Spokane’s largest drop-in center and shelter for homeless people may all but close its doors during the day without a significant infusion of cash from local government and private donors.
The House of Charity faces a projected $570,000 budget deficit and has asked city and county leaders for more money by May 1. Without the money, the shelter will pivot from an all-day services provider to being open just one hour per day to serve breakfast before re-opening in the evening as a shelter. That change would push more homeless people downtown during business hours, something service providers, police and business owners agree isn’t good for anyone.
“We’d rather have them here, they’d rather be here, downtown businesses would rather have them here,” said Rob McCann, the executive director of Catholic Charities of Spokane, which runs the House of Charity.
Public funding provides about $47,000 per year - 3 percent of House of Charity’s annual $1.5 million budget. A few years ago public funding provided half the shelter’s budget, McCann said.
City funding for from 2014-2016 has fluctuated from a high of $66,000 last year to $11,374 in 2014. The shifting is based on which grants House of Charity has applied for, city officials said.
The deficit is largely a reflection of a wider shift in funding priorities to tackle homelessness. Five years ago, public funds provided a significant portion of House of Charity’s budget, McCann said. But priorities for funding homeless services have changed, and funding for House of Charity has dried up.
“The political focus has shifted from emergency shelter to permanent housing,” McCann said.
For the past few years, Catholic Charities has been subsidizing the shelter at a cost of $300,000 to $400,000 per year.
McCann said the board is unwilling to keep doing that without a long-term solution.
City officials say they’re working on such a plan to increase emergency shelter funding for 2017 and also trying to find sources to make up the gap this year. Spokane spends about $13 million each year on housing and human services, but most of that money comes from state and federal grants earmarked for specific purposes, said Jonathan Mallahan, director of community and neighborhood services. The 2016 city budget includes nearly $5.8 million for various types of permanent and transitional housing, including rapid re-housing.
General fund spending on human services was about $960,000 last year - less than 1 percent of the general fund, Mallahan said. The city is budgeted to spend about $300,000 on emergency shelters in 2016.
Shifting state and federal grants to permanent housing will help homeless people during the next few years, McCann said. Catholic Charities opened Father Bach Haven, a 50-unit apartment building for chronically homeless people, in 2013 and has another 100 apartments in two buildings scheduled to open this summer.
Three more buildings are in the works for the next few years, and the city and county have contributed over $1 million each to fund them, McCann said. By 2020, he’s optimistic most of the chronically homeless people in Spokane will be able to move into a free or heavily subsidized apartment building.
But the focus on permanent housing has come at a price for House of Charity, which provides far more services than typical shelters. Staff serve breakfast and lunch and keep the shelter’s ground floor open all morning so people can spend time in a warm, safe place. Clients can collect mail, take showers, do laundry, receive medical care and counseling, and store gear.
House of Charity welcomes people in any condition, including those who are drug-addicted, mentally ill or unstable. Many clients say the shelter is the only place besides the downtown library where they feel welcome during the day. The goal, McCann said, is to preserve human dignity: “Every human being is made in the image and likeness of God.”
Last year, House of Charity served 3,251 men and women, sorted 45,000 pieces of mail and provided shelter beds to 1,267 men.
“This is a hub of services,” said director Sam Dompier. Other social service providers also rely on House of Charity being open because it’s a reliable place for them to come find their clients during the day, she said.
Dompier took over in February after longtime director Ed McCarron retired and said the shelter has turned people away for beds every night that she’s been there. The shelter’s services cost under $14 per person per day, making them a far more cost-effective option than a jail bed, which costs $140 per night, or a hospital bed, which runs over $3,000, McCann said.
In the short-term, prioritizing permanent housing means shelters like House of Charity have to make do with less money. And the change comes at a time when McCann says the homeless population is more likely to be mentally ill, requiring more staff to keep people safe.
“There’s always going to be someone who’s newly homeless,” McCann said.
House of Charity cut back its daytime hours in January due to budget issues, closing for the day at noon instead of 3 p.m. Police say they’ve already seen more people camping under the Browne Street railroad overpass since House of Charity reduced daytime hours.
“It will get even worse in the next few months if they don’t close the funding gap,” said downtown police Capt. Brad Arleth. “Until you can completely eradicate homelessness in the U.S., you need places where people can get these services.”
Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart said he’s working to find extra funds from the 2015 budget that would otherwise go into city reserves to provide funding this year. He hopes to convince other council members the situation merits an emergency budget ordinance.
“I think this qualifies as an emergency,” he said.
Downtown Spokane Partnership director Mark Richard said downtown businesses have reported seeing more homeless people downtown too. The vast majority of House of Charity clients are “good neighbors,” and crime doesn’t seem to have gone up, he said, but coming across someone who appears severely mentally ill and is talking to themselves can make downtown visitors uncomfortable. People who need services would probably rather be inside than wandering the streets, too, he said.
Richard said he’s approaching his board with a plan to solicit private donations to help provide funding for this year.
“We’re committed to trying to help them find a solution,” he said.
Mallahan and Stuckart said the city is committed to creating a sustainable plan to ensure emergency shelters are well-funded enough to provide a bed for everyone who needs one. They’ve set a goal of using one percent of the general fund for human services, with any increases going directly to emergency shelters, Mallahan said.
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