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Spokane City Council could scale back emergency shelter proposal inspired by heat wave

Avery Williams, right, 20, who was visiting Spokane from Brentwood, TN, wipes his face down and drinks water with his sister Camille, 16, lower left, as they escape the heat with their mother Heather Brentwood, not pictured, on Tuesday, June 29, 2021, at a downtown cooling center in the same building as the Looff Carrousel in Spokane, Wash.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
Avery Williams, right, 20, who was visiting Spokane from Brentwood, TN, wipes his face down and drinks water with his sister Camille, 16, lower left, as they escape the heat with their mother Heather Brentwood, not pictured, on Tuesday, June 29, 2021, at a downtown cooling center in the same building as the Looff Carrousel in Spokane, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

The Spokane City Council will likely scale back a sweeping proposal to establish new standards for emergency shelter before it’s up for a vote on Monday.

In the wake of blistering heat last month, Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs proposed revisions to city law that would lower the thresholds that force the city to open emergency cooling and warming centers.

Beggs’ proposal would also require the city to have an established cohesive plan to activate shelters throughout the city in extreme cold, heat or smoke.

“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 explained earlier this week.

Those changes are still expected to be decided on Monday.

“I think that this is important enough to bring forward as an emergency (ordinance) on Monday, given what we’re looking forward to with the weather the next few days,” said Councilwoman Lori Kinnear. “It’s going to keep happening; this is not an anomaly.”

The initial proposal also included language that would have broad and longer-lasting impacts, including new stipulations for the city’s funding of high-barrier homeless shelters.

Those changes would now wait at least two weeks, under a proposal offered by Kinnear.

“We’re giving (Mayor Nadine Woodward) two more weeks on this so that she can give us feedback and information she thinks is pertinent to making this workable,” Kinnear explained after meeting with Beggs.

Beggs has drawn criticism, including from Woodward, for moving so quickly on an ordinance that could have broad consequences.

Kinnear suggested late this week that Beggs cleave the ordinance in two.

The portion that sets new standards for cooling centers – including forcing them to open when the weather is forecast for at least 95 degrees instead of 100 – would be adopted under the emergency ordinance on Monday.

Long-term changes, such as new requirements the city must satisfy before closing low-barrier homeless shelter beds, would wait.

Kinnear argued it is important the city have a clear plan for sheltering during hazardous weather. The aim is that “every time it gets above 95 degrees, people in the city know what they can do and where they can go.”

“We don’t have to keep reinventing and scrambling when we have these events,” Kinnear said.

Woodward has expressed concern about both the immediate and lasting ramifications of the proposal. She feared that, as written, the ordinance could force the city to attempt to provide cooling space for the thousands of people in Spokane who lack access to air conditioning.

She’s also questioned how the city can compel people to leave their homes and seek safer shelter if they don’t want to.

The administration has vigorously defended its response to last month’s oppressive heat. The city opened a cooling center at the Looff Carrousel and had two other buildings on standby. It also extended hours at Spokane Public Library branches. Altogether, the centers had a capacity of about 1,000 people, but never approached it.

“The plan that was developed and used for the recent heat wave worked and was effective, so the challenge is to figure out how to get more people to those locations,” said city spokesman Brian Coddington.

But the administration’s position is that such self-evaluation can occur without Beggs’ emergency ordinance.

“We’re always trying to get better, we’re always trying to figure out ways to better connect people to resources,” Coddington said.

The proposal on the council’s docket for Monday does not create a plan; it only demands that the administration build one itself.

According to the Spokane County Medical Examiner’s office, 20 deaths appeared to be related to the recent heat wave.

“There’s always going to be cracks to fill, but the people that died probably didn’t know there was a place they could go, or they couldn’t get there. Those issues all have to be worked out as part of an overall plan,” Kinnear said.

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