from becoming houseless through loss of job, skyrocketing rents, or addiction.

“A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members,” said Mahatma Ghandi.

As a community let’s meet this obligation.

Rob McCann is President and CEO of Catholic Charities Eastern Washington. He lives in Spokane.

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