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Thursday, February 27, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Spokane

Shawn Vestal: City says it’s building a long-term solution, even as it adds emergency beds for homeless

Shawn Vestal (Dan Pelle / DAN PELLE)
Shawn Vestal (Dan Pelle / DAN PELLE)

With the recent arrival of actual winter, the city has injected a quick $45,000 into adding 50 emergency shelter beds for the homeless.

That’s doubtlessly good news for those living without a place to live, because these recent temperatures can be lethal. But what does it say about our current capacity for sheltering the homeless – about whether we have a system that’s up to the problem, after a year of half-steps and broken proposals and seemingly slapdash, later-than-expected solutions?

Turns out, it’s not such an easy question to answer. The 10 shelters the city coordinates usually have beds available, which allows police to enforce laws about public camping. If you look at the different kinds of shelter – space for families, space for couples, even – there are more beds available in warming shelters than we’ve seen before.

And city officials say that even with some emergency shelter space and the decision to add 50 beds due to the sense of a rising need in the icy weather, this winter’s efforts have pushed the system closer toward one based on permanent solutions as opposed to the cots-in-gyms-at-the-last-minute response.

If that’s so, it will be great news.

“I think we’re moving a lot more toward permanent, long-term solutions rather than seasonal, short-term solutions, because we know that’s more effective,” said Tija Danzig, a senior manager in the city’s Community, Housing and Human Services Department.

The city’s shelter network this winter is decidedly more diverse than it once was, and there are a wider range of options for helping people now – more choices for women, for women and children, and even for couples.

There are 767 beds for people experiencing homelessness, across 10 facilities. More than half – 386 – are at the three shelters for adult men; three family shelters offer 163 beds.

There are 138 beds for women, and 80 for men and women together.

That, plus the added 50 beds, means Spokane seems to have enough space to meet the emergency needs of homeless people during the worst of outdoor conditions.

Danzig said the city has been paying close attention to the availability of shelter beds, and noted there has been general availability across all categories so far this winter. But with the forecast of this current winter blast, officials began looking to add some capacity in preparation for a surge in demand.

“We don’t want to end up in a situation where we weren’t ready, despite the fact that we have had capacity in the system” so far this winter, she said.

There is no real cut-and-dried count of beds versus homeless demand. Demand fluctuates for lots of reasons. The city coordinates a self-reporting document among the shelters, but thus far figures are so haphazardly and inconsistently reported that they don’t provide a real hard-and-fast answer.

Still, there has been room at the inn this winter, most of the time, across Spokane’s shelter system, even with demand spiking in the past few days. For a range of reasons, more homeless people seek shelter during the worst weather. The daytime hours are less hospitable to spending even an afternoon outdoors, and some people resist shelter until it becomes an emergency.

Among single men, particularly, it seems, there are some who simply feel safer unsheltered, or who suffer from trauma that makes it hard to seek shelter, said Dawn Kinder, the vice president of stabilization services for Catholic Charities and a former head of Neighborhood and Business services for the city of Spokane.

“We definitely see the numbers go up as it gets colder,” Kinder said.

Kinder said at both the Catholic Charities family warming shelter and the Jewels Helping Hands warming facility, they’ve been nearing capacity in recent days but have not had to turn anyone away. They’ve even managed to take in 11 family dogs that were pets of the families seeking services at the Catholic Charities facility.

“I think with homeless families, we have adequate capacity,” she said. “On the single (men and women) side, it’s just really hard to always know.”

The city announced Monday it was putting $45,000 toward an additional 50 beds for the next two months. The additional beds at City Gate will be for temporary emergency shelter for women; the idea is they will open up space in the rest of the system for single men, as well, according to a news release.

The emergency spending by the administration falls below the $50,000 threshold requiring City Council approval.

There’s a lot that will be happening in terms of homeless discussion in the year to come – at the state level, in Spokane’s City Hall, and, hopefully, among other regional governments who could contribute more and philosophize less about the issue.

Because when the snow flies and the temperatures drop, it shouldn’t be only the city of Spokane that needs to help find beds in an emergency.

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