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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Evictions, COVID-19 and cold weather: Homeless shelter operators brace for rough winter

A homeless person cuddles with a dog outside the Cannon Street shelter on March 12, 2019, in Spokane.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Temperatures have yet to steadily slip below freezing, but several of the city of Spokane’s homeless shelters are already filling up.

City officials have expressed confidence in the shelter system’s ability to withstand the demand for a warm place to sleep through the winter months, but advocates for the homeless and shelter operators are warning that there will not be enough beds.

“We do have a plan, and some of what is in that plan is things that we did last year, which included hoteling, and now we’ve got more flex space within our shelter,” Mayor Nadine Woodward told The Spokesman-Review.

The administration points to several improvements to the network of shelters in Spokane that occurred under her watch.

But it remains to be seen whether they will be enough to keep people who want shelter off the streets this winter, as service providers say they’ve seen a steady increase in homelessness and fear it will only get worse.

“There’s hundreds of people out there who will have, and do not have, anywhere to go,” said Barry Barfield, administrator of the Spokane Homeless Coalition.

Catholic Charities expects its House of Charity shelter to fill up soon and remain that way. Hope House, a shelter for women operated by Volunteers of America, has already been consistently at capacity. It had been forced to turn away 26 women over the last two weeks.

Volunteers of America’s young adult shelter will eventually operate with 44 beds when it moves into a new building, but for now is capped at 15 beds. The nonprofit fears it won’t be able to meet the need this winter, according to spokesperson Rae-Lynn Barden.

Open Doors, a shelter for families operated by Family Promise, has had no extra beds available for weeks. Family Promise opened two new locations with total capacity for 14 people this year, but those, too, are full.

Joe Ader, executive director of Family Promise, said that it typically sees an increase in January after the holidays.

“This year it’s going to be much different and much worse. The eviction moratorium is running out at the end of this month, and that will dramatically impact homelessness, particularly family homelessness, with evictions coming through this winter,” Ader said.

As a community, “we don’t have fantastic plans in place ready to go for the winter,” Ader added.

“I see this winter being more like us needing to prepare more like a natural disaster, like when a hurricane comes through,” Ader said, adding it needs to be “more of a FEMA-type response where we’re going to need to pop up new locations through this winter.”

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to be a challenge for shelters, in part because the Spokane Regional Health District has placed a greater emphasis on shelters isolating guests who’ve tested positive for the illness inside their own facilities.

Union Gospel Mission’s men’s shelter is not low-barrier – it requires its guests to be sober – but it has about 70 beds available. That additional space is partly because the shelter is just returning to normal capacity following a COVID-19 outbreak, according to Joel Brown, UGM’s director of ministries.

“The unknown all revolves around COVID-19 outbreaks. When/if there is no community isolation options, and shelters are required to isolate/quarantine clients onsite, it greatly reduces our capacities,” Brown explained in an email to The Spokesman-Review.

A citywide report on capacity shows that on Wednesday, there were no free low-barrier beds in women-only shelters, adult co-ed shelters, or shelters for families.

Woodward’s administration, however, points to progress made during her first term in office in providing consistent shelter space to avoid what has became an annual rush to expand before cold weather hits.

Truth Ministries, a shelter for men, typically charges guests a small fee. But this year, the city has committed upfront to paying down the cost of entry for guests through the winter. Volunteers of America received funding to operate beds for young adults.

The Salvation Army plans to reopen The Way Out Shelter in November with about 60 beds. It’s not a low-barrier facility, but the city expects that guests in low-barrier shelters will relocate there, freeing up more beds elsewhere. The Way Out was open last winter as a 102-bed emergency, low-barrier shelter.

The city already locked in its contract with the Guardians Foundation to operate the Cannon Street shelter through the winter.

A new shelter?

Woodward has proposed that the city open a new $4.3 million low-barrier shelter to expand its capacity in her preliminary 2022 city budget. But she told The Spokesman-Review last week that it would likely take about eight weeks to stand up following the selection of a site.

“I’m confident that we’re going to get that shelter stood up, and I’m trying to anticipate what that need is going to be before it reaches us,” Woodward said.

Woodward envisions the shelter as a navigation center that helps connect people to services. It would be located outside the downtown core.

The city is contemplating using a Sprung structure – essentially a semipermanent fabric building – instead of purchasing an existing building. The location has yet to be finalized.

The benefit of a Sprung structure is that it could be crafted to meet the city’s needs for a shelter, instead of an existing building that would need to be retrofitted to accommodate a large number of guests.

“We can get exactly what we want because it’s flexible,” Woodward said.

The mayor is confident that the City Council would offer financial backing for the new shelter.

“I think I can make a very compelling case to this council to support that new shelter. I would be quite surprised if they chose not to, because I’m just trying to see ahead of where we are today,” Woodward said.

Barfield pressed people in the community to not just look to the mayor or city government to solve the problem.

He called on business leaders, nonprofits, government officials and the faith community to collaborate.

“The only way we are going to make progress on this is to band together to get all of the players in one room,” Barfield said.