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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spokane City Council considers limiting shelter reductions

UPDATED: Mon., May 11, 2020

A tent city sprang up in Coeur d'Alene Park after the closing of the Cannon Street Shelter, Thursday, April 30, 2020. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
A tent city sprang up in Coeur d'Alene Park after the closing of the Cannon Street Shelter, Thursday, April 30, 2020. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

After the brief closure of the Cannon Street warming center led to a tent city near downtown Spokane last month, the Spokane City Council will consider a new law that would prohibit the reduction of city-funded shelter beds unless officials prove they’re no longer needed.

The council set policies on addressing homelessness in nonbinding resolutions, but the new proposal is in the form of an enforceable law.

Although its parameters are not specific – there is not an exact number of beds the city must provide or fund, for example – the proposed law would look to ensure officials demonstrate capacity in the shelter system whenever they plan to reduce the number of beds available to people who are homeless.

The proposal, introduced by Council President Breean Beggs, would require the city to show that there were available beds in city-funded shelters for at least two weeks before eliminating capacity.

The aim is to “smooth out the process of opening and closing warming centers and homeless shelters,” Beggs said Monday.

“We’ve had some disruptive times around those contracts ending and starting,” Beggs said.

The ordinance also requires city-funded shelters to be what are called “no-barrier” or “low-barrier” facilities, meaning people staying there do not have to meet requirements such as sobriety in order to stay.

During a committee meeting on Monday, Beggs said he had discussed the proposal with Tim Sigler, the city’s director of Community, Housing, and Human Services, and that “conversations are productive and ongoing.”

The ordinance was initially scheduled for a vote next week, but Beggs delayed the vote on Monday, citing Mayor Nadine Woodward’s “effort and commitments” to ensure sufficient shelter when the temporary shelter in the downtown Spokane Public Library closes on Friday.

City spokesman Brian Coddington said Beggs’ proposal entails a “big discussion with lots of complexity,” and that the conversation should include experts on homelessness to produce a better outcome.

The administration has pledged to help find a replacement for the temporary downtown Spokane Public Library shelter, which is set to close on Friday to allow the building to undergo a renovation.

Sigler said Monday that officials toured two potential shelter sites and that, pending their approval, additional details would be announced on Tuesday. The sites would offer additional shelter space to continue to allow for social distancing at existing shelters, which are now requiring guests to sleep at least six feet apart in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The regionally backed shelter plan will offer funding, from federal and state COVID-19 aid dollars, for several shelter providers in Spokane.

The council’s new ordinance was prompted by the closure of the city’s Cannon Street warming center last month. The city planned to allow its contract with the warming center’s operator, Jewels Helping Hands, to expire on April 30.

But when Jewels emptied the shelter that day, it handed out free tents to all of its guests, dozens of whom set up camp in Coeur d’Alene Park in Browne’s Addition. That forced officials to scramble and find a new operator, the Guardians Foundation, to reopen the Cannon Street warming center.

The city’s actions drew sharp criticism from several members of the City Council.

Woodward’s administration defended the closure, noting that the city typically allows its warming center contracts to expire in the spring.

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