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Friday, August 14, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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‘Last on the totem pole’: Virus takes toll on Spokane homeless, even without cases detected

Donna Talbert and Mae Lorenzen make use of the services at Transitions in downtown Spokane last month. Due to coronavirus, Transitions, which operates the Women’s Hearth day shelter for women, is now open only for essential services targeted at women currently experiencing homelessness. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Donna Talbert and Mae Lorenzen make use of the services at Transitions in downtown Spokane last month. Due to coronavirus, Transitions, which operates the Women’s Hearth day shelter for women, is now open only for essential services targeted at women currently experiencing homelessness. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

On a day like Wednesday, Courtney Huerta would normally be at the Spokane Public Library with a pad in hand, drawing or coloring.

But this Wednesday wasn’t normal, and it’s unclear when normalcy will return.

The library, which Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward has said could be used as a temporary homeless shelter, is closed for renovations. Its temporary replacement, in the Spokane Transit Authority plaza, is closed due to the coronavirus, like so many other places in and around downtown Spokane that offer people experiencing homelessness a respite from the outdoors.

In the library’s absence, “I mostly just walk around downtown, outside, most of the time – draw, color, that’s what I do,” Huerta said.

Even though COVID-19 has yet to be detected among Spokane’s homeless, the virus has already taken a toll on the services they rely on.

Huerta was one of the dozens of people experiencing homelessness on Wednesday gathered outside the Jewels Helping Hands warming center, which operates around the clock and has seen a surge beyond capacity during coronavirus closures in Spokane.

“Yeah, I’m worried about the virus. This is one of the worst places you could catch it,” Huerta said. “I just try to make sure I do everything I can to protect myself.”

In addition to the library, which is closed until at least April 13, the Spokane Transit Authority closed its waiting areas this week. Cafes and restaurants, per an executive order issued by Gov. Jay Inslee this week, are not open for sit-down service.

Union Gospel Mission, in an effort to improve social distancing, is forcing its shelter guests to leave the building during the day. Other providers are reducing service and implementing strict capacity limits.

Shalonn Denson, who has been homeless for more than two years, has spent her days “freezing, mostly,” walking around the city and its parks.

“You can’t go in anywhere. There’s nowhere to go,” Denson said. “You can’t even go into a coffee shop or the library.”

Denson is unsheltered and spends the evenings walking around to stay warm. By morning, “you’re pretty cold, and you’re really tired. You need to sleep and you need to be warm,” she said.

There are few options remaining for people experiencing homelessness during the day. Jewels Helping Hands is one of them.

On Wednesday, Jewels staff and volunteers distributed meals outside as temperatures reached into the 50s and the sun was bright, allowing the crowd to fan out.

Meanwhile, the warming center was erecting recently-donated tents in preparation for exceeding its overnight capacity – and that’s before the Spokane Regional Health District implements new social distancing measures that could reduce shelter capacity citywide by as much as 50%. Officials are searching for temporary sites before taking such action.

‘Last on the totem pole’

Should the virus begin to spread among the homeless, people fear its impact could be devastating to a community with high rates of underlying health issues and few resources available to get them addressed.

“We’re last on the totem pole, really. People’s animals will come before some of the (homeless) people, it’s really sad,” Denson said. “What can you do besides keep your distance and not share anything?”

Sunni Miller said the virus is a bit scary, but the homeless community has pulled together.

Miller slept at Jewels Helping Hands on Tuesday night due to the cold, but is concerned there won’t be available beds for much longer. When she arrived, she called her mom and her kids to tell them she loved them.

“You don’t know if you’re going to get quarantined,” Miller said.

Todd Bucknell, who is currently homeless and volunteers at Jewels Helping Hands, noted the shelter has set up a quarantine area and that the staff checks the temperature of guests as they enter. A van can take guests to the hospital if necessary.

Bucknell’s approach is just to “drink plenty of fluids and try to stay as healthy as you can.”

A vast majority of the clients served by Compassionate Addiction Treatment are homeless, according to co-executive director Hallie Burchinal. In the face of COVID-19, they’re trying to stay positive, despite the fear.

“Services are closing down they would normally access. Places they would normally use during the day for safe space are gone,” Burchinal said. “Our folks are really worried. They talked about how maybe we just head up to the hills and camp away from you all, and I said maybe that’s a good idea.”

Last Friday, Compassionate Addiction Treatment had some 80 people enter its doors for recovery services. But since adjusting policies to meet public health guidelines, the treatment center is only allowing in people with scheduled appointments, plus five extra. Everyone is screened for symptoms and has their temperature taken upon entering.

Its twice-daily recovery meetings have moved outside, onto a parking lot. Burchinal was proud to see a dozen people still participate, despite not having the comforts of a warm room and hot coffee.

“Showing up in the parking lot for a meeting? These are folks who are choosing, absolutely choosing, to engage in recovery,” Burchinal said.

Transitions, which operates the Women’s Hearth day shelter for women, has canceled its group classes and asked its housed women to stay home. It’s remained open only for essential services targeted at women currently experiencing homelessness.

“We’re still open, and then we just have set up that main space a little differently to encourage distance,” said Sarah Lickfold, development director at Transitions. “Chairs are set away from each other, and we have a very strict hand washing regimen.”

Even inside the shelters, life has already changed as supplies dwindle.

Across the two Spokane homeless shelters it operates, Crosswalk for teens and Hope House for women, Volunteers of America is “horribly short of all the paper products, toilet paper, paper towels, paper plates,” said development director Jon Corollo.

In response to coronavirus, several providers of meals that people experiencing homelessness rely on are limiting or adjusting their service.

Union Gospel Mission is serving its guests, no longer allowed inside during the day, a bagged lunch outside. The House of Charity is serving its breakfast and lunch in bagged meals, supplied by Providence, and asking guests to eat in the courtyard outside.

Blessings Under the Bridge, which dishes out dozens of hot dinners every Wednesday night beneath the Interstate 90 overpass in downtown Spokane, has also transitioned to a bagged meal. It was a return to the nonprofit’s roots, as it started out a decade ago handing out bagged meals, founder Jessica Kovac explained in a Facebook post this week.

The sense of togetherness that permeates the homeless community is stronger than ever, but is in its own way a risk.

“(We’re) just helping each other out, you know?” Miller said.

“Except if you want a cigarette now, you’re screwed,” Denson interjected.

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