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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

After controversy of ‘pop up’ homeless shelter at Women’s Club, city leaders consider guidelines for temporary shelters

The Women’s Club at Ninth Avenue and Walnut Street in Spokane on Aug. 14, 2020, in Spokane. The club housed a pop-up homeless shelter from Jewels Helping Hands this spring.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

When a pop-up homeless shelter opened a few doors down from Zackary Thurman’s business in the Garland District last winter, he refrained from knee-jerk judgment and donated soap and food to its guests.

“I went in there with open arms hoping for the best,” Thurman said.

But the security measures he expected from the shelter operator did not materialize, Thurman said. He found a 5-gallon bucket full of syringes, watched drug deals and saw people urinate on buildings.

When a man who had been kicked out of the shelters was sleeping behind Thurman’s business and returned to find his belongings had been removed, he threatened Thurman with a rock, Thurman said.

It’s all behavior he links to the shelter operated by Jewels Helping Hands at City Church, which he said failed to adequately address complaints lodged by neighbors.

Thurman is not alone in voicing his concerns, and the model of a “pop-up” shelter like the one operated at City Church has now come under scrutiny.

As temporary shelters opened in Spokane neighborhoods this winter, they demonstrated the complexity of meeting the needs of people experiencing homelessness without irritating neighbors and nearby businesses.

People who are homeless no longer feel welcome downtown, said Jewels Helping Hands co-founder Julie Garcia. They’ve been pushed into neighborhoods that are ill-equipped to provide the homeless with services like public restrooms and indoor space in the daytime.

“Every single time, we know what’s going to happen when we open a space, but what’s the alternative? To do nothing?” asks Garcia. “I know better than anyone this population is very hard to deal with, but they are still human beings and have the right to exist somewhere.”

Tension reached a peak this spring after Jewels Helping Hands left City Church and moved into the Woman’s Club of Spokane’s building on Walnut Street, drawing the ire of neighbors who alleged illicit behavior among its guests.

Its neighborhood impact was not the only controversial aspect of Jewels’ tenancy in the Woman’s Club building – the club’s leaders say Jewels never signed a lease in the space and demanded the shelter move out in May, and Jewels complied.

Now, city officials are contemplating if the city should do more to regulate how, when and where shelters are allowed to pop up.

Spokane City Councilwoman Karen Stratton is working with community leaders to draft a set of guidelines for pop-up shelters, aiming to both ameliorate concerns of neighbors while allowing well-meaning groups the flexibility to provide a needed service.

“It’s a big issue, and I think it’s going to keep getting bigger as we realize our shelter system is not enough,” Stratton said.

Are they necessary?

The existence of pop-up shelters begs questions about Spokane’s shelter capacity.

It may make sense to allow a pop-up shelter to add more beds in an emergency, such as when scores of people seek refuge from cold weather or wildfire smoke. But what about in May, when the cold weather recedes and demand for shelters typically wanes?

It’s not just a question of adverse weather. Advocates for people experiencing homelessness have long decried that the city’s network of shelters is inadequate – leaving nonprofits like Jewels to fill in the gaps.

Jewels serves many people cut out from the current system, even if the city’s capacity reports show beds available on any given night, according to Garcia. Some have been banned from other shelters, while others are in committed relationships and refuse to stay at single-sex shelters, she said.

Councilwoman Lori Kinnear represents a district that encompasses the South Hill and fielded neighbors’ concerns after Jewels Helping Hands moved into the Woman’s Club.

Based on the number of people still camping on river banks and doorways, Kinnear argued the city does not have adequate capacity in its network of permanent shelters.

Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs made the same case.

“If you really have robust and diverse shelter opportunities then you’ll have your sense of who are the ‘willful’ campers – we’ve never come close to that,” Beggs said.

It’s not just an issue of nighttime shelter. Stratton noted the dearth of space for people to be during the day.

“The city needs to take responsibility for it,” Stratton said. “We’ve been putting a Band-Aid on this instead of some real investment for a long time.”

Mayor Nadine Woodward lauded the region’s response to homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic, which put limitations on capacity at local shelters and forced regional governments to upend the normal framework.

“I think we have seen adequate capacity – we’ve had lots of capacity this spring for sure, and we’ve been able to expand the existing regional shelter system quite successfully with our providers,” Woodward said.

The rules

After leaving the City Church on good terms with church leaders, Jewels operated in the Woman’s Club on a temporary permit issued by the city’s code enforcement department.

The city has since clarified that had it known Jewels never had a signed contract to operate inside the Woman’s Club, the permit would not have been issued.

The city often is asked to approve a pop-up shelter when the weather is more extreme or there’s some other emergency, Kris Becker, the city’s interim director of Community and Economic Development, wrote in an email to Kinnear earlier this month.

“These ‘pop-up’ shelters are a relatively new thing and when the requests have come in, there is an urgency to the timing,” Becker wrote.

“In this instance, we asked (Jewels Helping Hands) to provide us a copy of the written lease agreement or permission from the property owner – we were told it was forthcoming. In an effort to accommodate the need for emergency shelter space, we granted a temporary approval prior to receiving a copy of the lease agreement,” Becker explained.

Shelters aren’t allowed just anywhere, Garcia noted, but Jewels and the Woman’s Club were within their rights to site a shelter in the middle of a largely residential neighborhood.

If pop-up shelters are going to be permitted, Stratton hopes to alleviate tension before it builds.

“If this is going to happen, then we better have a plan and resources for not only the shelter that’s setting up, but the businesses and surrounding neighbors,” she said. “This isn’t a compassion issue to me – this is ‘wait a second, we didn’t know about this.’ ”

In the new guidelines, which she hopes to have prepared before next winter, Stratton said pop-up shelters need to be close to commercial areas and be near public transit lines so people can access services. The guideline could call for neighborhood outreach before a shelter opens.

The proposal is not finalized, but Stratton expects it to include 24/7 security and a single, “one-touch” source to handle concerns and complaints related to a shelter.

“It’s not just calling the police, it’s also finding out – is (the shelter) full, do they need transportation?” Stratton said.

Woodward said she’s not sure just how many more regulations are needed and did not outright dismiss the utility of pop-up shelters, saying “we need everybody to help at some point.

“To be a good provider, even a pop-up shelter, there should be neighborhood engagement, that’s what a good partner would do,” Woodward said.

The neighborhood

People who are homeless already exist in these neighborhoods, Garcia stressed, and a nonprofit like Jewels can’t be responsible for every homeless person. Any proposal limiting the ability of providers to open a pop-up shelter would only exacerbate the issue, she warned.

“Nobody wants homeless people sleeping in their front yard, but where do they go?” Garcia asked.

Thurman, whose auto shop is just a few doors down from City Church, said he’s experienced poverty and at one point was living in his car. He has sympathy for the homeless, but denies the neighborhood issues existed before Jewels moved in.

“I want to help the homeless, but once they moved out, the neighborhood turned around, a ridiculous percent,” Thurman said.

Stratton is adamant shelter operators, businesses and neighbors all agree they don’t want people left out on the street.

“It isn’t about the neighbors and businesses against the homeless or the church, this is about everybody having the same values because we’re human,” Stratton said, “but how do we make it a little more acceptable to businesses, the neighborhood and the shelter?”