Finding solutions to homelessness, never easy, become even more complicated when compassion collides with public safety concerns. When temperatures plunge below freezing, answers can be a matter of life and death.
Family Promise of Spokane has formed a network of churches willing to offer temporary havens for people who would otherwise be exposed to the elements when regular shelters are full.
The network has temporarily housed more than 400 families over the past 18 years, but to continue their good work the members need a permanent solution to a code enforcement problem.
The churches become subject to strict statewide fire codes if people spend the night. City officials and the Spokane Fire Department have worked to keep this alternative viable, but they keep bumping up against regulations that require the churches to install indoor sprinklers and make other modifications.
The older churches have compensated for the lack of sprinklers by installing emergency lighting, establishing fire watches and conducting drills.
The answer to whether the state should grant them a variance comes in the form of a question. Where else will the homeless go when other shelters, such as the Salvation Army’s, are full on a bitterly cold night?
Some will sleep in cars. Some will sleep outside. Some might trespass and find an empty building or abandoned home.
All of those are worse options than a church that doesn’t have the latest in fire safety equipment but welcomes shivering adults and children.
Spokane Reps. Kevin Parker and Timm Ormsby have sponsored a bill that would relax fire and building codes for religious organizations aiding the homeless. Eleven of the 12 Family Promise locations do not have indoor sprinklers, which are expensive to install.
Under HB 2929, state statutes related to the State Building Code and the Washington State Energy Code would be amended to allow for temporary overnight stays at houses of worship.
The bill would also block municipalities from adopting ordinances that would force churches to retrofit their buildings with sprinklers and other safety features that weren’t required during original construction.
The House Local Government Committee passed the bill unanimously last week, which bodes well for its chances if it comes up for a floor vote.
If the bill were to become law, fire departments would still need to conduct inspections and work with churches to provide safe environments.
As Spokane Assistant Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer said, it’s a balancing act. But he also acknowledged that families are better off sheltered from the cold.
We appreciate that Reps. Parker and Ormsby, legislators from opposing parties, are working together on this bill.
And we have nothing but admiration for the churches that have opened their doors along with their hearts.
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