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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘There are currently no obstacles’: New 24/7, ‘no barrier’ warming center set to open Friday

Julie Garcia, of Jewels Helping Hands, was on-site at the Cannon Street warming center, Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019. The center is set to open Friday. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

The city of Spokane and Jewels Helping Hands say they are on track to open a new warming center for the homeless on Friday.

The South Cannon Street facility is expected to open with capacity for up to 80 overnight occupants, meeting an increasingly critical need as winter temperatures settle into Spokane.

“We’re excited to open and bring people in off the streets,” said Tanya Riordan, a member of Jewels’ board of directors.

The leaders of Jewels Helping Hands, the new nonprofit selected by the city to operate the warming center for adults, say it’s ready to start welcoming the homeless as soon as the city gives a green light.

“There are currently no obstacles for the warming center to open, assuming the final pieces that are in action happen,” city spokeswoman Kirstin Davis said in an email on Wednesday.

This week, the city signed a deal with a contractor to complete a series of small projects to bring the facility up to code, including lighted exit signs. The building hosted a warming center last year, leaving some to wonder why the upgrades are just being made now.

“In 2018, the city mobilized warming center services very quickly. After the warming center services concluded for the 2018-2019 winter season, the city evaluated the operations and learned many things, including shortfalls that needed to be in place if warming centers and shelters needed to be activated in the future,” Davis said.

Jewels Helping Hands, meanwhile, has been working to meet the three conditions laid out for it by the city.

As requested, the nonprofit submitted a set of policies and procedures for the shelter’s operation this week. The city reviewed the submission and returned it with notes on Tuesday. Jewels was working to address those notes on Wednesday.

The nonprofit proved that it has obtained the necessary insurance to operate the warming center, and has successfully worked with city officials to connect to the city’s Homeless Management Information System – a database that helps city officials track homelessness in Spokane.

Although temporary warming centers are typically associated with thin mats or cots on a cold floor, the Cannon site has been equipped with dozens of mattresses in bunk beds, supplemented with 20 overflow mats.

“We really feel that people deserve a dignified place to sleep, and that’s what Jewels Helping Hands is about – treating people with dignity, respect and passion,” Riordan said.

Men and women will not be segregated. The warming center is expected to take in more men than women, but women will sleep on top bunks and men on bottom bunks when possible.

Jewels plans to remain open around the clock, which it says will not only benefit the homeless but alleviate the impact it has on the neighborhood by reducing the number of people waiting outside its doors.

“People don’t have another warming center to be at during the day,” Riordan said.

The warming center will be “no barrier,” meaning people will not be tested for sobriety or any other factor before being allowed inside. Pets are allowed, but must be kept on a leash.

Jewels has secured use of a commercial kitchen off-site and plans to provide a continental breakfast, bagged lunches and hot dinners every day.

To start, the building will not have a bathroom. Instead, four portable toilets have been placed outside. Jewels has brought its mobile shower unit and parked it outside the building. Inside, a handwashing station has been installed. Hygiene will be critical as public health officials continue to sound the alarm about a hepatitis A outbreak that is disproportionately impacting the homeless.

The warming center will provide guests with bins for personal storage.

Although capacity is currently limited to 80, it could exceed 100 if the city renovates an additional room at the north end of the building. As it stands, Jewels expects to have to turn people away every night due to the high demand for shelter space in Spokane.

Though its contract with the city totals $740,000, Riordan said it’s “a very basic budget” and that the vast majority of the funds will be dedicated to staff. The nonprofit will not exceed a 20-to-1 ratio of patrons to staff at any time. It’s worked to rapidly hire and train staff – most recently, its staff received deescalation training.

Earlier this month, the nonprofit’s contract appeared to be in jeopardy after questions surfaced about the personal histories of two of its leaders. But following an initial investigation, the city said it would move forward with Jewels Helping Hands as its service provider as long as it met a number of conditions.

Although it has never operated a warming center, Riordan said Jewels is ready to take on the task.

“We’re a small nonprofit, but we have thoughtful policies, procedures and protocols,” Riordan said. “We understand the importance of managing public resources effectively.”

The city has checks and balances in place as well, Riordan added.

“We’ll work with them every step of the way,” she said.

Calls from the community to open the new warming center have been persistent. It was originally scheduled to open on Nov. 8, but officials delayed it until Nov. 22.

The city purchased the building for $415,000 earlier this month. It is the centerpiece of the city’s plan to expand shelter capacity for the homeless over the winter. In total, it plans to spend more than $2 million on the South Cannon Street site and enhanced services provided by Truth Ministries, Catholic Charities, Volunteers of America and other local nonprofits.

The administration of Mayor David Condon has been on the search for a new shelter facility since it ended a 24/7 shelter agreement with Catholic Charities last year, significantly reducing the number of overnight beds available for the homeless in Spokane.