Spokane city officials detailed plans on Thursday to open temporary homeless shelters at the Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena and a county-owned office building.
Although lease agreements have yet to be finalized, the 24/7 shelters are expected to open Saturday and remain in operation for up to 90 days during the COVID-19 public health emergency.
The arena shelter will be operated by the Guardians Foundation and serve adults, while the county’s Community Services Building at 312 W. 8th Ave. will be run by Hope House and accept adult women.
The new shelters are part of the regional response to COVID-19, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency is expected to reimburse the city and county for the cost of running them.
The arena will be paid $297,000 in total, not including expenses like security cameras and other security improvements around the building. The county building will be leased free of charge.
Local officials were facing a tight deadline this week, as the temporary shelters set up inside the downtown Spokane Public Library in March will be forced to close after Friday night. The library building is set to undergo a two-year renovation project that will begin next week, and the city also expects to begin renovations on its warming center on Cannon Street.
The lease agreements at the arena and county building are expected to be finalized on Monday. Although they had been placed on the agenda of a special council meeting on Thursday, the meeting was canceled and the council’s approval will not be necessary.
Paul Warfield, a policy adviser to Mayor Nadine Woodward who detailed the plans to the Spokane City Council during a meeting on Thursday, said they would fall under the auspices of the regional Emergency Operations Center.
A committee of regional leaders toured multiple facilities before selecting the arena and county building.
“We couldn’t have done it alone, and we don’t ever intend to do it alone,” Warfield said.
Guardians Foundation CEO Mike Shaw told The Spokesman-Review on Wednesday that he plans to move beds and supplies to accommodate up to 105 people into the space designated for the shelter at the Spokane Arena in preparation for a Saturday opening.
The 7,500-square-foot space is tucked behind the bleachers where Zambonis are stored, and features showers and bathrooms. Guests will not be permitted to access other areas of the arena.
About 20 people will remain at the Cannon Street shelter for about a week while additional bunk beds are brought into the arena. The 6-feet social distancing plan includes vertical space, so shelter guests will sleep head-to-toe on bunk beds, according to city spokesman Brian Coddington.
Since May 1, the Guardians has operated the city’s warming center on Cannon Street and its temporary sister shelter at the downtown Spokane Public Library, which together can take in more than 100 overnight guests.
In addition to its primary 3rd Avenue shelter, Hope House has overseen a separate shelter space in the downtown library for adult women since March. The new shelter at the county building will replace the library space.
The board of the Public Facilities District, which oversees the arena, unanimously approved using it as a shelter. The Spokane County Board of Commissioners also unanimously authorized Chairman Al French to lease out the county building.
Councilwoman Lori Kinnear acknowledged the concerns of businesses near the arena, but strongly endorsed the shelter plan and credited Woodward with convening a regional response to homelessness.
“This is a safe place for people to go,” Kinnear said. “It means they will not be in the street in front of businesses sleeping in doorways.”
City officials said Thursday they are working with the shelter’s operator, a private security company, and arena staff to ensure the safety of the arena facility. They’re also locating services inside the facility, giving its residents fewer reasons to have to venture out.
The city is in the process of contacting and opening lines of communication with neighbors, Warfield said, in the same way it does for construction projects.
“I promise you, we had long, long conversations with the city about all of these things,” said Stephanie Curran, CEO of the Public Facilities District. “My hope, honestly, is that the extra security that will be here because this will actually make this neighborhood a little bit safer.”
In addition to a security hotline established by the city, Curran said the Public Facilities District will give neighbors the direct line for its own 24/7 security team. The large parking lot area around the arena is also expected to mitigate its potential impact on the neighborhood.
That the arena could host a temporary shelter is a “once-in-a- lifetime” chance, Curran said. It has no events scheduled for the next 90 days due to the shutdown, and is equipped with showers and restroom facilities necessary for the operation.
Curran was called on May 7 by Woodward, who described the challenges city officials were having to find a new location despite touring multiple sites.
“We became sort of the last hope,” Curran said.
The arena is already a designated emergency shelter for events like ice storms.
“We’re just trying to be a community partner and assist the city and vulnerable people,” Curran said.
The revenue will also be a financial boost for the Public Facilities District, which has had no events since March. It also relies partly on sales and lodging tax, which are expected to take a steep drop.
To put its financial woes in perspective, Curran said the arena’s utility bill amounted to $38,000 last month, even with the shutdown forcing event cancellations and minimal activity inside. It does not qualify for a federal Payroll Protection Program loan or other forms of financial assistance.
“This is definitely going to help,” Curran said.
Council members were dismayed late last month when the city briefly allowed the Cannon Street warming center to close without a replacement shelter readily available. On Thursday, all signs of tension between the two branches of government had dissipated.
“I was very vocal when things were not working out, so I want to be just as vocal when things are working for the good of our citizens. The mayor has gone above and beyond to keep all of us in the loop, and I want to applaud her for that,” Councilwoman Betsy Wilkerson said.
Since the Cannon Street center’s temporary closure – which led to a temporary tent city in Coeur d’Alene Park – Council President Breean Beggs said Woodward has been personally involved in ensuring adequate shelter for the homeless.
The additional shelter is necessary because guests at existing shelters have spread out, sleeping at least 6 feet apart to comply with standards imposed to stem the spread of COVID-19 among people who are homeless.
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