After navigating numerous narrow staircases and hallways to the church basement, Pastor Andy CastroLang is greeted by a handful of volunteers, the smell of sawdust and the sound of power tools.
The worship leader at Westminster Congregational United Church of Christ, 411 S. Washington St., said volunteers are installing doors and remodeling the bathroom as fast as possible so they can offer young people a safe, warm place to stay overnight by Christmas.
The church’s proximity to downtown and its welcoming culture makes it an ideal location to become the next site in the city’s network of winter warming shelters designed to carry the region’s growing homeless population through the winter, CastroLang said.
Volunteers have come forward to help ready the church for young people, women in the congregation have offered to bake them Christmas cookies and another church has offered to fill in anything else they might need, she said.
“When people hear about it, they want to do the right thing, they want to help,” CastroLang said. “It’s very encouraging.”
CastroLang planned to ask the Guardians Foundation, the nonprofit in charge of staffing the shelter, what it needs in donations or assistance once the operation is up and running, and a service provider might stop by to help the young people staying in the warming center access housing or other services.
“It’s one thing to house people in an emergency,” she said. “It’s another thing to help each other get off of the street. There’s a better life out there than that.”
She said she hopes to open the warming center at 9 p.m. Saturday; it will have capacity for up to 25 people between the ages of 18 and 24.
Michael Shaw, director of the Guardians Foundation, said the other two shelters the organization has been staffing are at capacity every night and he believes the city will need an additional 50 to 75 beds soon.
“The weather has been fine the last couple of days,” he said. “But as soon as the cold snap hits, we’ll be overflowing.”
Shaw said the organization is looking forward to offering a place for young people because there is a gap between what is available at adult shelters and teen shelters.
“With this younger group, maybe something will spark to change their trajectory,” he said.
CastroLang said the church has been supporting the Volunteers of America teen shelter, Crosswalk, for a while, but the congregation is excited to be able to offer the young people who age out of Crosswalk a safe place to stay where they might be able to connect with resources.
She said the shelter won’t require religious participation and will welcome LGBTQ young people.
City Council President Ben Stuckart said now that the city has approved funding for the winter warming center network, it will focus on a permanent 24/7 shelter network and with hope won’t need the system next year.
Westminster Congregational hopes to help the city get a better understanding of homeless young people in Spokane because there isn’t a great deal of data for the demographic, CastroLang said. She said the church is a place where people help each other, but it is also a very activist congregation and tries to be involved in long-term projects that may lead to solutions.
“Homelessness is something you can see at every stoplight,” she said. “It brings up probably sadness, frustration, a sense of powerlessness. … Being a part of an emergency center gives people a sense of powerful helping instead of powerlessness.
“That’s huge,” she said. “Most of our problems seem too big for regular people. Not if we all work on it together.”
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