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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Coronavirus measures to cut shelter capacity in half; officials looking for alternative sites

March 17, 2020 Updated Tue., March 17, 2020 at 7:51 p.m.

A bedroom with 20 bunks is shown last year at the Volunteers of America-run Hope House, 111 W. 3rd Avenue, in Spokane. City officials are working to create greater social distancing at shelters in response to concerns about coronavirus transmission. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)
A bedroom with 20 bunks is shown last year at the Volunteers of America-run Hope House, 111 W. 3rd Avenue, in Spokane. City officials are working to create greater social distancing at shelters in response to concerns about coronavirus transmission. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)

City officials are hurriedly searching for temporary shelter locations this week, as social distancing measures are expected to reduce citywide capacity for the homeless by about 400 beds.

The city is scouting multiple locations to supplement shelter capacity, which will be reduced by as much as 50% when providers spread beds apart by at least 6 feet and limit capacity to fewer than 50 people in a single space.

Before the Spokane Regional Health District mandates shelters across the city take actions that would limit their capacity in response to the coronavirus, the city will provide alternative space, according to Tija Danzig, a program manager at the city’s Community, Housing and Human Services Department.

Union Gospel Mission and Family Promise have already taken steps to increase social distancing, the practice of physically separating people to reduce the spread of disease. But “for other shelters, we’re still devising a plan. We don’t want to see people not have an option and be unsheltered,” Danzig said.

“We’re coming up with a transition plan for moving toward the public health recommendations,” Danzig said, noting that work is being done in coordination with the Spokane Regional Health District. “This is our No. 1 priority right now, so it’s all hands on deck in trying to determine what that transition can look like.”

Potential sites

The city hopes to have temporary shelter sites identified and secured early next week.

It is simultaneously working to establish potential quarantine and isolation sites for people who have been diagnosed with, or are suspected of having come into contact with, someone diagnosed with COVID-19. The sites would be targeted toward people, such as those experiencing homelessness, who have nowhere to self-isolate or quarantine.

The search for temporary shelter locations is complicated by the limitations of 6-foot social distancing and a maximum capacity of 50, including staff.

“We can’t do one giant site,” Danzig said.

The city has identified potential sites and will walk through them with officials from the Spokane Regional Health District to assess their conformity with new public health standards.

The city is also working to assess how providers can share staff and repurpose certain employees to oversee the temporary shelter sites. Already, shelters are dedicating more staff resources to intensified cleaning regimens, and staff have been warned to stay at home if they feel sick.

Local officials have looked to King County for guidance, where hundreds of residents have tested positive for the coronavirus and dozens have died. King County announced three locations to supplement its shelter system last week. The plans include repurposing a portion of Boeing Field, according to The Seattle Times.

The Washington Department of Commerce released emergency funding for homeless shelters on Monday. Of that, Danzig expects the Spokane County region to receive about $1.4 million.

Shelter impact

Shelter providers in Spokane say none of their guests have tested positive for coronavirus, but have already taken measures to prevent its spread through the vulnerable populations they serve, including screening patrons for symptoms and regular deep cleans of shelter space.

Jewels Helping Hands, which operates the city’s warming center on Cannon Street, said the 6-foot separation of beds will reduce its capacity to about 40 beds. It normally accommodates nearly 100 overnight guests.

The guests at Jewels are not only worried about shelter, but access to food sites, many of which have already reduced or changed service. Jewels has continued its regular meal distribution.

“It’s just as scary for these guys as it is for the rest of America,” said Julie Garcia, Jewels’ founder.

As public institutions shutter their doors, homeless people have fewer warm places to go. The Spokane Public Library is closed at least until April 13, while the Spokane Transit Authority closed most of its waiting areas on Tuesday morning.

Jewels has already experienced a surge in guests during the day and anticipates more following the closure of the Spokane Transit Authority waiting areas.

Though Jewels screens people for symptoms as they enter the facility – and says it has not had any guests displaying symptoms of COVID-19 – it has exceeded its occupancy limit and will continue to do so.

In an effort to increase social distancing, Union Gospel Mission is forcing guests at its shelters to leave during the daytime, according to Joel Brown, its director of ministries. It is providing bagged lunches outside during the day and working to ensure those without a coat are provided one.

“We’re doing that because we’re trying to limit the amount of people in our building and to abide by the social distancing guidelines,” Brown said.

This past weekend, UGM adjusted its sleeping arrangements to allow for 6 feet of space between guests. The move reduced its capacity by 35 beds, to 150 total. On Monday night, it had 145 clients.

The city is building a shared document among providers for supplies to see what’s needed at city shelters and to identify in what areas they can share resources. For some providers, usual shipments of toilet paper are delayed. Others are quickly running out of hand sanitizer.

“In some cases, it’s pretty critical. The health district is trying to source masks and other items as well. They said they’ll work with us to prioritize shelters in the best way we can, but they’re also having challenges,” Danzig said.

Jewels has been preparing for a potential shortage for several weeks, Garcia said. It’s low on toilet paper, but another shipment is on its way.

Union Gospel Mission can continue to operate in its current state for about another month, Brown said. Food is currently in adequate supply, but donations are dipping. There are about four weeks of cleaning supplies on hand, but with the national shortage, it’s unclear if UGM will be able to replenish.

For now, the system is holding.

“The homeless population is actually responding very responsibly for the most part,” Brown said. “They want to do what they can to not spread this. When we made the announcement to our shelter yesterday, all the guys said ‘That’s great, what can we do to help?’ ”

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