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News >  Spokane

‘Why can’t we get it right?’: After another shelter scramble, city faces criticism, moves forward

UPDATED: Fri., May 1, 2020

Julie Garcia, left, Bowser Vecito, kneeling, and Zonith Shaw, assemble a tent for the homeless on Thursday in Spokane's Coeur d'Alene Park. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Julie Garcia, left, Bowser Vecito, kneeling, and Zonith Shaw, assemble a tent for the homeless on Thursday in Spokane's Coeur d'Alene Park. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

It was deja vu all over again for people who are homeless in the city of Spokane.

Many observers were flabbergasted Thursday as more than 100 guests of Jewels Helping Hands, which operated the city’s warming center on Cannon Street until its contract expired on Thursday, flooded Coeur d’Alene Park in Browne’s Addition and erected temporary tents.

It was another year, another closure of a warming center or shelter, and another drove of people in the street.

“I can’t be silent on this issue because it’s very distressing, I did not sleep last night,” Spokane City Councilwoman Lori Kinnear, who chairs the city’s Public Safety and Community Health Committee, told The Spokesman-Review on Friday morning.

Kinnear has served on the council for four years, and each has featured a scramble for shelter like Thursday’s.

“We’ve done it this way for four years now. Why can’t we get it right? Why can’t we do something differently?” Kinnear asked.

Ultimately, police cleared the park on Thursday evening and directed people into available shelters without making any arrests, according to city spokesman Brian Coddington.

Mayor Nadine Woodward met with Jewels Helping Hands founder Julie Garcia on Friday morning and the two agreed on an orderly transition for the shelter’s new operator, The Guardians Foundation, which is expected to open on Saturday night, according to Coddington.

“The mayor apologized for the city’s contribution to the miscommunication,” Coddington said. “We do apologize to the guests that were disrupted yesterday and also the neighborhood around the park.”

The city had expected to close the Cannon Street warming center this week and leave it vacant while it worked with regional partners to identify a new temporary shelter site during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But the city abruptly walked back its plans on Thursday, after a makeshift tent city arose in Coeur d’Alene Park, instead saying it would reopen the Cannon Street site under the watch of The Guardians Foundation as soon as Jewels removes its property from the building.

In the meantime, The Guardians has already taken over operation of a temporary shelter space at the downtown Spokane Public Library that was also operated by Jewels until Thursday. Together, the two spaces sleep more than 100 people a night.

The city anticipates that it will have adequate capacity to shelter the homeless, even with only the library space online, according to Coddington. There was capacity Thursday night at the library shelter, where 46 out of a possible 59 guests slept.

According to its daily shelter capacity report, there were no beds available for adult men in city shelters as recently as Sunday, although the number of beds available citywide generally increased this week.

Jewels, which served adult men and women, was regularly at or near its capacity in recent weeks.

The closure of beds without a replacement plan violated the City Council’s core policies to address homelessness, Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs said. Those tenants were not followed by the administration of former Mayor David Condon, and were not followed by his successor on Thursday.

“I think the barrier is the administration, from top to bottom, is not committed to the principles that City Council has set up, which is to figure out what the need for beds is – that is not hard to do actually – and then fund those beds and don’t close them until you have a plan,” Beggs said.

But Coddington said it’s unfair to compare Thursday’s event with previous years.

“We have this unprecedented economic and health emergency that we’re dealing with,” Coddington said.

Beggs sat through a Friday meeting in which EOC leaders discussed the shelter plan. The plan was called to a vote, but someone noted that the EOC does not have budget authority for the city or county. Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich stepped in and “just said, ‘We’re just going to fund it,’ ” Beggs recalled.

“I don’t think we’re really that far apart on how we would like to see things, but I think the challenge has been the administration really is eager to shift the financial burden to the region instead of the city – which I think City Council agrees with, but you have to have agreement around that,” Beggs said.

Council members told The Spokesman-Review that they would have been willing to fund a temporary extension of Jewels’ contract to operate the Cannon Street warming center from city reserves, but were never asked.

“This is nothing new, so I’m frustrated that this happens every year. We know it’s going to happen. I don’t know what the barrier is,” said Councilwoman Betsy Wilkerson, who owns a residential care facility for adults in Browne’s Addition.

