As she watched the video, Spokane City Councilwoman Kate Burke saw a woman being removed from a homeless shelter, with seemingly nowhere else to go.
Burke acknowledges that she doesn’t know what the circumstances were before the recording began. She’s not accusing a shelter of needlessly kicking someone out and recognizes that, at times, a guest’s behavior can legitimately put others at risk.
But in this video, Burke saw a pregnant woman with no shoes, apparently unaware of what she did wrong, being forced to leave.
“It’s just heartbreaking. She’s pregnant,” Burke said.
An outspoken advocate for people experiencing homeless, Burke is regularly messaged with concerns about homeless services in Spokane, such as the video of the homeless woman removed from a shelter.
Now, Burke has begun to push city officials to develop an improved response plan in situations like the one depicted in that video.
At a meeting of the City Council’s Public Safety and Community Health Committee earlier this month, Burke suggested that the police department, possibly teamed with staff from Frontier Behavior Health, be employed to help de-escalate the situation when a shelter patron is forced out for violating policies.
“What we’re asking of someone who is experiencing homelessness is control yourself … while you’re going through all this stuff, that’s a little bit hard,” Burke said.
Shelters establish their own policies and procedures, but the city helps ensure that they are followed as part of its funding contracts with service providers, according to Tija Danzig, a program director with the city’s Community, Housing, and Human Services Department.
Tim Sigler, CHHS director, said shelter providers “have been really good at contacting Frontier Behavior Health or other agencies that support behavioral health.”
“We don’t really play a role in the immediate action on a person unless someone reaches out to us,” Sigler said.
When a person experiencing homelessness can’t meet the requirements of the city’s lowest-barrier shelters, even their strongest advocates are left grasping for solutions.
Jewels Helping Hands, which operates the city’s warming center on Cannon Street, is the lowest-barrier facility in the city. But it still has rules and, after three strikes, you’re out.
“We are their last place. If they get kicked out of here, there’s nowhere else for them to go,” said Jewels Helping Hands founder Julie Garcia.
At Jewels Helping Hands there are no requirements that a guest be sober, unlike some stricter shelters that include the Union Gospel Mission. Still, Jewels does not allow people with addiction to use inside its doors.
For some, the pull to use a substance wins out over the need for shelter. And once a guest leaves for the night, they’re not allowed back inside.
“It’s very hard to stay in a shelter if you need to use sometime during the night,” Garcia said. “Most places, once you check in, if you leave, you leave.”
And once someone is left on the street, they are left “in a really hopeless situation” and “they resort to whatever it takes to survive,” Garcia said. They’re left to rely only on services that proactively conduct homeless outreach.
“I don’t know what the answers are for that,” Garcia said.
As for the resources available to someone in need of mental health treatment, Sigler said it might vary depending on the day, but credited Frontier Behavioral Health being responsive. As for addiction treatment, Sigler acknowledged that someone in need of inpatient treatment is “going to be waiting.”
Officials also see hope in the 16-bed mental health crisis stabilization facility currently under development by the city and county, which would offer immediate treatment to people arrested for low-level crimes.
“That’s something we need and know we’ve needed for a long time. That will be another stopgap,” Sigler said.
Garcia estimates that about 10 percent of the population Jewels serves aren’t able to be safely sheltered. They typically fall into one of three categories, she said. They are unable to refrain from drug use through the night, they suffer from post traumatic stress and can’t be in an environment with 90 other people, or they have a severe mental health problem that poses an immediate risk to other guests.
Jewels will still feed people and provide some other services to those who have been banned from its shelter, Garcia said. But they can’t stay.
To be welcomed back, a banned person has to sit down with shelter staff and demonstrate how they are working to improve their behavior. That could mean entering addiction treatment or receiving mental health counseling.
“There has to be some kind of contract with them,” Garcia said.
Catholic Charities of Eastern Washington operates several shelters with varying requirements of its guests. Its lowest-barrier shelter is the House of Charity.
Like Jewels Helping Hands, Catholic Charities does provide “pathways to return to service” for people who have been trespassed from its properties, said spokeswoman Sarah Yerden.
“Trespassing individuals or families from any of our five shelters is a last resort used to protect the safety of those we serve and to prevent those who prey upon them from doing so,” Yerden said.
Some of Jewels’ patrons have been on the streets for more than a year, and acclimating back to sheltered life can be a daunting challenge.
“Learning to redo everything that you normally do is a process. It takes time. And that’s why these low-barrier places are so important … most people, where they’re at is not at a place where they can walk in and say ‘Yep, I’m going to get clean today,’” Garcia said.
Even assaultive behavior, Burke said, can be a “cry for help.”
“When a vulnerable person is on the street and acting out, somebody’s got to be there to help. And so I’m just trying to figure out who that person is,” Burke said.
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