The city has reshaped its plan to replace more than 100 low-barrier homeless shelter beds lost after The Way Out shelter closed for renovations last month.
The House of Charity, Hope House, Cannon Street and Union Gospel Mission shelters have all expanded capacity in recent days, according to city spokesman Brian Coddington.
But Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs questions whether the bed-shifting between shelters complies with city law.
A new law adopted by the Spokane City Council last year prohibits the city from closing low-barrier shelter beds without adding capacity elsewhere or proving that there is consistently low demand.
The city announced last month that it would replace the low-barrier beds at The Way Out Shelter, which is temporarily closed, largely by directing dozens of its guests to Union Gospel Mission.
Union Gospel Mission has strict requirements and standards for its residents, including that they be sober, but Mayor Nadine Woodward told the City Council last month that the nonprofit would waive them.
Union Gospel Mission later clarified, when asked by The Spokesman-Review, that it would not waive its sobriety requirement. To members of the City Council, that meant Union Gospel Mission would not, in fact, be a low-barrier shelter.
Woodward’s administration agreed and explained it as the result of a misunderstanding that would be remedied before The Way Out closed on June 30.
That day has come and passed and Union Gospel Mission has not lowered its barriers.
Instead, the city has adjusted its low-barrier network of shelters. Volunteers of America has added 20 beds at the Hope House shelter for women, Union Gospel Mission has opened 12 no-barrier beds, Cannon Street has added 10 beds, and House of Charity has expanded by 35 beds, Coddington said.
That is still well short of the 102 beds lost at The Way Out. But previous shelter capacity reports incorrectly included Jewels Helping Hands’ 30-bed winter warming center, Coddington explained. Thus, the city’s low-barrier bed target is 388, not 418. The new plan, he said, meets that goal.
But Beggs argued that the intent of the law isn’t to set a citywide target for bed capacity. It is to replace the beds closed at one shelter with new beds that are open to the same types of people.
“It was supposed to be more of a cause and effect,” Beggs said.
Since the city lost 102 coed, 24/7 shelter beds at The Way Out, Beggs argued the city should have immediately replaced them with 102 coed, 24/7 shelter beds at other locations.
City law, as currently written, bars the city from reducing low-barrier shelter capacity “without first having in place an agreed, published, and publicly disseminated plan” to replace the lost beds. The city can permanently close low-barrier beds if it proves that the space is no longer needed based on at least two weeks of availability in the shelter.
Beggs has proposed changes to the law that would make it more specific, prohibiting the city from closing low or no-barrier shelter unless it is operating citywide at less than 50% capacity, on average, over six months.
But for now, Beggs acknowledged the law’s language is vague and should be clarified.
The Way Out Shelter is operated by The Salvation Army. Of its final 102 guests, 80 were able to find shelter, according to Salvation Army Maj. Ken Perine, but 22 people preferred to camp.
“We can’t force anybody to do anything,” Perine said.
There is only one other low-barrier coed shelter for single adults in the city − the city-owned shelter on Cannon Street. It has been full 10 of the last 17 days, according to the city’s capacity reports.
Thirty-five of The Way Out Shelter’s 102 beds are accounted for at House of Charity, which is piloting a program to ease social distancing requirements at its shelter.
Cannon Street is expanding by 10 beds because it has opened space previously reserved for isolation during the pandemic to the general population. It has found other ways to isolate people if necessary, Coddington said.
Hope House, a shelter for adult women, already had the 20 extra beds but previously had not been able to staff them, Coddington said. Volunteers of America has also expanded by 15 beds in its young adult shelter for people from 18 to 24 years old, he said.
When The Salvation Army reopens The Way Out shelter it will operate a Bridge Housing Program, which is aimed at transitioning people out of homelessness and into more permanent housing. It will be accessible only by referral and have requirements of its guests, but The Salvation Army will continue to offer about 40 low-barrier beds on a separate floor from the Bridge Housing Program when necessary, such as when the city needs additional winter warming center capacity.
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