Cannon Street shelter costly, but city leaders see no alternative
Sun., Dec. 5, 2021
The Spokane City Council might be feeling a tinge of buyer’s remorse.
The council begrudgingly approved another round of funding Monday for upgrades and repairs at the city-owned emergency homeless shelter on Cannon Street this week, this time for up to $250,000.
The city has now invested at least $1.9 million for the Cannon Street building, which can sleep about 80 people overnight, since signing a 60-day lease with an option to purchase for $395,000 in 2019.
It was a decision made partly in fear, as cold weather settled into Spokane and advocates for the homeless warned that many people would be left to freeze on the street without more shelter beds.
To that end, the facility has served its purpose.
But in retrospect, the building may have been in need of a few more repairs than officials were initially aware.
After operating it as an emergency warming center into the spring of 2020, the city shut down the facility and used $1.2 million from a mix of county and city COVID-19 aid to renovate bathrooms, install laundry services, and expand the amount of space suitable for guests.
The building is a cornerstone of Mayor Nadine Woodward’s multifaceted response to homelessness. It will operate as a 24/7 shelter during winter weather and other emergencies; during more hospitable times, it will host social services during the day.
The facility is now operated by the Guardians Foundation, which in September secured a $1.9 million contract to oversee it through June of 2022.
This time around, the building improvements include an upgrade to the building’s inadequate electrical system, which can short when guests use the microwave. The city also plans to extend electric service to an office trailer outside the building – the Guardians Foundation headquarters its staff and some services inside the trailer to maximize the amount of space available for guests inside the 24/7 shelter.
Councilman Michael Cathcart said at Monday’s council meeting that he understands the expenditures, but made clear he wasn’t thrilled about them.
“This is kind of what we have to do at this point, but if you could rewind the tape, the amount of money that we’ve put into this structure, I feel like we probably could’ve done something bigger and better in some other way,” Cathcart said.
Councilwoman Betsy Wilkerson, who chairs the council’s Finance and Administration committee, agreed, but said since the city owns the building “it has become our responsibility to maintain it safely as long as we are operating a shelter out of it.”
There’s already been chatter of the building’s roof requiring repairs, Wilkerson added.
To Mike Shaw, CEO of the Guardians Foundation, the 3,000 square feet his organization manages on Cannon Street is more valuable than any other owned by the city, offering consistent and reliable shelter to those who need it.
“It might be expensive, but it’s the most impactful square feet in the city,” Shaw said.
While much has been invested in the shelter, “the positive definitely is that it is a much better building and a much better experience for those who need to utilize that facility,” said city spokesperson Brian Coddington.
Coddington compared the building to an old home – once the owner opens up the walls and gets into the ceiling, its needs often exceed what was initially anticipated. The COVID-19 pandemic has also played a factor, increasing the cost of supplies and delaying renovation projects, he added.
Council President Breean Beggs said it “was a poor decision” to buy the building, but he noted it had attractive qualities not offered by many alternatives – it’s in a commercial area with few neighbors, bordered by Interstate 90 on the south, and thus was less likely to get pushback.
“That drove that purchase,” Beggs said.
Still, Beggs said, repairs and improvements to the building are just one factor.
“The cost of the building is not the driver, it’s the staffing for the model that we have right now of night-by-night sheltering, it’s just super expensive,” Beggs said.
Beggs suggested the city consider alternatives like the Overnight Parking Program adopted in Eugene, which designates places where people are allowed to sleep in their vehicles or small huts.
“I’m not positive, but that may be cheaper to staff just because people are not sleeping right next to each other and have their own privacy and things like that,” Beggs said.
Shaw said such a model would likely require the same staff-to-guest ratios, and worried that it would be impossible to monitor what people did inside their own vehicles.
Shaw suggested the city look for a larger, open shelter building. At his current staffing level, Shaw said the Guardians could safely oversee such a shelter that accommodates 150 guests.
“If the building was more open, you could stretch it out quite a bit” in terms of staffing, Shaw said.
The city is looking once again to expand its low barrier shelter space, but likely not in an existing building.
In her 2022 budget proposal, Mayor Nadine Woodward requested $4.3 million to build a semipermanent structure to serve as a homeless shelter.
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