Task force hopes cohousing communities could improve homelessness in rural Spokane County
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By Emma Ledbetter
Local community groups are hosting a presentation about cohousing, an architectural concept focused around community-building that could reduce the incidence of homelessness in rural north Spokane County.
Architect Chuck Durrett will present “A Solution to Homelessness in North Spokane County” at 7 p.m. on Nov. 3 in the Robinson Theater at Whitworth University. Event organizers hope the presentation will encourage community members to proactively work to solve Spokane’s homelessness problem.
Quantifying the problem
Outside of annual point-in-time counts, where officials tally the number of homeless individuals at a single time point, it is difficult to approximate how many people in Spokane county lack stable housing. This is especially true outside the city, where homeless individuals are less concentrated in one area, said Theresa James.
James volunteers for New Hope Resource Center, an ecumenical social services organization serving north Spokane County. New Hope’s homelessness task force, of which James is a member, developed a survey to identify people living without stable housing.
“There’s a real need for housing that takes into account people’s income and allows them to build and live in a community, rather than scattered,” she said. “You don’t see it out north. You drive along the US-2 corridor and don’t know that there are homeless people who have found some place to camp out in the woods. They’re not that visible.”
When people come to New Hope for social support — ranging from clothing and laundry soap to rent assistance — volunteers survey them about their housing status to determine the level of need in the area.
“Most of the people [we’ve surveyed] come from north Spokane County, and that’s where they want to be — even if they don’t have a safe place to reside,” James said.
People can be homeless or experiencing unstable housing for a variety of reasons, and it impacts people differently, she said. For example, people who live in motorhomes or campers in north Spokane County have a difficult time finding a place to park and are forced to move around continually.
“Our society has kind of turned a blind eye unless they’re blatantly in our neighborhood,” James said. “We’re averting our eyes to a growing problem, and certainly on the north side, we can see the problem is growing and we need to do something positive to change that.”
A solution for rural communities
James said she believes cohousing could help the homeless population in north Spokane county by creating affordable housing and a strong sense of community.
Cohousing communities are intentionally designed to foster high-functioning and community-centered lifestyles through shared spaces and items. There is no hierarchy or shared economy, but neighbors spend a lot of time together and are likely to help each other, Durrett said.
“[In a cohousing community], you are accountable and have a sense of belonging and identity — all of which people need in any neighborhood,” Durrett said. “Homeless people have spent too much time being judged for their bad choices … Even if they don’t have severe and chronic mental illness, it’s important to see building a viable society as a priority.”
James said meeting Durrett and learning about cohousing solidified the task force’s dream to improve the stability of the individuals they serve.
“Large apartment complexes don’t fit the rural type of community we have in the far north side,” James said. “A cohousing development with small homes and a community center would fit into the rural communities in a better way.”
Cohousing likely is not a one-size-fits-all solution to homelessness, James said. However, providing stable housing and a supportive community could be what people need to reestablish themselves. Many people who are homeless have trouble finding work because they do not have a secure place to store important documents or a permanent address — both issues that cohousing could solve.
“It is my belief that there are thousands of citizens on the north side who care about this problem, who want to do something about it, but they need something solid to give to,” James said. “That’s what we’re hoping to do [with cohousing], is develop something people can get behind.”
Emma Ledbetter is a freelance writer from Newcastle, Washington. She is a rising senior at Washington State University, where she is a microbiology major. She has written for The Daily Evergreen, WSU’s student newspaper, for the last three years and is currently serving as editor-in-chief. Emma is content as long as she is writing, and she hopes to be a science writer after she graduates. In her free time, she enjoys reading, hiking and playing with dogs.