As Kebby Ali walks through downtown Spokane, she understands the struggle of women she sees living on the street.
Not long ago, she shared their plight, as a newcomer to the city who was unsure where she would sleep at night.
“I can see the sadness, the loneliness, and the despair in their eyes. Their self-esteem is so low, they think this is all they can have. The world has beaten them down,” Ali said. “I decided to not be beaten down.”
Ali would not be where she is today – with an apartment and part-time job – if not for the welcoming emergency shelter offered to her by Hope House, the only Spokane homeless shelter exclusively serving adult women in Spokane with few entry requirements.
It’s a personal story Ali hopes will serve as inspiration to others who are struggling, but also demonstrate the value of shelters like Hope House.
Just as it was when Ali showed up at its door more than three years ago, Hope House is often at its capacity and forced to turn away women every night, as are other low-barrier homeless shelters in the city of Spokane.
Hope House was full in 18 of 28 nights in November, according to a citywide census of shelter capacity. (It did not report its occupancy on two nights that month.)
It’s also operating on uncertain financial footing, and warned city officials last month that it will be forced to close in early 2022 without support from local governments.
A few years ago, Ali struggled to find a safe place to rest her head in Spokane.
Hailing from Michigan, Ali described her transient childhood as being “raised in trauma,” featuring stretches of homelessness before she entered foster care as a 13-year-old. As an adult, she fell into a cycle of abusive relationships with men, including with her ex-husband.
Fed up with her treatment and hoping to find solace in the mountains, Ali fled in 2018. She chose Denver, where she stayed at a safe house for three months.
In Denver, she was directed to the YWCA in Spokane, where she was enrolled in a rapid rehousing program to help find her a permanent apartment before she even arrived. But while she waited for that housing, she had nowhere to stay.
Ali tried Hope House, but there were no beds available.
She tried Union Gospel Mission, but was told she would have to attend Bible classes – a condition by which Ali, who was then a practicing Muslim, could not abide.
Ali stayed at the House of Charity but had her belongings stolen, including her insulin and syringes, and didn’t feel safe there. At the time, the shelter was co-ed. Having just left an abusive relationship, Ali was terrified of men.
Ali was out in the street and close to giving up.
One night, she stood on the Monroe Street Bridge and contemplated suicide. She called a suicide hotline and chose to live.
After about a month of being homeless in Spokane, and on the fourth consecutive night of trying, she finally landed a bed at Hope House. There was a locker to keep her belongings safe and, every night, there was a hot shower waiting for her when she returned.
“I felt that gosh, here’s a shower when you come in every day, this is raising women’s self-esteem,” Ali said.
Ali credited a number of local organizations with helping her, including Spokane Neighborhood Action Partners, or SNAP, through its rapid rehousing program, the YWCA, staff at Hope House, and Women’s Hearth.
There were some hurdles – Ali couldn’t put her last address on her housing application, as it could tip off her estranged husband to her whereabouts – but after about a month, she had a new apartment.
Ali’s stay at the Hope House was relatively brief, but without it, she doesn’t know where she’d be.
“A lot of women who are homeless have been abused. They’ve been sexually, physically, emotionally, and spiritually abused,” Ali said. “They come to this place of despair where they don’t care and think this is all they have and all they ever will have. And they don’t know how to get out of that position. There’s resources, but some of the resources, they don’t feel safe.”
The people who run Hope House are well aware of the feeling Ali describes.
Everyone deserves shelter, but “it’s even more imperative that women and young people have a safe place because of the risk for women to be sexually assaulted in the street,” said Fawn Schott, the CEO of Volunteers of America of Eastern Washington and Northern Idaho, the nonprofit that operates Hope House.
Schott also noted it’s critical people be given more than just a bed to sleep on, but a helping hand with things like applying for jobs and finding permanent housing. If people can’t move on, shelters will continue to fill up.
“You have to have that fully funded case management model,” Schott said.
City leaders highlight the improvements made in the past two years to the city’s network of homeless shelters – Mayor Nadine Woodward can now point to a number of ribbon cuttings and shelter openings she’s attended.
“As a community, we probably need to get to the point where we can celebrate the advancements and recognize that it’s probably not going to be perfect,” said city spokesman Brian Coddington.
There are now beds specifically reserved for young adults between 18 to 24 years old so they don’t have to intermingle with an older, often chronically homeless population.
There are new women-only shelter beds. Since Ali’s stay, Hope House has moved into a new building on Third Avenue and doubled its capacity.
The city bought a building on Cannon Street in 2019 to serve as a warming center and offer year-round homeless services.
The Salvation Army has been tapped to operate a regionally funded bridge housing program, called the Way Out Center, a transitional shelter that aims to fill the final gap before a person experiencing homelessness finds permanent housing.
Family Promise has opened a new shelter building on Mission Avenue, and the city and county also have promised to fund an expanded Crosswalk shelter for teens.
Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs is proud of that progress, but believes there’s more work to do.
“We don’t have enough for families and we don’t have enough for single women … I say we are doing better, but we still haven’t scaled up for the need and until we do, people are going to be really frustrated,” Beggs said.
Woodward has acknowledged the need for more low-barrier shelter and proposed spending $4.6 million in 2022 to build a semipermanent structure to temporarily house people.
This winter, the city also will implement a temporary shelter program, which includes the use of hotel rooms to expand shelter capacity through the winter.
But still, advocates for the homeless warn it’s not enough, and people in need of shelter are being turned away every day.
“I’ve heard the city for a long time say, ‘yes, we are working on that,’ which means nothing is happening,” said Barry Barfield, administrator of the Spokane Homeless Coalition.
Beggs considers inaction the most expensive option for the community, as homelessness strains hospital emergency departments, and leads to crime and myriad other consequences.
The problem, Beggs said, is that homelessness “just looks so insurmountable that people throw up their hands.”
Beggs wants the city to produce a clear estimate of the number of people who are homeless in Spokane. That number, he said, could be multiplied by the average cost to provide a night of shelter for one person. The result would be the cost of getting everyone off the street and into shelter.
The city could approach medical foundations, business groups, regional governments and others to raise money for that effort, Beggs said.
“Government’s job is to offer choices and to say ‘this is the problem, this is how much it’s going to cost, and do you want to pay more whether it’s donations or taxes,’ ” Beggs said. But right now, he said, “we’re not even providing a choice.”
Woodward agrees that the city can’t address homelessness without help, and called on the faith and business communities to chip in.
“City government can’t do this on its own. I, as the mayor, can’t do this on my own,” Woodward said.
Nonprofits and homeless advocates warn that the consequences of turning away a person from shelter can be dire.
It nearly cost Ali her life.
But now, she’s still in the same apartment, receiving Supplemental Security Income and working part time at Walgreens. She celebrated her 45th birthday on Friday.
And when she read that Hope House could be in jeopardy of closing down, she called the shelter to see what she could do to help.