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Bishop says improved funding for homeless shelter could have prevented police shooting

Bishop Thomas Daly of the Spokane Diocese talks Friday about the mission of Catholic Charities’ House of Charity and about the shooting of a homeless man Thursday evening outside the shelter. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Bishop Thomas Daly of the Spokane Diocese talks Friday about the mission of Catholic Charities’ House of Charity and about the shooting of a homeless man Thursday evening outside the shelter. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

A lined sheet of white butcher paper takes up half the wall outside the House of Charity’s chapel. By midmorning Friday, about a dozen people had written to say goodbye to Mike Kurtz.

“You always had a way of brightening up any day,” one person wrote. Someone drew a yellow flower on the bottom of the sheet. Another wrote, “I also believe you are reunited with your family.”

Two police officers shot and killed Kurtz, a homeless man, on Thursday in front of a brick building on the southwest corner of State Street and Pacific Avenue, a block from the shelter. The Spokane Police Department and several witnesses at the scene Thursday said Kurtz walked toward police holding a knife while telling officers to shoot him.

Police spokeswoman Officer Teresa Fuller called the shooting “a tragic incident for everybody involved.”

Those at the shelter who knew Kurtz best were angry, saying the police should have tried harder to avoid shooting him, and held back tears while sharing memories of him. And staff from Catholic Charities, which runs the shelter, said Kurtz’s death was an avoidable tragedy.

Speaking at the shelter Friday morning, Bishop Thomas Daly of the Spokane Diocese said the shelter would have been open when the shooting took place were it not for budget cuts that forced a reduction in hours since Jan. 1. Without those cuts, Kurtz might have been inside with trained staff who knew him well enough to help him through a crisis.

“This is an opportunity for the whole community to step back and say, are we doing all we can for the homeless?” Daly said.

The shelter opened early Friday to give people a place to go after the shooting. Though the main room downstairs was full of people, few seemed to feel like talking. Those who knew Kurtz well exchanged hugs and held back tears as they remembered their friend.

O’Kelly O’Brien, a homeless man at House of Charity, said he’d seen Kurtz give an entire pack of cigarettes to someone who was bugging him for one.

He’d been homeless for about a year after losing his job and still was dealing with the death of his wife, many said. He had a young son, about 5 or 6 years old, and was working when he could to try to get a house for him and his son. He held signs outside stores advertising sales and generally enjoyed the work. Around people he didn’t know well, he was quiet and kept to himself, but his friends said he was protective, especially of women on the street, and was always complimenting people and trying to make them smile.

“My heart got 10 times bigger after I met him,” said Cassie Bower, a homeless woman who knew Kurtz well. He’d often come up to her and say “Hey, beautiful,” she said.

The day of the shooting, Kurtz had been working in Lewiston holding a sign advertising for Macy’s outside the department store, Bower said. He got back to Spokane and had a few drinks in the evening.

Bower said she witnessed the shooting from about 10 feet away and said the incident began with Kurtz’s knife on the ground, though other witnesses interviewed by The Spoksman-Review on the night of the shooting said he was holding it. She said she heard Kurtz tell police to leave him alone. Then, she said, he stood up and said, “If you’re going to shoot me, shoot me.”

Police said the officers fired a Taser once, but it wasn’t effective.

Bower said she saw officers shoot Kurtz multiple times in the head and chest after he moved toward police.

“All night long, it’s been playing in my head,” she said. Kurtz’s body stayed in the street until about 1:30 a.m., something Bower and other witnesses found upsetting.

Fuller said unfortunately, delays like that are necessary to make sure everything is well-documented, the forensics team can gather the evidence they need and the medical examiner can come and remove the body.

“We do that as much for our sake as we do for the decedent’s sake to make sure everything was done the right way,” she said.

Daly and Rob McCann, the executive director of Catholic Charities, said they appreciate the Spokane Police Department’s efforts to work with people in crisis and people struggling with mental illness. Both said they did not want the shooting to polarize the community or be used as an excuse to demonize police officers or homeless people.

“We unify by a compassionate response of all involved,” Daly said.

The shelter was facing further cutbacks as the result of a projected budget deficit of about $570,000 this year, which the Catholic Charities board is no longer willing to subsidize. The shelter has been running at a deficit for several years as state and federal funding for homelessness has shifted away from emergency shelters and toward permanent housing, McCann said.

For now, those cuts have been prevented by a city pledge for an additional $200,000 in funding for the shelter, as well as $50,000 from the Downtown Spokane Partnership. McCann said he hopes the county and state agencies also are willing to contribute funds.

Kurtz’s death is the Spokane Police Department’s first fatal officer-involved shooting since the Aug. 8 shooting of Kevin Lee McDaniel, which the Spokane County prosecutor ruled justified. The McDaniel shooting was the only fatal shooting involving Spokane police in 2015, newspaper records show.

The city’s law enforcement director, Jim McDevitt, released a statement on the House of Charity shooting saying, “As an agency, we are concerned, not only for our officers, but for anyone impacted by last night’s events. Every time an officer uses lethal force is tragedy. What is important to remember is to separate the tragedy from the justification. Whether the shooting is justified or not will be thoroughly investigated.”

The Spokane Police Department will release the names of the officers involved in the shooting next week, Fuller said. The Spokane County Sheriff’s Office is investigating the shooting.

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