Mayor Nadine Woodward unveiled a broad plan on Thursday that could transform how Spokane provides shelter to people experiencing homelessness.
Under the new model, the city plans to collaborate with neighboring governments to open a new referral-only “bridge” shelter, leave its warming center open year-round for daily drop-in homeless services and open a new shelter for young adults.
Woodward and members of her administration presented the plan at a study session held by the Spokane City Council on Thursday. But it came as no surprise to council members, who have been meeting with the mayor regularly to discuss homelessness in recent weeks.
“There was a lot more common ground than there were differences,” city spokesman Brian Coddington said.
Woodward was encouraged that the plan was built on regional partnerships and said that spearheading the region’s response to homelessness “isn’t something the city can continue, realistically, to do.”
Council President Breean Beggs said the city is now the closest it has ever been to developing a regionally funded approach to reducing homelessness and credited Woodward with doggedly pursuing regional partners, including Spokane Valley and Spokane County.
Spokane County Commission Chair Al French said no final decisions have been made, but leaders will continue to meet to discuss strategy and their level of participation in homeless services.
“One of the goals is to try to link folks who find themselves homeless with the services to get themselves out of that,” French said.
The county already supports homeless services, but the reason they appear to be city-led is because the services are typically within city borders and administered by the city of Spokane government. But part of the conversation moving forward, French said, will be to ask “is there a role for the county to play that goes beyond financial assistance, and if so, what is that?”
City and county officials are scheduled to discuss the plans on Monday.
Spokane Valley Mayor Ben Wick said the city has also funded homeless services, but its dollars – including Community Development Block Grant funds – filter through the county.
“We’ve kind of always just let the county deal with it for us, so now we’re becoming more involved,” Wick said.
Wick attributed Spokane Valley’s increased interest to two developments in the past year.
Last summer, the former administration of Spokane Mayor David Condon proposed an adult homeless shelter in the former Grocery Outlet building on East Sprague Avenue, just west of the Spokane Valley border.
“It caught us off guard,” Wick said. “I don’t know how much participation we had.”
Then, in December, the U.S. Supreme Court left in place a lower court ruling that cities must provide an adequate number of shelter beds if they are to enforce laws against public camping and others related to homelessness.
In the immediate future, officials are still on the search for a temporary homeless shelter to replace the existing 102-bed facility at the Spokane Arena. The contract for use of the arena as a shelter expires on Aug. 13. The additional shelter space has been necessary during the COVID-19 pandemic to allow for social distancing between overnight guests.
Improvements to a building on Cannon Street – which the city purchased and opened as a temporary warming center last winter – will continue through the summer and fall, with a projected completion date of Nov. 1. When it reopens, the Cannon Street building will provide an additional 80 shelter beds.
But in a reimagining of its typical seasonal shelter system, the city will attempt to fund the shelter on a year-round basis. During the six months of winter, it will be a 24/7 shelter. During the warmer months, it will remain open, but as a drop-in day center with services for people experiencing homelessness. It will not sleep guests overnight.
“In the past, we’ve ramped up and ramped down our services during a six-month period. This will allow year-round services for our homeless,” Woodward said.
By Dec. 1, the city also hopes to open a young adult shelter in partnership with Spokane Valley and Spokane County. The shelter would serve adults ages 18 to 24, many of whom have aged out of the foster care system, and connect them with resources, Woodward said.
“We can help prevent the next generation of homeless,” Woodward said.
Regional partners will look to the state Department of Commerce for funding to support the young adult shelter, a location for which has yet to be announced.
Wick said the city of Spokane Valley has long heard of homeless youth in its schools, and outside funding could support the creation of a young adult shelter without raising local taxes.
“If we don’t step up to use those dollars in our community, they go to somebody else’s community,” Wick said.
The city is also finalizing plans for a bridge shelter, targeted at adults experiencing homelessness, that has already received funding commitments from Spokane Valley and Avista. The Salvation Army has been selected to operate the regional shelter, which will offer case management and shelter beds. Guests will have to be referred to the shelter. The location has yet to be announced.
Beggs lauded the bridge shelter as offering a path out of homelessness that night-by-night shelters traditionally have not. The city’s emergency shelter system “saves people’s lives and health and it mitigates disruption in the downtown and other neighborhoods,” Beggs said, but “getting people by referral who are ready to move forward is so great.”
French suggested there could be an opportunity to use federal coronavirus aid to acquire a building that would provide emergency homeless shelter during the pandemic, then be repurposed as a bridge shelter.
Council members praised the new homeless services outline on Thursday.
“This is the first time we’ve seen something so comprehensive and thorough. This is great,” said Councilwoman Lori Kinnear.
Homelessness and public safety were the defining – and most divisive – issues of Woodward’s successful run for mayor in 2019.
Missing from Thursday’s plan was an explicit call for accountability from those experiencing homelessness, a frequent refrain of Woodward’s campaign.
Should the plan come to fruition, it would be the second major campaign promise Woodward has made good on in her first year in office. Earlier this year, she announced the relocation of a downtown Spokane police precinct to the former Umpqua Bank building on Wall Street and Riverside Avenue. The precinct is expected to open in the coming weeks.
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