Several emergency homeless shelters will temporarily expand as freezing temperatures grip Spokane this weekend.
Every year, service providers see an increase in demand for shelter when cold weather arrives and people experiencing homelessness can’t withstand the temperatures outside.
The Salvation Army’s shelter on Mission Avenue will add 18 beds, bringing the total to 120, after getting clearance for its plan from the Spokane Regional Health District and city officials on Wednesday, according to Salvation Army Maj. Ken Perrine.
Truth Ministries plans to reconfigure its space, while remaining compliant with COVID-19 safety guidelines, to add accommodations for 55 more people to its 35-bed shelter. The shelter will temporarily waive its $2 nightly fee.
Union Gospel Mission will add 12 beds to its men’s shelter, bringing the total temporary new beds across Spokane to up to 85.
“The community has really stepped up to help people who need temporary shelter escape the early cold snap,” Mayor Nadine Woodward said in a statement. “Their generosity and compassion removes barriers for those who need a warm place to sleep in over the next several days.”
With temperatures predicted to plummet into the teens this weekend, several shelter providers in Spokane are already turning people away every night, particularly those that serve adult men.
The city expects to reopen its warming center on Cannon Street this winter, but it will not be ready for use until the first week of November following repairs to the building and the selection of an operator, according to city spokesman Brian Coddington.
There has consistently been space at Truth Ministries, but the beds were not considered low-barrier because the shelter charges a $2 fee. Now, the fee will be waived and the shelter beds increased.
“That buys us a significant amount of new space for the next couple of weeks,” Coddington said.
Across several shelters, the city began this week with 630 beds for men, women and families with children – far short of the roughly 800 it had by the end of last winter.
Offering supplemental shelter for the winter will be especially challenging in 2020, a year in which the entire shelter system has been disrupted by COVID-19.
Social distancing requirements implemented this spring lowered capacity at existing shelters. After temporary shelters were erected at the downtown Spokane Public Library and the Spokane Arena, Spokane County purchased a building on Mission Avenue in July, which is now operated as a shelter for single adults by The Salvation Army.
The county also launched a women’s shelter, operated by the Hope House, at the county’s Community Services Building at 312 W. Eighth Ave in May.
It’s been more difficult this year to find additional space for temporary warming centers, with shelter providers already stretched thin due to the pandemic.
“Where providers have been able to be creative and find new space, it’s not creating new beds, it’s spreading people out to accommodate the social distancing need,” Coddington said.
It remains to be seen what the need will be for the winter months, when harsh temperatures put people sleeping outside at risk of frostbite or death.
The Salvation Army reported having to turn guests away from the Mission Avenue shelter almost as soon as it opened this summer, despite warmer temperatures.
“We’ll just have to make it work,” Perrine said. “Obviously, we don’t want people to be dying out there in the cold and, if it’s possible, get them inside to the best of our ability and work with them to move forward.”
The House of Charity, operated by Catholic Charities, sleeps a total of about 140 men and women. While it has had a couple of open beds for women most nights, it’s regularly having to turn men away.
“Definitely, we’re seeing an increase in the number of people on the standby list hoping to get a bed,” said Dena Carr, director of the House of Charity. “This isn’t an unusual pattern for us. It’s pretty normal, although I do think the cold weather is hitting a little sooner than we typically anticipate.”
During the pandemic, Catholic Charities has been allowing guests to remain on the property during the day, but has asked them to remain outside to help reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission.
Now, the shelter is working with health officials on a plan to safely allow overnight guests to remain inside through the day by establishing socially distanced 6-foot-by-6-foot grids on the floor of its day space. It’s also hoping to install infrared heaters in its covered courtyard area.
Volunteers of America has had to regularly turn guests away from the two emergency shelters for women it operates, the Hope House on Third Avenue and the temporary shelter in the county building on Eighth Avenue.
As fall weather has replaced a warm and dry summer, Hope House has been at full capacity with a wait list of 10 to 15 women, according to Volunteers of America spokesperson Rae-Lynn Barden.
Hope House offers transportation to other shelters in the city for the women it’s forced to turn away. The demand is not expected to wane soon with winter’s arrival and a 30% increase in domestic violence cases among the women staying at Hope House, a trend the shelter attributes to the pandemic.
“Think of us for cold weather gear donations and always food – we are trying to plan how we can have a really nice Thanksgiving and Christmas,” Barden said.
The Crosswalk Youth Shelter, also operated by Volunteers of America, has been at capacity, which has been lowered to 13 beds due to social distancing requirements, but not exceeded it.
Since the onset of the pandemic, the Spokane Regional Health District has assigned an outreach team – consisting mainly of volunteers – that enters city shelters every night and checks guests for COVID-19 symptoms.
Those who could be positive are whisked away to be tested, with the goal being to mitigate the spread of the disease.
Social distancing requirements at shelters will last as long as the pandemic does.
“Until we have a proven treatment and a vaccine that has been widely disseminated, then we as a community will need to distance and it will be the same for the shelters,” said Kelly Hawkins, a spokesperson for the Spokane Regional Health District.
Despite the close living quarters, shelters have not become a hotbed for COVID-19 outbreaks.
“A large part of that is due to the city really stepping up and making sure that there were shelters available all through the summer with the proper spacing,” Hawkins said.
The city often races to open warming centers in the days leading up to the first true cold spell, Councilwoman Lori Kinnear noted.
It was about this time in 2019 that city officials clarified their plan for winter shelter.
The City Council had not been informed of any plans for warming centers ahead of this weekend’s cold weather, Kinnear said on Tuesday. But she put her faith in the city’s staff, including Community, Housing and Human Services Director Tim Sigler and CHHS Manager Tija Danzig.
“Tija and Tim have always just said, ‘OK, we’re going to do this,’ and we do it. I can’t imagine that, knowing it’s October and knowing cold weather can set in at any time, us not having something in place,” Kinnear said.
Last summer, the previous City Council and former Mayor David Condon hoped to avoid the same fall rush by opening a regionally funded homeless shelter in the former Grocery Outlet store on East Sprague Avenue. But amid pushback from neighbors and a failure to secure funding from regional partners, the plans fell through before the purchase was finalized.
Last October, the City Council approved the purchase of the building at 527 South Cannon, which it opened the following month as a warming center.
After repairs, the city expects to reopen the warming center for this winter.
The shelter will serve about 80 adults when it reopens.
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