Jewels applied for a new contract but was declared ineligible because it is under city investigation, according to Coddington, but he would not elaborate on details because the investigation remains open.

“If you’re in a jam, then you extend the contract that you have. I don’t really know what the details are of the allegations (against Jewels), but at this point they’re just allegations, unless it was an actual dangerous situation,” Beggs said.

Addressing homelessness was the defining piece of Woodward’s successful campaign last November. On Thursday, her administration’s approach after tents sprung up in Coeur d’Alene Park was to lay blame with Jewels Helping Hands, which the city alleged violated the contract by closing the two shelters – Cannon Street and the public library – less than 24 hours before the agreement to operate them expired.

The administration’s tactic didn’t sit well with members of the council.

Wilkerson said administration officials explained away the problem as a “miscommunication.”

“Miscommunication is code for screw-up,” Wilkerson said. “You screwed up. Go ahead and own it, then how can we make it right?

“Whatever the challenges were with Jewels, those people like that location. They had made relationships, they felt safe.”

The city’s relationship with Jewels deteriorated, and “the people we’re trying to care for got caught in the crosshairs,” Wilkerson added.

Wilkerson lamented the situation the homeless were left in on Tuesday – removed from their shelter, given tents and told by Jewels to go camp, only to then be threatened by the city with enforcement and fines if they didn’t evacuate Coeur d’Alene Park.

“It’s like a double-penalty. You’ve got nowhere to go, then you’ve got a ticket with no way to pay for it. That’s just one more layer in this vicious cycle,” Wilkerson said.

Councilwoman Kate Burke criticized the lack of communication from the administration to the City Council.

“There’s lies happening. I can’t pinpoint them, but when I read about what’s happening through a KXLY article, that’s pretty poor leadership. I was really offended by that,” Burke said.

Burke was also critical of the administration’s response to the tent city formation.

“I just find it really childish to then place blame on the contractor,” Burke said.

Path forward

The city is eyeing a regional solution to providing shelter during the COVID-19 pandemic, hoping it can be funded through the countywide response effort that will be backed by federal coronavirus aid money.

Partnering with Spokane Valley, Spokane County and the Spokane Regional Health District, officials announced grants to five service providers this week to provide shelter during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The goal isn’t to add more beds to the network of providers in Spokane County. Rather, it’s to fund more physical space, allowing shelter guests to socially distance and, it’s hoped, reduce the risk of the spread of disease.

Because the additional space is part of the coronavirus response, officials believe it will be eligible for reimbursement under the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES, Act and other sources of coronavirus aid.

As the pandemic worsened last month and local case counts rose, the Spokane Regional Health District worked with Spokane shelters to implement social distancing policies that required each overnight guest to sleep at least 6 feet apart.

That change, instituted to protect a vulnerable population from a virus that officials believe could spread rapidly, reduced capacity at existing shelters by about 50%. But the new policy is believed to have played a part in protecting the homeless community from the coronavirus, at least thus far.

The downtown Spokane Public Library, which was closed prior to the pandemic in preparation for renovations, was rapidly converted last month into a shelter shortly after the governor’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order was issued.

The library is operated in two sections, one by The Guardians for single adults and the second by The Hope House for adult women.

In addition to opening the library, shelter operators found creative ways to allow for social distancing. Catholic Charities of Eastern Washington, which operates the House of Charity, converted the common areas of two permanent supportive housing complexes to sleep women overnight.

The need for social distancing in shelters will not go away any time soon, Spokane Health Officer Dr. Bob Lutz told The Spokesman-Review.

The health district assigned an epidemiologist to help guide shelters and improve social distancing, such as rearranging beds. It also made recommendations like providing meals in bags and having patrons eat outside to avoid congregating, noted Kylie Kingsbury, the health district’s homeless outreach coordinator.

“Because community members who are experiencing homelessness are already a vulnerable community in Spokane, the health district has worked closely with the city and shelters in Spokane to put steps in place,” Kingsbury said.

To date, there has not been a case of COVID-19 identified in a person who is homeless, according to Lutz.

Lutz credited service providers with following health district guidelines to help reduce the spread of the virus, and the health district’s staff for having a daily presence at shelters to help screen for symptoms.

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