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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘We’re not freezing outside’: Spokane’s emergency shelter at the Convention Center well-utilized during cold snap

By Adam Shanks and Sydney Brown The Spokesman-Review

As dangerous cold seizes Spokane, scores of people have stayed at the temporary warming shelter opened by the city on Sunday.

The shelter inside the Spokane Convention Center will remain open, 24/7, until at least noon on Jan. 2 – depending on the forecast.

The city opened the shelter on Sunday with capacity for 150 guests and room to expand if necessary. On Monday night, it reached as many as 193 people, according to city spokesman Brian Coddington. No one was turned away.

The shelter is open to anyone who does not have a way to stay warm, including those who are homeless. It allows pets and includes free meals for guests.

Married couple Tammy and Dennis Handy brought their three chihuahuas to the convention center Tuesday so they could be shielded from the cold and get a hot meal.

Tammy Handy said they recently got approved for an apartment in Spokane Valley, but they can’t move in until Jan. 15.

As far as where they can stay in the meantime, “That is the question, isn’t it?” Dennis Handy said.

Tammy Handy said she used to work as a registered nurse’s assistant until she lost her license around 2013. She was able to get a job as a hotel room attendant, but lost that job after six months because her injured back meant she could not do that work.

“I do not want to be on disability. I want to work,” Tammy Handy said.

But the bills piled on , she said. Two of her four children grew up with developmental disabilities, meaning much of her income went toward therapy for her children. She also had to put her mom into an assisted-living facility, for which she also has to pay.

While they wait for their apartment, each day restarts the challenge of finding a warm meal and comfortable bed. Dennis Handy said he injured his back while serving in the U.S. Navy, and sleeping on mats in the convention center only makes the pain worse.

“That’s one thing, we’re not freezing outside, and another bonus with this is you can stay all day. But the beds are really uncomfortable and sometimes it does not feel safe,” Dennis Handy said.

The daytime high temperature is not forecast to begin to approach freezing until at least Sunday, according to the National Weather Service.

Under city law, Spokane is required to open an emergency shelter when the forecast is below 32 degrees and existing shelters have been above 90% capacity.

The Spokane Fire Department continues to conduct outreach to people on the street. It has tallied 11 incidents related to cold weather exposure thus far, according to Spokane Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer, and not all involved homeless people.

The Fire Department’s alternative response units have been handing out shelter information and offering free bus passes, according to Schaeffer, though they’ve come across few people on the street without a place to sleep at night.

A large encampment near Freya Street and Second Avenue has been whittled down somewhat, as homeless services provider Jewels Helping Hands encouraged and helped move people into the temporary shelter this week.

Still, Jewels Helping Hands founder Julie Garcia estimated more than 60 people remained in the encampment as of Tuesday. Their reasons for a reluctance to move include police presence at the temporary shelter, concern about the availability of storage for their belongings and uncertainty around how long the shelter will be open, according to Garcia.

There is a police officer on site for security, according to Coddington, and storage remains available for guests.

Tammy Handy said she felt safer with police at the warming center because of how many belongings they brought with them.

So far, the people staying at the encampment are OK despite the cold, Garcia said, in large part thanks to community donations.

“The community stepped up and is ready and willing to participate,” Garcia said.

In opening the shelter, the city once again leaned on its partnership with the Spokane Public Facilities District, which operates the Convention Center. The city used the Convention Center as a safer air center when wildfire smoke enveloped Spokane in 2020.

The city initially estimated the temporary shelter to cost as much as $100,000. It is overseen by The Guardians Foundation, which also operates the city-owned shelter on Cannon Street and has been tapped to direct up to 40 people into hotel rooms every night.

Shelter space has been particularly limited this winter for adult women and couples.

Dennis Handy said that when he and his spouse lived in Kentucky, they filtered in and out of shelters until they found a veterans charity organization which housed them in a motel room. While it was far from luxury living, Dennis Handy said having their own room with a full-sized bed, a hot shower and a lock on the door took a burden off their shoulders.

“Something like that would be great,” he said. “That would help a lot of single veterans, a lot of single parents, survivors of domestic violence.”