The city will not have adequate shelter for the homeless when cold, wet weather hits Spokane this weekend.
Mayor David Condon acknowledged this reality at in a news conference Wednesday, during which he addressed the city’s failure thus far to open a planned emergency homeless shelter and deflected criticism from members of the Spokane City Council.
“We don’t have these places set up. The social service providers will do their best, and we won’t have (adequate capacity),” Condon said.
The city is still working to finalize a new shelter location with an estimated 60 beds, as well as negotiate with service providers to open supplementary emergency warming centers for the winter.
The National Weather Service in Spokane is forecasting colder than seasonal temperatures this weekend, with overnight lows dipping below 40 degrees on Friday and Saturday nights and below freezing on Sunday night.
“It’s unfortunate, and it’s tough,” Condon said. “Our partners will do their best.”
A spokeswoman for Catholic Charities, which operates the House of Charity shelter, said the upcoming weather is a concern and that it has “recently been turning men away every night at the House of Charity due to capacity.”
Likewise, Volunteers of America faces capacity issues at its women’s shelter, Hope House. The nonprofit has announced plans for a new shelter with twice the capacity, totaling 80 beds, next year. But for now, “we turn women away every night all year long regardless of weather,” said Jon Carollo, its director of development.
Union Gospel Mission, which has 185 beds at its men’s shelter, has yet to reach full capacity and feels it’s ready for an increase in need when inclement weather arrives, according to Dave Wall, the nonprofit’s community engagement director.
“This year it’s coming sooner than usual, so it’s catching everybody by a little bit of a surprise,” Wall said.
Since it ended funding for a 24/7 shelter at the House of Charity last year, the city has been searching for one or more properties to open a targeted-capacity homeless shelter. The city’s intent is to connect the shelter with social services to help pull people out of homelessness.
But more than a year later, the city has yet to find a property.
“It’s tough. It’s a tough subject. People don’t want them in their neighborhood. That’s it. I don’t often do this, but ‘somewhere is nowhere,’ ” Condon said, referencing a Spokesman-Review column published in August.
Condon and members of the Spokane City Council held separate news conferences to lay blame at the others’ feet for the city’s failure to open a new emergency homeless shelter as winter approaches.
“This is a human disaster, and it’s unnecessary,” City Council President Ben Stuckart said during the council members’ conference.
The back-and-forth came two days after the council delayed voting on Condon’s proposal to select the Salvation Army as the new shelter’s operator.
The City Council said it would take up a vote on the proposal if the city clarifies the cost of the contract, currently proposed at up to $3.15 million, and the location of one or more future shelters the Salvation Army will operate.
Condon described Monday’s proposal as a critical show of support for the Salvation Army that devolved into “political theater.” The administration believes the vote is necessary for the nonprofit to begin hiring and training employees to operate a new shelter, even though its location is still uncertain.
“It is very embarrassing for this community,” said Condon, who wondered why the council did not question the provider agreement in greater detail when it was briefed in committee earlier this month.
Stuckart said the council does not have an issue with the Salvation Army but demands a comprehensive plan instead of a “piecemeal approach,” including contracts with operators of warming shelters and lease agreements on property.
“We don’t have any issue with them as a provider, we just want the whole package to come forward, including the leases and what building the Salvation Army is going to operate,” Stuckart said.
Flanked by homeless services providers, four members of the council introduced a resolution supporting the use of city reserves to purchase or lease a 24/7, low-barrier emergency shelter.
Stuckart and council members Lori Kinnear, Karen Stratton and Breean Beggs called on the city administration to act on a new shelter and noted that it’s not within council’s authority, under the city charter, to direct city staff to draft a lease or a purchase-and-sale agreement.
“We have seen no solid plan and no confirmation of space,” Stratton said.
Beggs noted that the council has approved every purchase-and-sale agreement placed in front of it for approval. In July, the council signed off on a $1.8 million agreement – which has since expired – for the city to purchase the former Grocery Outlet building on East Sprague Avenue.
“We’re ready to go, but we need a lease or a purchase-and-sale agreement,” Beggs said.
Condon dismissed claims from council members that he has not provided adequate staffing to address the issue. Stuckart said he’s offered his personal legislative aid for 24 hours a week to the city’s department of Community, Housing and Human Services.
The Grocery Outlet proposal met stiff pushback from the neighborhood. The city also failed to entice Spokane Valley and the county, which had questions about its cost and operation, to come on board and fund the new shelter.
“Obviously there is no commitment and no trust right now amongst some of the key folks to make this happen, and who’s paying the price right now is the most vulnerable , and that’s too bad,” Condon said.
But Condon said the city won’t give up on its effort to find adequate shelter and will continue to try to work with the Salvation Army to move forward.
The city’s current plan would begin with entering a contract with the Salvation Army, Condon’s administration said Wednesday. The city then hopes to identify a location for a 60-bed, continuous-stay shelter and to present it to the City Council for approval “as early as next week.”
The city hopes to supplement the new shelter with two warming centers with a total capacity for 150 people. Operators and locations have yet to be named.
Whatever the solution is for warming centers, Salvation Army Maj. Ken Perine advocated they operate continuously.
“It really should be 24 hours so we’re not pushing them back out into the snow at (7 a.m.),” Perine said. “That doesn’t really do a lot of good for anybody.”
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