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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Is Spokane’s cooling shelter plan enough? Proposed law would demand more

Demonstrators take to the streets of downtown Spokane during a Humans for Housing march held by Humanizing Spokane on Saturday, April 24, 2021, in Spokane, Wash.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

As a record-breaking heat dome suffocates the Northwest, Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs proposed an ordinance Monday that would require the city to provide enough cooling center space to accommodate its entire unsheltered homeless population and those without air conditioning.

The new law would force the city to open cooling centers at least between 10 a.m. and 8 p.m. when the predicted high temperature is 95 degrees or above.

“This week, I fear that people will certainly suffer and probably die,” Beggs said.

During a City Council committee meeting, the other members balked at passing the ordinance as an emergency measure, as Beggs had originally proposed it. He conceded that it would not immediately change the city’s cooling center capacity. The ordinance would have required five of seven members to support it to pass.

“It won’t result in any changes in the next few days, it’s not built to do that,” Beggs said.

Some City Council members were quick to voice criticism when the city announced its cooling plans ahead of the severe heat last week. The city opened the Looff Carrousel as a cooling center, which doubled in capacity to 72 people when Gov. Jay Inslee lifted COVID capacity restrictions.

In recent days, the city has assembled a patchwork of places to cool off, extending hours at Spokane Public Library locations. Private organizations such as Catholic Charities have also offered space.

The administration built its response plan based on what it learned from the demand for operating a safe air center during wildfires last summer, according to city spokesman Brian Coddington.

In addition to the carousel, Coddington noted the city has two other buildings at Riverfront Park it can use if necessary, bringing the total citywide cooling center capacity to about 1,000 people.

“We have a plan, and the plan is working, so let’s continue on with that plan,” Coddington said.

But the City Council was left frustrated.

“I don’t feel that we’ve been prepared for this at all, even when we saw this coming for at least a week,” said Councilwoman Lori Kinnear.

Although the carousel operated below capacity over the weekend, Beggs noted that the weather will be record-breaking in the coming days. He also argued that “if we really are trying to get people to leave their campsites or leave their homes where they’re really suffering in, we’re going to have to set up a whole different type of thing.”

“For what they operated, they operated it well, but I just don’t think it captures the need,” Beggs said.

Mayor Nadine Woodward’s administration expects demand to increase as temperatures rise this week, according to Coddington. It believes the city is ready to handle it.

“For a day or two, people can be fairly resilient on their own. As you get further into this heatwave, we would expect that people are going to be worn out or seeking space for a longer period of time,” Coddington said.

The ordinance would require the city to have existing agreements with organizations, such as schools, to utilize space in the event of wildfire smoke, extreme heat or extreme cold. Several council members argued the shelter plan needs to include neighborhoods.

But the law would do more than simply expand cooling centers.

It would also require the administration, by Sept. 30, to present an annual plan for warming, cooling and safe air centers. The city would also have to provide a quarterly estimate of the population in Spokane that is living without shelter.

The ordinance demonstrates the gap between Woodward’s administration and the City Council when it comes to shelter capacity.

The administration reports that there are regularly more than 100 beds available at local shelters.

But in its ordinance, the City Council “finds that gaps in shelters and services have been a recurring problem during extreme heat, cold, and poor air quality events, in addition to the continuous public health and safety problem of homelessness in our community.”

It’s unclear exactly how many people are sleeping unsheltered in Spokane. In its recent annual census of the homeless population, the city did not do a count of people who sleep unsheltered, arguing that such an outreach effort was unsafe during the pandemic.

The City Council did act Monday, however, on a template for the city’s response to housing and homelessness.

In a resolution, the council laid out a list of priorities in addressing the twin issues of rising housing costs and homelessness.

The strategic plan pushes the city to compile and publish more data on housing and homelessness, as well as strengthen its relationships with outside partners in the response.

In introducing the plan, Kinnear aims to push the city onto a stable and predictable path and avoid a haphazard response to predictable issues, such as an increased need for emergency shelter every winter. It also serves as a promise to fund proposals that fulfill the plan’s goals.

“I think this is a way that we can demonstrate that we’re very committed to a strategy,” Kinnear said.

Much of the resolution looks to develop more data and ensure it’s shared.

It asks the city to provide a “community data project,” that would allow local shelters to easily trade and access information. The resolution also calls for the city to incentivize the sharing of housing opportunities for income-restricted people.

The resolution also calls for a “smart growth initiative” that would aim to minimize displacement while increasing access to housing and services as the city continues to grow. It also endorses the 5th Avenue Initiative, a community development effort in East Central.

The resolution calls on the city to continue working with other governments across the Spokane region to deal with housing and homelessness, including by developing a “regional homeless services strategy.”

The council also wants more regular updates on existing efforts, including the regional Continuum of Care board’s five-year plan to end to homelessness. The resolution also asks for an update to the 2019 report on impediments to fair access to housing.