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Opinion >  Editorial

Don’t give up on East Sprague homeless shelter

Spokane City Council members shouldn’t give up on a potential homeless shelter in East Central, especially without a solid alternative that can be quickly implemented. Another winter without more public shelter space should not be an option.

Not so long ago, it seemed like the proposed shelter in a former Grocery Outlet store on East Sprague Avenue was heading toward reality. There were some kinks to work out and planning to do, but the end was in sight.

The plan was for the city to buy the East Sprague site for $1.8 million. The city hoped that Spokane County would chip in. Then, the city and county would quickly renovate it into a 120-bed shelter and, ideally, find a service provider to manage the place.

The facility also could be upgraded to provide services for homeless residents that would help them transition from the streets to permanent housing. That would include not just job training, education and treatment for addiction, but also showers, a commercial kitchen and secure storage space. It’s hard to head off to a job interview if you can’t clean up and must worry the whole time that your belongings might be stolen.

Now some council members are taking a newly-skeptical look at the plan. Councilmembers Kate Burke and Mike Fagan have been especially critical. Coincidentally, the shelter would be in the district they both represent.

As often happens when a shelter is proposed, neighborhood opposition emerged. In this case that included from neighboring Project id, a program that works with adults with developmental disabilities. In fact, the building that Project id occupies is part of the sale deal for the old grocery store. There has been no suggestion it couldn’t continue to operate there.

Neighbors worry that the shelter might attract dangerous individuals and behavior. Such concerns are not without some grounding in reality, but they also are not justification to reject the project. Rather, they point to the need for careful planning.

Any shelter has limited capacity, and there are far more than 120 homeless people living in Spokane. The ones who show up at the shelter door when it is full could linger nearby. Worse are those who would come to sell illegal drugs to homeless residents coming to the shelter. Other crime could follow.

That’s why it is imperative that the city develop a comprehensive security plan for inside and outside the shelter. Councilman Breean Beggs and City Council President Ben Stuckart recognize that need, and both have made security a priority.

The county and even Spokane Valley should be involved in those conversations, too. Homelessness is a regional challenge. The city cannot solve it alone. Any shelter will benefit all three jurisdictions. All three jurisdictions ought to step up to help fund it and ensure safety at the shelter and in the surrounding neighborhood.

The city must not repeat last winter. Then, the best Spokane could do was an ad hoc approach to sheltering homeless residents from the cold. Relying on the goodness of charitable organizations that happen to own large indoor spaces is not a coherent strategy for helping people. Nonprofits admirably fill the gaps, but the basic services need to come from the entire community through their government.

Nor is this just about winter. The legal reality is that the 9th U.S Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in a case out of Boise that cities cannot ban camping in public spaces if there are no available shelter beds to accommodate the homeless. In other words, Spokane cannot enforce its anti-camping law so long as it doesn’t have someplace to send people. This shelter will start to meet that need. It won’t be enough, but if done right it could become a model for more.

That court decision has been appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Maybe justices will reject it, but even if they do, our community has a moral obligation to help those most in need.

No one likes seeing homeless residents setting up camp downtown, along the river or anywhere else. Spokane should do the compassionate thing and open a new shelter before winter arrives.

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