Spokane City Council support for a new homeless shelter on East Sprague Avenue may be eroding before the plans for it are fully developed.
And while neighborhood opposition is already clear, many details about a proposed homeless shelter in East Central have not yet been fleshed out.
The city has yet to select a service provider for the roughly 120-bed shelter, and it is waiting to to hear if Spokane County is willing to contribute to the purchase of the building.
It’s unclear exactly what level of security the city and provider would employ on the property.
The city’s current plan is to purchase the property at 4210 E. Sprague Ave. for $1.8 million, with the costs to be shared by the city of Spokane and Spokane County. On July 1, the Spokane City Council approved a $50,000 earnest payment allowing the city to execute a purchase and sale agreement for the building, which was formerly home to a Grocery Outlet store.
Councilman Mike Fagan voted to authorize the down payment but now says he feels “as though I wasn’t really given a true picture of what this particular project was going to be all about.”
City Council President Ben Stuckart said there are no other viable solutions to shelter the homeless before the winter.
“If someone on council is saying that we shouldn’t do it, they should probably have a solution ready,” Stuckart said.
The council will vote on the appropriation of funds for the purchase, but the selection of a site is driven by the administration, noted Councilwoman Lori Kinnear.
“If we don’t (approve) this, we’re going to be in the same position we were in last year,” Kinnear said, referencing the network of emergency warming centers the city relied on.
Though it may launch as an overnight shelter, city officials envision the new facility as offering services around the clock. The goal is to not only provide a warm bed, but connect its patrons with services that will lift them out of homelessness and into permanent housing.
“This more hybrid model would make a lot of sense in this location, and most importantly we wanted this new shelter to be a community asset,” Tija Danzig, a Homeless Programs manager for the city, said at a public meeting on Tuesday.
Features planned for the new shelter include a hygiene center, a commercial kitchen, lockable storage and transportation to and from social service centers downtown.
It could take about a year after the building is purchased for all of the shelter’s components to be fully operational, and a proposed opening date has yet to be set. If the city does not have adequate shelter capacity by the time winter weather sets in, it could be again forced to rely on community partners to open warming centers.
“Their priority is to get a new shelter open, but that doesn’t mean they might not have to supplement with warming centers,” said Marlene Feist, a spokeswoman for the city.
The space would undoubtedly require some level of renovation to be fit to serve the homeless, but the city has yet to announce an estimated cost. City officials continue to inspect the property and do their due diligence before executing the purchase, according to Feist.
The city would be on the hook for the capital needs not only of the former Grocery Outlet building, but in the Project id building as well, Fagan noted. Project id is a nonprofit that works with developmentally disabled adults and it currently operates in a building that is included in the sale agreement of the Grocery Outlet parcel.
“Having met with the executive director over at Project id and getting an idea of what he’s got going on with his capital needs, the city stands to inherit more of a boondoggle than we are being briefed on or led to believe,” Fagan said.
The city is expected to announce a service provider for the new shelter in the coming days following a request for proposals process and review of applicants.
Meanwhile, officials have said that the security plan for the new shelter will include contracting for private security. But until the provider is selected and consulted, the city has not offered details on how many guards would be stationed at the property and when.
The city is working with the Spokane Police Department on crime mitigation strategies, officials said, and those conversations will evolve following the selection of a service provider.
The city also plans to assemble a community neighborhood impact board that will include representation from the neighborhood council, Project id, and other partners.
Volunteers with Project id were joined by East Central residents at a public meeting on Tuesday in expressing staunch opposition to the city’s purchase and development of the emergency shelter.
The concerns of neighbors and those affiliated with Project id centered on safety.
“This is a very vulnerable population, and I’m also concerned about our volunteers,” said Project id Executive Director Bob Hutchinson, who later added that “Project id isn’t against the homeless.”
It’s not the shelter that causes Hutchinson to worry, it’s those who cannot be accommodated inside.
“The concern that we have mostly is all the ancillary stuff that will be going on when someone can’t get into the building,” Hutchinson said.
Kelly Keenan, director of the city’s Community, Housing and Human Services Department, cautioned the crowd gathered at Project id for the public meeting against drawing a connection between homelessness and criminal behavior.
“We need to be careful about making generalizations,” Keenan said.
