Spokane County Commissioners voted Monday to spend $2 million in federal COVID-19 aid funding to buy and renovate a building for a new regional homeless shelter. The move comes with less than a month to go before the lease runs out on the city of Spokane’s current homeless shelter space.
The proposed location is in the Spokane Housing Authority’s headquarters at 55 W, Mission Avenue. Commissioners unanimously voted to allocate $1.3 million to buy the building and $700,000 to renovate it and the Cannon Street shelter.
Commissioners used Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funds for the purchase. The county received $90 million and has already used about a third of its allotment on public health funding, a small business grant program, food assistance, PPE and a marketing program.
The county would own the building, a provision county commissioners insisted on before the vote, but operations in the near future will be managed by the city of Spokane and operations will eventually be funded by several local governments.
City spokesman Brian Coddington praised the county for allocating funding for the shelter and said it was a part of the region’s larger plan to address COVID-19.
“It’s important to point out that the county really stepped up here to be a great partner to the region,” he said.
“We’re all responding to the needs that are arising out of COVID, and the homeless are one of those populations that we’ve had to work with as a vulnerable population to make sure the illness doesn’t spread.”
The Mission Avenue shelter should be open when the city’s lease with the Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena expires on August 14, though the building has not been purchased or appraised yet. Coddington said before the city can move people from the arena to the new shelter, contractors will need to install bathrooms and showers and make additional alterations to the Housing Authority building to make it a suitable place to shelter people.
The shelter will have capacity for up to 102 people.
The Cannon Street Shelter renovations will not be completed until November.
County Commissioner Al French said the shelter should take care of immediate emergency needs, providing enough space for people to be safely housed during a pandemic, and would be a location for a future longer term shelter, or “bridge housing,” that would allow people to stay several months while they access services to get long term housing or address other issues.
“When you can get two or three uses out of the same dollars, you have to take advantage of that,” he said. “We can address one issue now and it will give us a chance to address others in the future.”
French said owning the shelter also would show that the county has complied with the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals’s ruling that local governments must provide adequate shelter before enforcing ordinances that ban camping or sleeping in public spaces.
County Commissioners Josh Kerns and Mary Kuney said the 9th Circuit’s decision did not factor into their preference for owning the new shelter, saying whichever entity provides the funds should own the building.
All three commissioners said they were also very supportive of the future use of the building when social distancing is no longer required and the shelter’s capacity is no longer needed.
In addition to renovating the building, Coddington said the city would work with the neighborhoods, meeting with them regularly as the city does when it starts a large construction project in a neighborhood, to address any concerns a new homeless shelter may bring.
Neighbors living in the Emerson Garfield neighborhood where the proposed shelter is located say the city needs to include them when planning and administering it.
Rachelle Bradley, co-chair of the Emerson Garfield Neighborhood Council said in an email Monday the council hasn’t discussed it yet, but their neighborhood may be a good location due to proximity to social services and transportation, but said she hopes the city takes public safety in account when planning as well.
“We encourage the city to implement proper measures to keep our neighborhood safe,” she said.
Brenda Martinson, another member of the council who has lived in the neighborhood for two years, but in Spokane for 28, said many in the neighborhood are used to people who are homeless congregating near their homes.
She said she likely would be comfortable with a shelter if the city committed to communicating its plans to the community.
“There’s a way to coexist and help people make their lives better,” she said. “The only way to do that is have really transparent conversations with people in the neighborhood.”
Karl Boldt, a neighbor on the council who has lived in the Emerson-Garfield area for more than 40 years, said he trusted the city would work with the neighborhood and said the Division Street and Mission area may be an ideal place for a shelter because of its proximity to services, downtown, transportation and stores.
“It’s a logical need and we’re a logical place to put it,” he said.
He said the neighborhood already has issues with littering and homeless camps, but a shelter could give people camping outside a place to go and result in less litter and other issues.
Hazel Jackson, a 14-year resident of the Logan neighborhood and neighborhood council member, said the new shelter could make the issues the area struggles with worse. She said every year she and other neighbors organize a large cleanup because Logan has issues with renters who do not clean up after they move out and people who are homeless leaving around the neighborhood.
“I really appreciate when things are getting done for homeless people, but my only objection is the Logan neighborhood already has a lot of homeless people and vagrants walking in the alleys,” she said.
Jackson said even if the city communicated with the neighbors, she likely wouldn’t support a shelter.
Both City Council members who represent the area where the shelter is located say they plan to work with neighbors as much as possible.
Councilwoman Candace Mumm said the short timeline and social distancing restrictions will create challenges when setting up meetings, but she does hope to work with neighbors. She said people in northwest Spokane also were hit hard when homeless shelters reduced their capacity because many with nowhere to go began camping in parks and neighborhoods in their area.
“I hope the neighborhood will give us feedback and work with the city to make this model work,” she said, “and I hope they see that this is a pathway to get people permanently housed.”
Councilwoman Karen Stratton said she understands why some may be concerned by a new homeless shelter, but said she is committed to doing whatever she can to answer community members’ questions or connect them with help.
“I just want to make sure the neighborhood knows we want to work to them to keep them safe,” she said. “This is a scary thing for neighborhoods and I totally get it.”
Due to a incorrect information provided by a source, this article was corrected on July 23, 2020 to clarify that all people staying at the Spokane Arena will be moved to the Mission Avenue Shelter on August 14 and the Cannon Street Shelter will not be complete until November.
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