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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spokane churches need a change in state law to continue housing homeless

Michelle Christie helps the toddler son of a friend get ready for bed in a Sunday school classroom-turned-bedroom at Covenant United Methodist Church in the Wandermere area Sunday, Feb. 7, 2016.  (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Michelle Christie helps the toddler son of a friend get ready for bed in a Sunday school classroom-turned-bedroom at Covenant United Methodist Church in the Wandermere area Sunday, Feb. 7, 2016. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

OLYMPIA – Spokane churches that temporarily shelter the homeless are seeking help from the Washington Legislature to keep the program going.

Family Promise of Spokane isn’t asking for money. Instead, the program is looking for a waiver to building codes that require certain fire prevention and suppression equipment in any structure where people sleep overnight.

Twelve local congregations rotate the program each week, allowing homeless families to sleep in their churches temporarily. Over the past 18 years, Family Promise has sheltered more than 400 families, and 85 percent of them have become self-sustaining and are no longer homeless, Ron Hardin, the organization’s past president told a House committee Thursday.

Eleven of those 12 churches are so old they were built without fire sprinklers. To help compensate, those churches set up fire watches, do evacuation drills and have emergency lighting to mark the exits. For months the group has been working with the Spokane Fire Department and other city officials to come up with a variance, but they keep running up against state law.

“The law is very clear,” said Brian Schaeffer, assistant Spokane fire chief. “Religious organizations don’t have an exemption for placing people in buildings that weren’t built for overnight occupancy.”

A bill sponsored by Rep. Kevin Parker, R-Spokane, would provide that leeway for churches offering temporary shelter for the homeless, programs that are particularly important in the winter in Spokane, when the temperature drops and regular shelters like the Salvation Army get full.

“There are no other options for them,” said Parker, who worked with Rep. Timm Ormsby, D-Spokane, to draft a bill that moved quickly through the House Local Government Committee last week with unanimous support and praise from Chairwoman Sherry Appleton, D-Poulsbo. It could come to a vote in the full House in the coming weeks.

The proposal has bipartisan support, Parker said. “It’s one of those bills where there’s something on the line.”

If the bill fails at some point in the process, Parker is worried that would indicate there isn’t support for a variance for church homelessness programs.

But Schaeffer said that while the department and the city would like to have the Legislature build some flexibility into state statutes, they’ll still try to balance the needs for temporary homeless shelters with fire safety requirements. Families are safer with a roof over their heads than out in the elements, he said.

“It’s a balancing act. We’ll still continue to try to do the right thing,” he said.

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