Keenan’s words fell on deaf ears, as speaker after speaker expressed concern for those who utilize Project id services, whom they repeatedly described as vulnerable.
The East Sprague site caught the eye of city officials due to its location outside the city center, its access to public transit and its proximity to regional partners like Spokane Valley.
“That was a complicated and long process. We’ve been looking at location models for about two years,” said Danzig, the Homeless Programs manager with the city.
City officials first toured the East Sprague location in October 2018.
Councilwoman Kate Burke, who along with Fagan represents the district in which the shelter is planned, said she is opposed to the location because she is uncertain how people experiencing homelessness will get there.
“I haven’t heard any real solutions on how we’re going to get people to it,” Burke said.
Burke added that there are no grocery stores or social resources to serve the homeless in the immediate area. While there is a bus line that passes through, Burke said many people can’t afford a bus pass.
“It’s a really mixed feeling because a lot of people are not supporting it because there will be people who are homeless around them. That’s not why I don’t want it,” said Burke, who was absent from the July 1 meeting at which the council approved the earnest payment.
The public outcry hasn’t swayed the opinion of Stuckart, who said “we just need to make sure that the security is taken care of.”
“The majority of what I’ve heard is people afraid of one vulnerable population being adversely affected by another vulnerable population being located next to them,” Stuckart said.
Councilman Breean Beggs believes the property is “the best solution we have right now,” but notes that he’s waiting to hear what the security plan will be.
“If the city puts in a robust security plan, it would be safer than it is currently,” Beggs argued. “My sense of public safety is that when people who are homeless are actually in shelter, it’s a safer situation for everyone.”
Stuckart said the committee reviewing potential service providers is unanimous in its demand that security be a priority.
The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that cities cannot ban homeless people from sleeping outdoors if it does not provide adequate shelter capacity, Stuckart noted.
“If we don’t do this, and we don’t have warming centers open, there is going to be camping,” Stuckart said.
Stuckart said it’s “easy to throw stones,” but harder to fix problems.
“I haven’t heard a single viable solution out of anybody lately that allows us to both house people and enforce the anti-camping ordinance,” Stuckart said.
Fagan said he believes the city can find a better option, even if that means relying on temporary warming shelters through the winter and looking for a permanent solution in 2020.
“There’s got to be something better out there, and I know real estate is hot, but there’s got to be somebody out there that is willing to step up and cut the city some slack and participate in helping us to contain and minimize this problem,” Fagan said.
Kinnear listed the many reasons the city has identified the location on East Sprague to be a good fit, adding “all of the alternatives may not satistfy what we need in a 24/7 shelter.”
“Everything has to be taken into consideration,” Kinnear said.
The property is currently owned by Hutton Settlement. Under the terms of the purchase and sale agreement approved by the council on July 1, the city and county must close on the property by Oct. 1.
The Hutton Settlement has owned the property since 1968, according to Executive Director Chud Wendle. It put the property on the market shortly after Grocery Outlet’s departure in October 2018.
Hutton Settlement, which provides housing and other services to children in need, plans to utilize the proceeds from the sale to reinvest in commercial property, which accounts for 90 percent of its revenue.
“At the end of the day, we’re looking at this as a real estate transaction, what’s best for the children,” Wendle said.
Addressing the capital needs of the property, Wendle said it “all depends on the use that you’re putting in there.”
Fagan said he met with Wendle to discuss the issue.
“I kind of got the indication that Mr. Wendle’s board is gnawing on his tail right now and they want this deal done,” Fagan said. “After that face-to-face meeting, reviewing the documents once again, I’m going to have to take a step back from this.”
Wendle said Fagan’s assertion was not fair and that this is being treated like the other two properties the Hutton Settlement has sold this year.
Kinnear said she understands people’s concerns about the proposal.
“I’m continuing to reach out to people who have concerns. They’ve been calling and emailing. I get it,” Kinnear said. “We have to address those concerns and make sure we’re not just plowing head.”
Council members Karen Stratton and Candace Mumm could not be reached for this story.
Local journalism is essential.
The journalists of The Spokesman-Review are a part of the community. They live here. They work here. They care. You can help keep local journalism strong right now with your contribution. Thank you.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.