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How many open shelter beds are there in Spokane? A new system will make it easier to track

UPDATED: Fri., Nov. 6, 2020

Bowser Vecito found a spot to pitch his new tent under a pine tree, Thursday, April 30, 2020, in Spokane's Coeur d'Alene Park after Jewels Helping Hands' contract on its South Cannon Street expired, leaving over 100 people to take up residence in tents in the park. Dan Pelle/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW  (Dan Pelle/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Bowser Vecito found a spot to pitch his new tent under a pine tree, Thursday, April 30, 2020, in Spokane's Coeur d'Alene Park after Jewels Helping Hands' contract on its South Cannon Street expired, leaving over 100 people to take up residence in tents in the park. Dan Pelle/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW (Dan Pelle/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

The city of Spokane is developing a new website that will enable police to know, in close to real time, which shelters have beds open for people experiencing homeless.

The new web page will allow shelter providers to directly input the number of open beds they have on any given night, simplifying the laborious practice used by Spokane police to track shelter space.

The information would be public and accessible to anyone.

The new system, expected to be ready in the coming weeks, is a direct response to an Inlander investigation that revealed people experiencing homelessness have been regularly cited for camping or sleeping on downtown sidewalks even when it was unclear whether city shelters had beds available.

The changes to the city’s tracking system were announced at a meeting of the City Council’s Public Safety and Community Health Committee on Monday.

Officers must document that shelter was available when citing a person for violating the city’s camping or sit-lie laws, which prohibit someone from sleeping or sitting on downtown sidewalks during the daytime.

The requirement is the result of Martin v. Boise, a case decided by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in 2018 that effectively barred cities from enforcing laws related to homelessness if there is no viable, low-barrier shelter with available space. (The Supreme Court declined to take up an appeal of that decision in 2019, leaving in place the lower court’s ruling.)

By pulling numerous police reports, the Inlander article demonstrated how officers issued citations to people without proving that a shelter bed was available to them on at least 30 occasions.

Just days after the publication of that story, the city was hammered by a record-breaking October snowstorm that forced officials to scramble and collaborate with shelter providers to expand capacity.

Together, the story and storm led to a conversation “about how to have a real-time, up-to-date, outward-facing website” that allows shelters to directly report their bed availability, Council President Breean Beggs said.

Under the current setup, officers enforcing camping or sit-lie laws have to look at the latest numbers uploaded to a Microsoft SharePoint tracking system, Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl told the committee.

Shelters have to call in and provide updated bed counts to a police dispatcher, who enters the latest count into the SharePoint system.

Timing is also an issue, Meidl noted. Shelters may have beds available at 5 p.m., but increasingly little capacity as more people filter in through the night.

The department is in the process of switching to a different software that is “much easier to understand,” Meidl said.

The website will allow shelter providers to enter information, including if they have lowered their barriers due to inclement weather and how many beds are available.

The city still has to decide how regularly it wants shelter providers to update their information on the website or only if it reaches certain occupancy thresholds.

In the meantime, officers have been directed to list specific shelters and the number of vacant beds, Meidl said, instead of a blanket statement that “there was shelter capacity available.”

Councilwoman Betsy Wilkerson voiced concern that there are often beds listed as available in shelters in the city’s east side, but transportation is a barrier.

“There is no consistency of how to get that person across town,” Wilkerson said.

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