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Friday, December 6, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Spokane

Warming center may not open Friday; city, nonprofit disagree on capacity, use of space

UPDATED: Thu., Nov. 21, 2019

Jewels Helping Hands volunteer Greg Cochrane moves empty blanket boxes donated, by American Airlines, out of the warming center for homeless people on South Cannon Street last Friday. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Jewels Helping Hands volunteer Greg Cochrane moves empty blanket boxes donated, by American Airlines, out of the warming center for homeless people on South Cannon Street last Friday. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

As overnight low temperatures drop below freezing, the city’s new warming center may not open on Friday as originally planned.

The opening date is uncertain because the city and the shelter’s operator, Jewels Helping Hands, have yet to agree on how many people can stay overnight and where they can sleep.

The city plans to open the warming center at 527 S. Cannon St. with a maximum occupancy of 49 people, including staff and volunteers. A back room – already filled with dozens of mattresses – will be closed off while safety improvements are made, including lighted exit signs and a new exit that meets code.

But Jewels Helping Hands, the nonprofit the city selected to operate the warming center, feels uncomfortable in the limited space available.

Its leaders say the warming center now may not open on Friday as planned.

“We are in ongoing conversations with the city to negotiate and to be able to use the entire space, maybe at a lower capacity, until the improvements are completed,” said Tanya Riordan, a spokeswoman for Jewels.

In response, city spokeswoman Kirstin Davis noted that the maximum occupancy is the nonprofit’s limit under city code, but that it could operate with a lower capacity if it prefers.

“That’s their responsibility as the operator,” Davis said.

Riordan said the nonprofit would be willing to consider opening at a reduced capacity, but added “we have still additional questions about the use of the entire space.”

As recently as Wednesday, the city had said there were “currently no obstacles” to opening the warming center.

Jewels had planned to use the room closest to the 24/7 warming center’s entrance as a space for a limited number of mattresses and eating space during the day. At night, the tables and chairs would be folded away and replaced with mats for additional sleeping capacity.

With the rear room open, Jewels had estimated it could sleep up to 80 adults.

“Our entire proposal and plan has been based on beds for the majority of people staying here,” Riordan said.

Jewels can use the back room for storage, but not for its patrons, Davis said.

Davis said the necessary building improvements will be completed by mid-December, at which time the capacity can be expanded. Though Jewels has identified a contractor that can complete the work within a matter of days, Davis said that because the building is owned by the city, the city must use a specific process that often “takes months longer than if a private organization were to come in and get permits.”

“The city has already mitigated the timeline … by having emergency meetings and suspending certain rules so the process can be as quick as it is,” Davis said.

Before it launches, the city must also approve the policies and procedures submitted by Jewels. The nonprofit addressed some of the city’s concerns flagged on the initial draft; the two parties hope to have the document signed on Friday.

“We’re close and everyone is hoping that in the next 24 hours that’s where we are,” Davis said.

The warming center is the cornerstone of a multifaceted effort by the city to expand warming center capacity during the winter.

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