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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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‘If this is a preview of the winter, we’re in trouble’: Volunteers check on unsheltered people as bitter cold approaches

UPDATED: Sat., Oct. 24, 2020

Jason Green, left, and Kelley Bereiter of Jewels Helping Hands pass out cups of soup and hand warmers to James McCormick on Saturday in Coeur d’Alene Park in Spokane.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Jason Green, left, and Kelley Bereiter of Jewels Helping Hands pass out cups of soup and hand warmers to James McCormick on Saturday in Coeur d’Alene Park in Spokane. (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

The pickup truck skittered Saturday down the slush- and ice-covered driveway that leads to a camp just outside the city of Spokane.

Minutes later, the Jewels Helping Hands team was reaching into the truck’s cargo bed and dishing out winter beanies, socks and hot chocolate to the roughly two dozen residents of the camp, a mixture of recreational vehicles and shacks on an out-of-the-way street.

Like many people who are unsheltered or on the precipice of it, these residents have been forced to confront the bitter cold ahead of schedule. Record low temperatures are in the forecast for Spokane, according to the National Weather Service.

The low temperature in Spokane on Sunday morning was expected to be 12 degrees and 13 on Monday morning, which would easily beat the previous record set in 1978.

“If this is a preview of the winter, we’re in trouble,” said Julie Garcia, Jewels Helping Hands’ founder.

The nonprofit has poured its efforts into outreach in recent days, as cold weather set in and made a night without shelter potentially deadly. Garcia estimated that it provided more than 200 meals to people on Friday night and gave people rides to shelters operated by The Salvation Army and Catholic Charities.

Medical staff with Spokane’s street medicine team – a collaboration between partners that include Washington State University’s Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine and Spokane Neighborhood Action Partners – tagged along.

“Now that the weather is turning, you’ll see more cold-related injury, but there’s always wound care, abscesses and then there are general problems of primary care,” said Dr. Luis Manriquez, who leads the street medicine team.

Many people on the street have underlying health issues like heart failure and lung disease or mental health issues, according to Manriquez, and a lack of shelter is their primary obstacle to getting treatment.

Thanks to one woman’s donation, Garcia was able to give Christopher McCracken a portable outdoor “potty tent.” McCracken has been living at the camp for more than a year following a stretch of living in recreational vehicles within city limits, which required an exhausting game of cat and mouse with city code enforcement officials.

“Some of us are just trying to live life. I’m on a limited income. I’ve got my son with me, I’ve got a couple of friends with me, and they’ve been with me for years,” McCracken said. “Honest to God, I don’t really care what people think.”

The city of Spokane says its network of shelters has adequate capacity for people who are homeless, and that beds went unfilled on Friday night.

As the weekend forecast appeared increasingly brutal, city officials raced last week to expand the capacity of existing emergency homeless shelters.

Prior to the cold weather, which typically prompts more people to seek refuge, several emergency shelters in Spokane were full on a regular basis.

That includes the shelter on Mission Avenue, which is operated by The Salvation Army on behalf of Spokane County and the city of Spokane during the pandemic.

The city entered last week with about 630 beds across its various shelters for men, women and families, compared to the roughly 800 it had last winter. It announced plans to add 85 more temporary beds on Wednesday.

The coronavirus has prompted health officials to set social distancing guidelines at local shelters, which have helped spare the homeless community from COVID-19 outbreaks but forced providers to reduce their capacity.

In anticipation of the cold, Truth Ministries agreed to waive its $2 nightly fee and announced plans to more than double its capacity, from 35 to 90 beds. City officials said the shelter would remain compliant with COVID-19 health protocols despite the increase.

The Salvation Army added 18 beds to the Mission Avenue shelter, bringing its capacity to 120.

Union Gospel Mission agreed to add 12 beds to its men’s shelter, all of which were open on Friday night.

The previous night, there were 60 open beds across the shelter system, according to city spokesman Brian Coddington.

House of Charity received clearance from the Spokane Regional Health District to accommodate 76 people during the day, and Truth Ministries also planned to allow its guests to remain during the day, Coddington said.

The city plans to reopen its warming center on Cannon Street, which is undergoing repairs, in November. It will serve about 80 adults.

There were no tickets for violating the city’s laws against camping or sitting on downtown sidewalks on Friday night, according to Coddington.

Spokane Police Corp. Ron Van Tassel said the department responded to several private businesses Friday that asked for people to be removed from their property.

“That’s something we do on a pretty common basis,” Van Tassel said.

But by Friday evening, Van Tassel said the department was inundated with calls of stuck cars and unsafe hills.

“I don’t even know how much we were able to work with the homeless community because we were dealing with the weather-related stuff,” Van Tassel said.

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