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News >  Spokane

Fairgrounds, Spokane Public Library eyed for shelter in coronavirus response

UPDATED: Mon., March 23, 2020

The downtown Spokane Public Library, which is closed for two years for extensive renovations, is being considered for use as an emergency shelter for the homeless. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
The downtown Spokane Public Library, which is closed for two years for extensive renovations, is being considered for use as an emergency shelter for the homeless. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Anticipating COVID-19’s continued impact on Spokane, regional leaders are eying the county fairgrounds as a potential site for shelter and an alternate health care facility.

Meanwhile, the city has made progress on plans to re-purpose the downtown library as a temporary homeless shelter that could accommodate more than 100 people as early as next Monday.

With $1.5 million in emergency funding from the state arriving on Monday, regional officials continue to identify sites for temporary homeless shelters and for those who need to quarantine or isolate during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Officials are exploring the use of the Spokane County Fair and Expo Center in Spokane Valley to serve “a variety of different populations based on the needs.” The plans include “an alternate care facility,” according to Dr. Bob Lutz, health officer at the Spokane Regional Health District.

“The idea is it would serve as a place for individuals who may be ill – not be ill enough to be hospitalized, but who can’t necessarily care for themselves,” Lutz said.

That would include a wide array of people impacted by COVID-19, not just the homeless.

A group of regional leaders are working through how the fairgrounds could best be used to meet the diverse needs of different populations, according to Tija Danzig, program director with the city’s Community, Housing, and Human Services Department.

“We want to create safe spaces for people,” Danzig said. The fairgrounds are already in use as a drive-thru COVID-19 screening site.

Officials met Monday to tour the downtown Spokane Public Library, which closed for a two-year renovation project in February, and work through the logistics of using it as a homeless shelter for up to about 140 people.

Supplemental shelter sites are a focal point of the region’s efforts to reduce the risk posed to the homeless community by the coronavirus, “acknowledging that the homeless population is one of our most at-risk groups,” Lutz said.

In 2016, an outbreak of norovirus spread rapidly through the staff and patrons at the House of Charity shelter in downtown Spokane, forcing its operator, Catholic Charities, to erect temporary tents outside to house the healthy. More recently, public officials helped fight the spread of hepatitis A in the homeless community.

“If we get a (COVID-19) infection in the population, it’s just going to fly through there like wildfire,” Lutz warned.

When implemented, the new measures would require shelter guests to sleep at least 6 feet apart – no small task for providers accustomed to squeezing as many beds into a single space as permitted by building codes.

Most shelter operators estimated that social distancing would reduce their capacity by half. Citywide, that will result in the loss of about 400 shelter beds. Shelters like Open Doors, the House of Charity, and Union Gospel Mission already have taken measures to spread out their guests, but others have run out of unused space.

The city will work this week to clear out the remaining library materials that already were destined for a storage unit during the renovation project. Workers will clean the space and begin to move in supplies like cots, mats, and cleaning supplies on Friday, Danzig said.

Service providers will meet this week to discuss security, staffing and the use of space at the library shelter.

The city expects the library to accommodate three service providers, one of which will be Jewels Helping Hands, operator of the city-owned warming center on Cannon Street.

The first floor of the library was selected as a suitable temporary shelter because it has four rooms between roughly 2,000 and 2,600 square feet, Danzig said. That allows for fewer than 50 people in a single room, meeting health district guidelines.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued guidance to shelter operators amid the COVID-19 pandemic. It warned that an outbreak in the homeless community could result in an increased reliance on the shelter system and take a toll not only on patrons, but shelter staff.

The CDC recommended that shelter guests stay at least three feet apart head-to-toe, but Lutz is aiming for a more stringent six feet, noting that Washington was the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States.

“The CDC provides guidelines, not mandates,” Lutz said.

The nearly $1.5 million Commerce Department funds will be distributed by the city’s Community, Housing and Human Services department.

The funding is Spokane’s portion of $30 million set aside by the state for emergency housing measures related to the COVID-19 pandemic, which is part of the larger $200 million in funding passed by the state Legislature just before it adjourned earlier this month.

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