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Monday, October 19, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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New proposal would dump utility bills for Spokane’s homeless shelters

The Family Promise shelter which serves homeless families features a storage area for food as seen on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017, in Spokane. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
The Family Promise shelter which serves homeless families features a storage area for food as seen on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017, in Spokane. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Homeless shelters in Spokane are tossing their city funding in the trash.

Not literally, of course.

But some lawmakers are questioning why the city doles out funds to homeless shelters every year, just to have those homeless shelters pay the city back for services like garbage pickup.

As the city continues to search for ways to address homelessness, Spokane City Councilwoman Kate Burke has introduced a proposal that would offer emergency homeless shelters a break on their sewer and trash collection costs, as well as limit their water charges.

Instead of paying the city for utilities, that funding can go toward “paying people and having more beds and all those things that are actually useful for shelters,” Burke said.

To receive the utility bill credit, the nonprofit service provider must participate in the Spokane Regional Homeless Management Information System, or HMIS, which collects data such as income level and demographics of the area’s homeless population.

If adopted, the ordinance would cost an estimated $230,000 in lost utility revenue annually.

Marlene Feist, a city spokeswoman, expressed initial concern that the loss in revenue would be borne by other utility ratepayers and said there are implications in Burke’s proposal that “we need to take a closer look at.”

Burke said she’s aware of the issue of the loss in utility revenue. She and Council President Ben Stuckart are looking at “a way we can figure out a mechanism to put it in the budget so it’s not necessarily hurting the utilities.”

“We can look into figuring out how to compensate utilities to be able to do this. I don’t necessarily think that it would go to the ratepayers,” Burke said.

Shelter providers would receive a full credit on their solid waste collection and sewer bills. In accordance with state law, water charges would be capped at the cost incurred by the city in providing water.

The program would run only through 2022, after which the city would conduct an analysis of its cost and effectiveness.

In its draft form, the ordinance notes that the number of people living without shelter identified in Spokane’s most recent point-in-time count increased from 2018 to 2019. According to the data, 315 people were unsheltered on Jan. 24, compared with 310 the year prior. That’s still a sharp rise from two years ago, when 138 unsheltered homeless people were identified during the point-in-time count, an annual survey that captures data on the area’s homeless population.

Family Promise of Spokane operates Open Doors, a homeless shelter for families. The nonprofit estimates that Burke’s legislation would save it between $10,000 and $20,000 every year.

“We spend thousands of dollars every year on a dumpster. While that’s good and needed, that money could be better used servicing the families in other ways, helping them get back on their feet rather than literally going into the dump,” said Joe Ader, director of Open Doors.

Ader noted that the city provides grant funding to shelters, then shelters pay the city for services like trash pickup.

“It’s kind of like the city passing through money from one department to another,” Ader said.

Catholic Charities, which operates House of Charity, estimates that it would have saved about $68,000 had the ordinance been in effect last year.

“Utilities represent a significant cost in operating a shelter and any savings would be used to provide additional services for our residents. This means that residents will have shorter stays in homelessness, better access to case management and other supportive services that help people achieve permanent, sustainable housing,” said Jonathan Mallahan, vice president of housing at Catholic Charities.

Participation in the homeless data system was important, Burke said, because the city’s federal funding for homeless services is dependent on quantifying its homeless issue.

“By getting all of these different agencies to participate in that, it’s only going to help us in the future, and to me it shows that we’re all working as a team,” Burke said.

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