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City outlines new plan to shelter homeless people in Spokane during cold snap

UPDATED: Tue., Feb. 9, 2021

A homeless person cuddles with a dog outside the Cannon Street shelter, Tuesday, March 12, 2019, in Spokane, Wash. Dan Pelle/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW  (DAN PELLE)
A homeless person cuddles with a dog outside the Cannon Street shelter, Tuesday, March 12, 2019, in Spokane, Wash. Dan Pelle/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW (DAN PELLE)

People experiencing homelessness will not be left out in the bitter cold this week, the city of Spokane pledged on Tuesday.

The city is working with its network of shelter providers to increase capacity and expand hours as temperatures are forecast to drop into the single digits.

This week the city will lean on the use of hotel and motel vouchers in an effort to protect those most vulnerable to COVID-19. The hotel rooms will be paid for with flexible COVID 19-related federal funding, not city dollars.

“As an immediate response, this was one of our best tools,” said Cupid Alexander, the city’s director of Neighborhood, Housing and Human Services.

Some people, particularly if they are older or lack access to health care, opt not to stay in shelters because they fear they will catch COVID-19 in a congregate setting, Alexander said. Others have had an adverse experience at a shelter, Alexander noted.

“They have this complexity to their life that we have to consider as to why they don’t (stay in shelters),” Alexander said.

Outreach teams were working Tuesday to “identify who is most vulnerable” and placing them in hotels, according to Tija Danzig, a homeless program manager for the city’s Community, Housing and Human Services Department.

“We have people already checked into hotels and it’s ongoing,” Danzig said.

The use of hotels and motels aligns with the recommendation of a report issued last December by the National Health Care for the Homeless Council, which urged governments to “use non-congregate shelter options such as hotels/motels to balance the need for shelter while maintaining COVID-19 precautions.”

The city and shelter operators are also working to improve access to transportation, including by paying for Lyft rides, handing out bus passes, and reimbursing service providers who operate their own shuttles.

The city also has worked with operators to expand check-in hours, allowing guests to arrive at later hours and still access shelter, Alexander said.

The success of the city’s efforts this week could inform how it responds to ultracold weather in the future, according to city officials.

Shelters have scrambled to add beds while remaining compliant with COVID-19 guidelines throughout the winter.

Union Gospel Mission is one provider the city has tapped to expand shelter capacity during harsh weather, but it’s on lockdown and no longer accepting new check-ins due to a COVID-19 outbreak.

A capacity report compiled by the city showed limited availability Monday night for adult men with the Way Out shelter on Mission Avenue, The Guardians warming center on Cannon Street, and House of Charity all reporting no vacancy. There were just two low-barrier beds available for adult women and three low-barrier beds available for families.

Truth Ministries, a shelter for men, had 29 winter overflow beds unoccupied on Monday night. The shelter normally charges $2 per night, but the city has paid its operators to waive the fee to its guests. Still, the shelter’s location on East Sprague Avenue presents a challenge to many homeless people who lack easy access to transportation.

City officials have worked in recent months to develop a publicly accessible dashboard to show which shelters across the city have beds available, but it has yet to be launched.

“Spaces have remained available in the shelter system and we are accessing all available resources to accommodate additional need this week as temperatures drop,” Mayor Nadine Woodward said in a statement on Tuesday. “I appreciate the work our community providers continue while they remain in a COVID-19 response environment while adjusting to winter weather patterns.”

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