A debate is escalating in City Hall over the extent to which Spokane should – and is able to – provide shelter during events like last week’s record-breaking heat wave.
City Council President Breean Beggs is charging ahead with an emergency ordinance that would require the city to have a standing plan to provide sufficient shelter for everyone who needs it during spells of extreme cold, smoke or heat.
A heatwave “is like any other natural disaster,” Beggs said, and he believes it should be planned for like one. He described frantically reaching out to schools and libraries to secure air-conditioned community space as the blistering weather approached last month.
Mayor Nadine Woodward agrees the conversation around emergency planning is warranted, but is imploring Beggs to pump the brakes and weigh the ramifications of his proposal. She defended the city’s response to recent weather and questioned whether several of the proposal’s components are feasible .
The administration points to data collected at the cooling centers it operated last month. The city operated a central cooling center at Riverfront Park buttressed by cooling centers at Spokane Public Library branches. Altogether, they had capacity for about 1,000, but never came close to that figure and welcomed everyone who showed up.
The Looff Carrousel took in 731 people between June 26 and July 4, with the number of people inside never exceeding 33 at any given time.
But Beggs argues those figures are a reflection of the city’s failure to open cooling centers capable of luring people out of their uncooled homes and into safer air. According to the latest figures released from the Spokane County Medical Examiner’s Office on Wednesday, 17 county residents died in circumstances that appear to be related to the heat, more than those reported from 2015 to 2020 combined.
“I think the problem with the plan last week was, it wasn’t set up to attract the people who most needed to be there,” Beggs said.
Beggs’ proposal – a revision of an ordinance adopted by the council last year – aims to do three things, he said. It would require a regional response to sheltering, force the administration to collect and publicize data on the estimated number of unsheltered homeless people in Spokane, and demand the city have a standing plan to use temporary shelters in an emergency.
“The intent is to have a network around the city, using churches and schools and other places, and have that in place, ready to go and be activated,” Beggs said.
The administration would be required to report its plan for emergency sheltering to the City Council by Sept. 30 every year.
The ordinance includes a set of thresholds that would trigger a plan into action. If the forecast temperature is above 95 degrees for two consecutive days, for example, the city would be obligated to open cooling centers.
The proposal would lower existing thresholds.
The ordinance’s impact would not be limited to short-term emergencies.
Starting in 2022, the law would prohibit the city from funding shelters with stricter requirements for its guests, such as sobriety, unless beds without such requirements are readily available. Low-barrier beds would have to be at least 20% empty citywide, on average, for the last six months.
Woodward warned Wednesday that this stipulation would force the city to maintain hundreds of empty beds, the cost of which could jeopardize funding for its new Bridge Housing Program operated by The Salvation Army.
Beggs later clarified that cutting the Bridge Housing Program’s funding was not the intent of the law and the language would be changed.
Woodward is concerned about the city’s ability to fulfill the strict obligations defined in Beggs’ proposal.
The proposal requires the city to operate cooling centers with enough capacity for the city’s entire unsheltered homeless population – which Beggs estimates to be 500 or 600 people – and “sheltered individuals who lack air conditioning.”
Woodward isn’t certain how many people in the city lack air conditioning, but figures it’s a large number – if it’s one-third of households, that could amount to 60,000 or more people. The city struggles just to provide enough shelter for the homeless, the population of whom is just a fraction of those without air conditioning, Woodward noted.
Many people simply won’t use a cooling center, she noted.
“How do we compel people to leave their homes?” Woodward asked.
But Beggs said the ordinance isn’t meant to require the city to actually provide 60,000 people a shelter.
“The intent is to have larger places set up than they currently do, and then gauge it and be able to scale it up if you need it,” Beggs said.
Beggs attempted to pass the ordinance on June 28, the same day he introduced it. The proposal would have required all five members to vote in favor, but two were absent.
Woodward also asked him that day for more time, and Beggs granted her request. But he appears unwilling to delay any longer, as the proposal is on the City Council’s agenda for a vote on Monday.
Woodward expressed frustration that the process is moving without time for stakeholder and public engagement.
“We need to bring people together,” Woodward said, and “have them help guide what the policy is, rather than the council be reactionary.”
But Beggs argued the situation remains an emergency, noting that the city has experienced extreme heat before the typically hottest days of the year, and said the proposal has already garnered useful feedback.
On Wednesday, Woodward hosted a quickly assembled meeting at the Spokane Arena to listen to stakeholders. It was less a debate about the technicalities of cooling center operation than a referendum on the value of low-barrier shelters.
Chud Wendle is the leader of a group of downtown property owners, businesses and nonprofits. He expressed concern that the ordinance would serve as a way to “move the goalposts” and make it more difficult to enforce the city’s sit-lie ordinance. Sit-lie bans people from sitting or lying on downtown sidewalks during the daytime, but only if shelter beds are available.
Ben Stuckart, chair of the regional Continuum of Care Board, argued that the ordinance isn’t about broader city policies on homelessness.
“This is an argument about what to do when vulnerable people in our community are threatened,” Stuckart said.
People who have experienced homeless, who are currently homeless and their advocates spoke passionately about the realities faced by people on the street. Several noted that information about the cooling centers may have failed to reach people who lack access to the internet. They may have had pets that they feared leaving behind, or were unable to safely store their items at a cooling center.
Amanda Carrell said she was formerly homeless, but is now eight months sober and attributed her success in part to being able to access shelter.
“If we don’t have something to help everybody, you’re going to see more deaths every day,” Carrell said.