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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

City of Spokane expands operation of warming shelters, eyes more assistance for round-the-clock homeless care

By Kip Hill and Rachel Alexander The Spokesman-Review

Donnie Covert walks the streets with his trusty canine companion, six-year-old Gracie May Meadows.

Covert has been homeless for about eight years and has hypoglycemia, plus occasional seizures. He relies on Gracie to tell him when his blood sugar is getting too low and she’s also trained to summon help if he has a seizure.

Gracie, a Chihuahua, Jack Russell terrier and Italian greyhound mix, has saved his life multiple times, Covert said, but some shelters still won’t let her in the door.

“She’s got paperwork, she’s the real deal, but I still have issues,” Covert said. “If my dog wasn’t allowed, many times I’ve stayed outside all winter.”

For the first time this winter, shelters in Spokane will be open overnight regardless of the temperature outside. The city had previously operated warming shelters when the thermometer fell below freezing.

Shelters will serve a variety of vulnerable populations, including families with children, couples and people like Covert and his Gracie.

Mayor David Condon and City Council President Ben Stuckart announced Tuesday that the House of Charity, 32 W. Pacific Ave., will be open for individuals and couples, while families can stay at the Salvation Army, 222 E. Indiana Ave.

Both Condon and Stuckart said the policy change this winter is the first step toward providing continuous, nonstop emergency housing for homeless people in Spokane.

At the House of Charity, about 200 people will be able to sleep on the shelter’s main floor, in addition to the 109 beds for men available upstairs.

Pets are welcome, so long as they don’t disrupt people, something Covert said is a relief. He currently has a bed upstairs at the House of Charity, but said he hasn’t always been so lucky.

Couples may spend time together in a quiet space for people who want to stay awake, though they may not sleep together. Staff will be available to talk to people who want to stay awake if they don’t feel comfortable sleeping in a group setting or are struggling with anxiety. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are also welcome.

“We’re really trying to address a lot of the barriers that have kept people from shelter,” said Sam Dompier, the House of Charity director.

Opening the shelters for the season is the first step toward providing nonstop emergency housing access, Condon said. But the city is seeking additional public and private money to make up the $1.4 million annual cost of opening around-the-clock shelters, he said.

“To date, the city has identified $780,000 of those funds,” Condon said. “A significant gap still remains.”

Stuckart said funding efforts for next year build upon money set aside to keep the doors of the shelter open in the spring. The announcement followed the fatal shooting of Michael Kurtz in May by Spokane Police officers, though discussions had been underway earlier in the year. Kurtz, who had stayed at the shelter previously, was holding a knife and begged the officers to kill him before the shooting, which occurred while the shelter’s doors were closed.

“These investments ensure that people who come to participate in shelters will be welcomed into a safe and healthy environment,” Stuckart said. “That’s what this effort is all about.”

Currently, the House of Charity will still be closed from noon to 6 p.m, and may not be able to remain open overnight in warmer months if funding is not secured.

The council has added a $250,000 line item to the 2017 budget to pay for operations out of the city’s general fund. A portion of that, $50,000, was previously spent on warming shelters.

Another $325,000 in city funds will come from reshuffling existing local and state funds for housing services, said Dawn Kinder, the director of Community, Housing & Human Services. The details remain to be worked out.

The rest of the existing funding is contributed from partner organizations, including Catholic Charities, Volunteers of America and Transitions, Kinder said. City staff have reached out to local businesses and other groups to try to close the funding gap.

Rob McCann, executive director of Catholic Charities, said giving the money to operate the shelter would avoid other costs incurred by people living on the streets, including expenses related to health care, policing and overnight stays at the Spokane County Jail. McCann said it cost the agency about $7.26 per person, per night, for the service.

“There’s an obvious return on investment for the community,” McCann said.

As city and Catholic Charities leaders spoke Tuesday, people carried lunch trays to tables in the shelter’s first-floor cafeteria. Volunteers handed out fliers for public services, and some shelter visitors stepped into a barber’s chair for a haircut.

Tracy Blum sat nearby, finishing a cup of coffee. She’s lived on and off the streets for most of her adult life, originally seeking housing as a teen runaway with the Crosswalk shelter in Spokane.

Now 46, Blum said Tuesday education and health care have improved among the city’s homeless population, but a safe place to rest is still a major concern.

“That’s the scary thing, you have to sleep with one eye open,” Blum said. “Most of the time, we’re not even getting any sleep.”

Blum said she’d learned to stay away from the bars downtown around closing time, preferring to stay with other homeless campers near the former skate park under the freeway. After leaving the House of Charity on Tuesday afternoon, she planned a walk through town until the shelter opened its doors again at 6 p.m.

“I like being outdoors, and stuff like that,” she said. “I usually sit outside. I’ve been reading a lot, or I go to church.”

Friends Kelly Gavino and Khalil El-Ameen stopped at the House of Charity on Tuesday morning for a lunch of macaroni, vegetables and a dinner roll. The pair wore Mardi Gras masks, celebrating El-Ameen’s hometown of New Orleans.

Gavino, 26, moved to Spokane a few weeks ago from Longview and said she’d been sleeping under buildings, but would likely take advantage of the warming shelter.

“I don’t know where I’m going to sleep tonight,” she said. “If it’s open, I’m going to stay here because it’s warm.”

El-Ameen, 31, said the House of Charity provided needed services, including showers, for people passing through. But he saw several of his friends, including veterans, being turned away from different agencies around town, and the services that are provided are often far from perfect.

“The showers are ice cold here,” El-Ameen said.

The pair met as El-Ameen was walking out of a convenience store, and noticed a group of people that threatened Gavino.

“We all look out for each other,” he said.

When the noon hour came, Gavino, El-Ameen and Blum all shuffled out of the building, carrying backpacks and garbage bags full of their belongings for an afternoon on the streets. With enough funding from private and public sources, McCann said, their dismissal into the November chill won’t be necessary next year.

“No one, no one should sleep outside. We’re better than that,” McCann said.