Jessica Kovac addressed a line of about 200 people waiting for a hot meal Wednesday evening under the Interstate 90 bridge in downtown Spokane.
“You guys have been amazing through this transition,” she said.
It was a typical evening for Blessings Under the Bridge, the decade-old Spokane nonprofit that Kovac, the founder and director, calls “Spokane’s largest homeless outreach.”
But Blessings now has a new, smaller home and is struggling financially after losing donors due to confusion over their future, Kovac said.
The nonprofit was leasing space under the I-90 bridge for $100 a month until the city served an eviction notice last May, saying the weekly meal was preventing the city from being able to enforce laws banning trespassing or sitting on downtown sidewalks.
A plan to relocate Blessings’ operation to the House of Charity parking lot fell through, and talks about a new location stalled.
After months of discussions with the city failed to produce a longer-term solution, Blessings opted simply to move to the public sidewalk on the east side of McClellan Street between Third and Fourth avenues.
“There’s nowhere else to go,” Kovac said.
The events of the past eight months have left Blessings and city staff frustrated over a philosophical divide about how best to serve homeless people.
Blessings’ mission is to meet people where they are, Kovac said, which means serving meals outside, allowing children to volunteer with their parents and cultivating an informal community that welcomes everyone.
“Our heart is to live, love, serve and just be with those people,” she said.
While the mission aligns with the city’s goal of helping Spokane’s homeless, the method was increasingly at odds with a city push to move homeless people off downtown streets and into shelters and other services.
“We’ve always supported their intent to help serve the most vulnerable people in our community,” said Jonathan Mallahan, the city’s director of community and neighborhood services. “Does the city feel like that’s the ideal place to deliver those services? No, we don’t.”
Mallahan said the city started talking to Blessings about the need for a move late last year, well before the eviction notice. The city was spending about $80,000 a year cleaning up in the area, he said, and businesses were concerned about people camping.
Spokane laws ban sitting or lying on downtown sidewalks and private property, but Mallahan said those laws can’t be enforced unless they’re enforced all the time.
By leasing to Blessings, “we were saying this is a place that can happen,” Mallahan said.
Blessings staff feels the city is targeting a successful grassroots nonprofit. Kovac said Blessings was willing to pay market rate for the lot they were leasing but was never given the option.
The city told Blessings it couldn’t host a fundraiser where people camp overnight under the overpass, an event that has raised about $20,000 for Blessings in the past, Kovac said.
Donors also have pulled back support because of uncertainty over Blessings’ future.
“They were told we’ve already been closed or we’re closing,” she said. The organization is trying to raise $40,000 to make up a budget shortfall and keep it running into next year.
The city, meanwhile, said Blessings was given ample notice of the need for a new home and an offer to spend $100,000 on parking lot renovations at the House of Charity.
Blessings staff was close to signing an agreement with Catholic Charities to serve there, but backed out after the deal would have required Blessings to move inside and limit contact between children and the homeless people being served.
Rob McCann, director of Catholic Charities Spokane, said that’s a necessity to ensure safety because House of Charity serves some sex offenders who can’t have contact with children.
“I respect their decision. They decided that was not their mission and their identity,” he said of Blessings’ choice to stay outside.
Rumors have spread on both sides of the discussion. Kovac said she’s heard people saying Blessings turned down thousands of dollars, not knowing it was for renovations at a site that Blessings ultimately decided wouldn’t work for them.
Mallahan said some people believe the city evicted Blessings so they could make more money off turning the lot they were using into parking. The city likely will lease the lot in the future, he said, but no plans are set in stone.
“We did not ask Blessings to leave so we could lease it for parking,” he said.
The issues with enforcing Spokane laws about camping were the driving issue, not revenue, he said.
“Everyone has the best of intent, which is one of the most frustrating things about this,” Mallahan said.
Tami Kennedy, a Blessings volunteer and board member with Feed Spokane, helped Blessings through some of the discussions with the city. She said the city worked hard to find an acceptable solution, but ultimately she thinks the issue boiled down to different philosophies about serving homeless people.
“It’s easy to feel more comfortable with a structured solution that looks like something everybody is familiar with, but we’re dealing with people who are very challenged by structured solutions,” she said. “Do we ostracize those people? Do we let them starve because of that?”
Some people, while sincere in their desire to help homeless people, would rather see all services provided indoors through larger organizations.
“The establishment, if you will, is a little more comfortable with the idea that we’re serving these people in a building, behind four walls, out of sight,” Kennedy said.
On Wednesday evening, Joe Collins Jr. sat in a wheelchair at the end of one of Blessings’ picnic tables, eating lasagna. He said the food is still great, but the new location feels a bit more crowded.
“Right now it’s working, but I think it was a lot better over there,” he said, pointing across the street to the vacant lot. Lines ran more smoothly and Blessings’ volunteers had more space to put out tables for bread and baked goods, he said.
Teenagers and children carried food trays for people in line as MercyMe’s “I Can Only Imagine” played on speakers. A group of District Court judges, led by Judge Jeffrey Smith, served food.
Tania Lopez, the Blessings’ volunteer coordinator, said volunteers are starting to pick back up to the usual 60 or 70 people a week after dropping down below 20. Word is getting around that the weekly meal is still going, though fundraising remains a challenge.
“We’ll make it happen regardless. It’s what we do,” she said.
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