Gov. Jay Inslee has ordered Washington residents to stay home. But hundreds, if not thousands, of people in Spokane region don’t have one.
To help those experiencing homelessness comply with the “Stay Home – Stay Healthy” order Inslee issued earlier this week, the city of Spokane is asking homeless shelters to operate 24/7.
City leaders are pledging to help shelter operators navigate the added burdens of operating at all hours and supply them with additional resources as the regional response to COVID-19 continues to evolve.
“We’ve been reaching out around-the-clock, trying to find out what kinds of resources they need in order to do that,” said Tija Danzig, program manager at the city of Spokane’s Community, Housing, and Human Services Department.
Simultaneously, the city is moving quickly to open the first floor of the Spokane Public Library downtown as a temporary shelter.
The added space will be necessary as the implementation of public health guidelines – including a requirement that guests sleep at least 6 feet apart – substantially reduces capacity in existing shelters citywide.
When the library shelter opens early next week, officials expect it to accommodate as many as 140 overnight guests across separate spaces overseen by three shelter operators. It is expected to operate 24/7.
People experiencing homelessness are especially vulnerable to COVID-19 because many have underlying or chronic health issues, limited access to health care services or trouble paying for treatment, according to Kylie Kingsbury, homeless outreach coordinator at the Spokane Regional Health District.
“It’s really important that, at this time, we ensure that this population is able to social distance, just like the rest of our community,” Kingsbury said at a COVID-19 public briefing on Wednesday.
To accommodate social distancing at the House of Charity, its operator, Catholic Charities, opened pop-up shelters in the common areas of two nearby permanent supportive housing complexes. It’s willing to operate 24/7, but needs financial support to do so, CEO Rob McCann said.
“We are in a very financially precarious position,” McCann said.
Hope House, a shelter for adult women, has been operating 24/7 since last week. With help from the community, it’s transitioned from providing dinner and a continental breakfast to three square meals a day.
With help from Beth McRae, owner of Berserk Bar, the Hope House has been procuring meals from local restaurants like Wiley’s Downtown Bistro and Ruins.
“We’ve been soliciting, basically, people to sponsor a meal at the shelter,” said Jon Corollo, development director at Volunteers of America of Eastern Washington and Northern Idaho, which operates Hope House. “We’ve had this really cool response from the local restaurants that are making it possible for us to (operate) 24/7.”
The nonprofit has yet to figure out how to pay for 24/7 operation and what Corollo has dubbed “restaurants to the rescue,” especially given that the spring fundraising events service providers rely on for revenue are canceled. Corollo was recently scouring the internet for grant opportunities related to COVID-19 response.
As part of its efforts to limit the spread of coronavirus, Union Gospel Mission had asked guests at its shelters to leave during the day. Now, it’s back to allowing them to stay inside throughout the day, although it’s still implementing social distancing measures during meals and sleeping guests 6 feet apart.
“For us, it’s not a burden at all,” Joel Brown, director of ministries at Union Gospel Mission, said of operating 24/7. “The adjustments we made before, with having guests leave the facility (during the day), was a bigger change.”
Jewels Helping Hands, which operates the city’s warming center on Cannon Street, has operated 24/7 since it opened last year. But it’s seen a surge in demand in recent weeks, particularly during the daytime, as businesses and organizations throughout Spokane close or reduce services.
The city is paying for its supplemental shelter plans with $1.5 million granted by the state Department of Commerce earlier this week. The funding was a piece of the $200 million authorized by the Legislature in statewide emergency COVID-19 response funding this month.
In addition to expanding shelter for people experiencing homelessness, the funding will be directed toward the creation of a quarantine and isolation site at the county fairgrounds in Spokane Valley.
The “alternative care site” would not only be for the homeless but also for a variety of community members who are diagnosed with or are believed to have COVID-19 but who can’t go home to isolate.
“Details are still being worked out on that, but the intent of that location would be to establish, for anyone who may not be able to care for themselves, (a place) to receive care,” Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward said, adding that more information about the site could be released “as early as next week.”
The library shelter, meanwhile, would be available only to people experiencing homeless who are not displaying symptoms of COVID-19. The city could look to supplement it with additional shelter sites.
“This is an initial phase while we understand, in greater detail, the full extent of the need,” Woodward said.
After battling a norovirus outbreak in 2016 at the House of Charity, Catholic Charities included quarantine rooms in the plans for every new permanent supportive housing complex it built. It now has the rooms in three buildings, and, as of Tuesday, all were in use.
McCann worries that when COVID-19 hits the homeless, it will spread quickly through a population that is accustomed to hugging, huddling under a tent and sharing drinks.
“Our clients are not good at social distancing,” McCann said. “This is not their cultural, lived experience.”
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