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

Spokane officials pick operator for new homeless shelter, but location, funding questions remain

The former Grocery Outlet at the corner of Sprague and Havana is photographed on Thursday, August 1, 2019. Kathy Plonka/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
By Rebecca White and Adam Shanks The Spokesman-Review

Spokane officials announced Wednesday they selected the Salvation Army to operate a new homeless shelter, but important questions about the shelter’s future remain unanswered.

Among the uncertainties that remain to be resolved are where the shelter will be located, whether Spokane County will contribute to the cost of purchasing the property and whether Spokane Valley and the county will help operate the shelter.

Answering those questions will help determine whether the city is able to follow through on a plan to develop a shelter with about 120 beds and have it open before winter weather sets in.

The city said Wednesday that it continues to consider a number of options for the shelter’s location, despite unveiling plans earlier this summer to purchase the former Grocery Outlet store at 4210 E. Sprague Ave. for $1.8 million and to transform it into a 24/7 shelter with amenities including secure storage, a commercial kitchen, a hygiene center and access to social services that will aid homeless people in securing permanent housing.

In its statement on Wednesday, the city acknowledged that, while it has not abandoned plans for the East Sprague site, “other locations remain under consideration as well.” The city will continue to entertain public feedback.

A review committee selected the Salvation Army out of three respondents to a request for proposals issued by the city in June.

The recommendation to contract with the Salvation Army was made by the Regional Continuum of Care Committee, which included representatives from the city of Spokane, Spokane Valley and Spokane County.

City staff will negotiate a five-year contract with the Salvation Army of Spokane, which the Spokane City Council must approve.

The Salvation Army, which referred a request for comment back to the city, operated a temporary warming center on Ermina Avenue earlier this year. The nonprofit’s shelter was the biggest in the temporary network, housing up to 120 people.

Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart, who sat on the review committee, said he initially had reservations about the Salvation Army, particularly in regard to how it would treat members of the LBGT community and the religious aspects of the organization. But he said those concerns will be addressed in the contract.

Drug and alcohol testing will not be a requirement to utilize the shelter, Stuckart said.

“These are shelters for everyone, open for everyone, regardless of what condition they’re in,” Stuckart said.

Concerns about location

The city’s plan to purchase the former East Sprague Grocery Outlet was spearheaded by Mayor David Condon’s administration and sparked immediate and robust opposition from neighbors at a public forum last month.

Project id, a nonprofit located adjacent to the former Grocery Outlet building that provides an array of services to adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, has raised concerns about the impact the homeless shelter could have on the population it serves.

Details of the shelter’s operation have been scant since it was thrust to the forefront of the region’s efforts to address homelessness in July, when the Spokane City Council approved a $50,000 earnest payment to execute a purchase and sale agreement on the East Sprague property.

It remains unclear when the city will be able to open a new shelter, which will undoubtedly require some level of renovation before it is fit to accommodate services for the homeless.

“We’re up against a pretty tight time crunch right now,” Stuckart said.

In lieu of adequate shelter space, the city may be forced to rely once again on temporary warming centers.

“We have the intent and we need to provide adequate shelter, but it all depends on what services are available. This particular facility weighs in on that because it’s all part of a system,” said Kirstin Davis, a city spokeswoman.

The city had anticipated opening a new shelter by July 1 after ending its 24/7 shelter agreement with Catholic Charities last year, which sharply reduced the number of people who could stay there overnight.

Valley and county participation uncertain

The city also is waiting to hear if Spokane County will share the cost of purchasing the property and what level of participation Spokane Valley and the county will have in the operation of the new shelter.

Spokane Valley does not have any homeless shelters within city limits, but the new shelter just outside its borders could pave the way for the city to adopt laws against homeless camping. Per a ruling from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, a municipality must provide adequate shelter space for homeless people in order to enforce laws against camping.

Spokane County Commissioner Josh Kerns said county officials won’t vote on contributing $1.2 million to the new shelters until their questions about costs, security and operations are answered.

“I think that our citizens expect that of us,” Kerns said. “ I don’t think they would be happy if we handed out $1.2 million with those questions still out there.”

Commissioner Al French said he also is waiting for more information and a committee recommendation. Commissioner Mary Kuney has recused herself from the vote and meetings on the new shelter because she is on the board of directors at the Hutton Settlement, the organization that owns the proposed shelter property.

The county will decide on whether to fund the new shelter once it receives a recommendation from the Housing and Community Development Advisory Committee. Spokane Valley City Councilman Arne Woodard, a member of that committee and the committee that selected Salvation Army as a provider, said their questions still haven’t been answered.

Before he can make a recommendation, Woodard said, Spokane needs a plan for how it and the Salvation Army will secure the shelter as well as the neighborhood around it. He said Spokane also needs to answer how it will transport people to and from the shelter and address potential impacts to Project id.

“We’re not going to get everything we want this late,” he said. “But the public deserves to have those questions answered.”

Woodard said he can’t speak for the whole committee, but some see spending $1.2 million without a fleshed-out plan as a risky investment, when there are other housing projects that money could be spent on.

Woodard said Spokane Valley and Spokane County probably will need more time before making a decision because they’ve only been working on the project for about six weeks. He said he knows city staff is working hard on developing what the shelter will look like, and hopes to receive updates in a “flurry of emails and emergency meetings” from the city in the next few weeks.

“We’re just trying to make sure people are helped, not enabled or hurt,” he said. “That’s why we need a security plan and transportation.”

In justifying the East Sprague location, city officials have highlighted its proximity to neighboring Spokane Valley and the rest of the county. The East Sprague property has been owned by Hutton Settlement since the 1960s and was marketed for sale following Grocery Outlet’s departure in October 2018.

Officials declined to disclose the names of the other two organizations that bid on the contract to run the shelter. It also declined to identify the other properties that are under consideration for a homeless shelter.

Woodard said every applicant’s proposal was above the city’s $1.5 million request, but declined to name the other providers, or say how much each proposal would cost.

Spokane Valley Mayor Rod Higgins said the city’s choice in provider was “heartening and encouraging.”

Spokane Valley City Council has yet to throw its support behind a regional shelter but has asked the county to involve it in the process. Spokane Valley contributes more than $1 million to Spokane County for homeless services and housing every year and at a meeting on Tuesday considered assisting with transportation. Spokane Valley has no shelters of its own, so Spokane Valley police sometimes transport the homeless to shelters in Spokane.

Higgins said he discussed the nonprofit’s approach to homelessness with Ken Perrine, leader of the Spokane Salvation Army, a few weeks ago, and supports it. If Spokane Valley joins a regional shelter, Higgins said he would like it to be a place that offers a hand up, not a hand out, and that offers job training and a pathway out of homelessness.

Spokane Valley, however, has many of the same questions as Spokane County and Higgins said he couldn’t support any shelter, without a business plan.

“There are a lot of things we still have to talk about,” he said, “but this is a step in the right direction.”