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Plans paused for Spokane-area young adult homeless shelter as cities can’t – or won’t – allow it in their borders

Plans for a young adult homeless shelter have stalled after Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward refused to allow it to be located within city limits.

Leaders in Spokane County and the cities of Spokane and Spokane Valley all agree the shelter is much needed, but have been unable to agree on a suitable space for it in either of the county’s two largest cities.

The city of Spokane wants the shelter located elsewhere, while Spokane Valley’s zoning laws make locating one there difficult.

Meanwhile, the three-year, $2.7 million state grant that will fund the shelter is set to expire if unused by the end of the year.

Officials, including elected leaders from Spokane, Spokane Valley and Spokane County, met Thursday afternoon to discuss their options. They agreed to, in the short-term, use the grant to fund between 40 and 50 beds for young adults at existing shelters, instead of building a new shelter, according to city spokesman Brian Coddington.

“As the group looked at this as a regional need, the desire of the mayor was to locate outside the city limits,” Coddington said. “There’s a heavy concentration within the downtown core in particular, so that’s not something that is sustainable long-term.”

The young adult shelter was a key component in the vision for homeless services announced in July by Woodward, whose campaign for a first term in 2019 centered on reducing crime downtown and demanding “accountability” from people without housing.

Woodward has called for a more collaborative approach between regional partners in addressing homelessness, arguing the issue is not confined to the city of Spokane’s borders.

That partnership has, for the most part, worked smoothly through the COVID-19 pandemic, with Spokane County allocating federal coronavirus aid to fund emergency homeless shelters at the Spokane Public Library and the Spokane Arena, which allowed for social distancing at existing shelters.

But the young adult shelter, which is a permanent plan and not a temporary pandemic response, has presented a roadblock.

Woodward’s administration has insisted that it be outside the city’s borders.

“The concentration of population is putting a disproportionate load on one neighborhood and one business area that is causing concern,” Coddington said. “The thinking is to spread out a bit into other areas of the community because it is a regional need, but it also allows for better, more focused care for those in need of more specific services.”

Advocates for people without housing agree that the downtown core is probably not a great fit for young adults, but don’t care whether the shelter is within one border or another.

“We need to lay down our agendas and cooperate on a common cause,” said Maurice Smith, a longtime advocate for people experiencing homelessness and an adviser to the Spokane Homeless Coalition.

Spokane Valley’s City Council isn’t unwaveringly opposed to a young adult shelter in its city, Mayor Ben Wick said.

“From our perspective, ‘It’s what makes the most sense,’ ” Wick said.

But Spokane Valley has strict zoning laws that would make it nearly impossible to site a shelter within its city limits by the end of the year, he said.

“Our comprehensive plan, or what is allowable uses for land inside of our city limits … is pretty restrictive right now. Our process to site something like that is pretty lengthy,” Wick said.

Spokane Valley is willing to embark on a reworking of its codes to allow for a shelter in an appropriate location, but that effort would take months and require input through the city’s Planning Commission, Wick said.

Woodward’s administration hopes the shift in plans to spend the money on beds at existing shelters will give Spokane Valley time to make those changes.

In an interview prior to Thursday’s meeting, Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs urged the administration “to be practical,” and had hope that “if push comes to shove,” Woodward would allow the shelter to be in city borders – at least temporarily while Spokane Valley works through its zoning.

The city would sign a lease, not own the building permanently, Beggs argued, and easily transition to a future site elsewhere. Beggs has no issue with another shelter in Spokane, he said.

While it’s important to protect the neighborhood surrounding a shelter from negative impacts, Beggs said “my thing has always been, let the operator tell us where the best place is for it.”

“It shouldn’t be artificial, which side of the line, it should be what will maximize the return to permanent housing for people,” Beggs said.

Spokane took the lead on the young adult shelter, but the effort is regional. The Spokane Regional Continuum of Care board tapped the city to spearhead the region’s application to the Commerce Department in June. It was awarded $2.7 million over three years in August.

Volunteers of America of Eastern Washington and Northern Idaho was selected as the shelter’s future operator after a request for proposals. Its president and CEO, Fawn Schott, said the new regional approach to shelter planning has created “new territory that nobody has stepped into” before.

“We’re starting to have regional conversations, which are much needed and important to have, but we’re starting to recognize that there are challenges with that that are going to have to be fundamentally sorted out,” Schott said.

Volunteers of America already works with young people without homes and operates the Crosswalk youth shelter, which accepts people between the age of 13 and 17.

A young adult shelter would fill a gap in the region’s current slate of homeless services, Schott argued, and should be thought of as a way to mitigate adult homelessness.

“If we don’t address it in our community, we’re going to continue to see additionally chronic homeless individuals, because they didn’t get the resources that meet their needs,” Schott said.

Hope House’s new shelter, opening in 2021, has about 40 beds it could dedicate to young adults, Schott said. But if officials are going to take that approach, Schott implored shelters to “have designated and prioritized beds for young people, and have targeted case management for those young people that address their specific needs.”

The young adult shelter is one component of the vision for homeless services Woodward has laid out this year.

The county, Spokane Valley and Spokane also hope to transition the Salvation Army’s West Mission Avenue shelter into a “bridge” housing shelter, which would provide supportive shelter to people deemed ready to move into more permanent housing.

The county purchased the West Mission Avenue building with coronavirus aid money earlier this year, and the Salvation Army has operated it as a temporary safe shelter during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The city also has long-term plans – and hopes for regional funding – for its warming center on Cannon Street. After serving as a warming center this winter, the city hopes to transition in 2021 to year-round at the site, using it as an overnight shelter during the colder months and a drop-in day center with social services during the summer.

The regional partners have yet to come to an agreement on how to fund the bridge housing shelter or Cannon Street shelter.

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