The Spokane Convention Center opened Sunday as a 24-hour low-barrier warming shelter to prepare against bitingly cold temperatures expected to blast the area starting Monday.
Michael Shaw, founder of the Guardians Foundation, said he worked with several city departments to convert rooms in the Spokane Convention Center into spaces that could support about 150 people, he said.
Many of those who came through the center experience chronic homelessness and spend most of their days exposed to the elements, he said.
“But now we’re in deadly temperatures. Now, a lot of these folks can survive in 35- to 40-degree weather, right?” Shaw said. “They can, and when it’s the middle of the night in the 20s, they can survive a few hours of that. But when it’s 3, well, that’s a horse of a different color, and they’re way out over their skis.”
Shaw said the center was a many-pronged collaboration with Spokane’s police and fire departments, as well as the Spokane Public Facilities and Spokane Regional Health districts, to get it ready by noon Sunday. The shelter is set to stay open until at least Jan. 2, the city said in a news release.
The center includes a 24-hour soup kitchen and dozens of sleeping mats where guests are welcome to rest.
Shaw said the center is low-barrier. A sign at the door reminded people drugs or alcohol were prohibited. People walking into the center went through a metal detector to ensure no weapons came in, he said.
Shaw said his trained employees know how to handle almost any situation because of their experience working with those facing homelessness, as well as potential substance and mental health issues.
“We’re not turning anyone away. Unless they’re violent to themselves, or others. And we’re not turning those people away, really, we make sure to get them the help they need,” Shaw said.
Ellen Smith, the foundation’s operations director, said figuring out capacity is always a challenge, made more difficult in the past two years because of COVID-19 6-foot distance limits.
Shelter capacity was also at the forefront of the tent city demonstration at City Hall last week, where some challenged the city’s claim about just how many beds were open.
Smith said each shelter is different. Some shelters, for example, make the space open only to women or families with small children. Others include higher barriers for access, such as sobriety or identification.
Mapping which beds exist, and in which shelters, can get complicated, she said.
“Not everyone is aware of the limitations of each shelter,” she said. “So when they just see open beds, they don’t drill down to see what that means.”
Maurice Smith, with the Spokane Homeless Coalition, said it’s also a challenge to convince some to get help at a shelter. Some people have negative experiences with police or other people in the shelter, he said, or they have mental health challenges that prevent them from feeling comfortable in that space.
Maurice Smith said he wished the warming center had opened this fall when temperatures first started to drop. Still, he said, he was glad the Guardians Foundation and city acted quickly to ensure people were not subject to this week’s frigid forecast, which can increase the risk of frostbite and hypothermia.
“I’m glad people are getting warm, I am. … This is probably the most reluctant warming shelter I’ve seen,” Maurice Smith said.
Shaw said he was asked on Thursday night to have the warming center ready by noon Sunday. The Guardians staff worked in 12-hour shifts to keep it running 24 hours a day, seven days a week as planned, Shaw said.
Shaw said there is no archetypal person who experiences unstable housing; he’s seen people from 18 to 70 years old use shelters.
The Guardians Foundation focuses on treating each person who comes through with dignity, Shaw said.
“We can’t help everyone but we can help someone today,” he said. “The second we start doing that as a community – not that we haven’t done it, we show glimpses of it all the time – but until we focus on this issue with that concept, without pointing fingers at the government, then this is going to be perpetual.”
The warming center is located at 334 W Spokane Falls Blvd. Meals are provided. Donations of socks, hand warmers and nonperishable food items were encouraged to be sent to 527 S. Cannon St.
Spokane’s Public Libraries would also be open as a warming space to the public during normal operating hours.
Temperatures to plummet this week
Spokane was predicted to see potentially subzero temperatures this week, according to Spokane’s National Weather Service office. Monday’s high was forecasted at 17 degrees. Tuesday’s high was predicted at 16 degrees with a low around zero, and Wednesday had a high near 10 degrees and a low around 1 degree.
Sunday brought an initial snap of cold weather and blowing snow.
The weather service on Sunday issued a snow squall warning until 4:30 p.m. near US-95 De Smet and US-95 near Tensed, meaning there was a risk of whiteout conditions for drivers in heavy blowing snow.
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