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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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New city law will prevent hasty homeless shelter closures

UPDATED: Wed., July 15, 2020

Zonith Shaw pounds a tent stake into the Coeur d’Alene Park grass as over 100 tents sprout up for homeless people after the closing of the Cannon Street Shelter closed on April 30.  (DAN PELLE/The Spokesman-Review)
Zonith Shaw pounds a tent stake into the Coeur d’Alene Park grass as over 100 tents sprout up for homeless people after the closing of the Cannon Street Shelter closed on April 30. (DAN PELLE/The Spokesman-Review)

A new law will prevent the city of Spokane from closing a homeless shelter in which beds are occupied unless it has a replacement plan or shows there is vacancy elsewhere.

The Spokane City Council adopted a new ordinance on Monday that prohibits the city from eliminating shelter beds or space without offering the people staying there a viable alternative.

The law makes an exception if the city can demonstrate that there has not been demand for the shelter space for at least two weeks.

The new law codifies how the council has been urging the city administration – formerly Mayor David Condon and now Mayor Nadine Woodward – to address homelessness for five years, said Council President Breean Beggs, who drafted the law.

The city’s history of quickly closing nightly shelters or warming centers in the spring sends people “flooding the streets,” Beggs said.

“They find wherever they can, and it’s not always sanitary, it’s not always safe for them or perceived (as) safe by other people,” Beggs said. “I’ve been happy with this new mayor and administration, and she has embraced the idea that we should not do that anymore.”

The new law was drafted shortly after the city briefly closed its warming center on Cannon Street this year without an immediate alternative available for its residents, sending dozens of its homeless guests into the city without an immediate alternative.

The warming center’s former operator, Jewels Helping Hands, handed out tents to people as they departed. Those people then erected a temporary tent city in Coeur d’Alene Park in Browne’s Addition.

The city’s abrupt closure of the warming center was widely criticized by members of the City Council, who lamented the same dispersal of people experiencing homelessness has happened year after year.

The new law’s preamble states the city has historically “displaced hundreds of people into the community to sleep on sidewalks, in doorways, in parks and along the Spokane River, none of which are equipped for such use.”

Under the new law, the city’s shelter space must be low-barrier – meaning it can not impose requirements of its guests, such as sobriety.

Although the law underwent changes following input from the local Continuum of Care Board, which includes representatives from local governments and nonprofits, Beggs said Monday it remained substantively the same.

Councilwoman Betsy Wilkerson said the new law sets a “baseline” for everyone. Councilman Michael Cathcart was the only member to oppose the new law. He cited concern over the endorsement of Housing First – the approach to ending homelessness that involves first providing a person shelter, then addressing their underlying needs – in the law’s preamble.

“I just fundamentally believe that there are some individuals who have … a need for medical or drug treatment, and they need that simultaneous with housing, but not necessarily housing first,” Cathcart said.

Adam Shanks can be reached at (509) 459-5136 or adams@spokesman.com

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