Homeless shelter operators say they want to be good neighbors – but some city leaders want them to put that promise in writing.
A proposal to fund a homeless shelter in northwest Spokane has renewed calls for a “good neighbor agreement” between the shelter’s nonprofit operator, the Salvation Army, and the surrounding community.
Proponents, including Councilwoman Karen Stratton, believe a written agreement would help establish an understanding between the shelter and its neighbors to address common concerns like security.
“You can create them such that you lay out what the expectations are and who’s responsible,” Stratton said.
Amid concerns voiced by members including Stratton and Councilman Michael Cathcart, the City Council delayed a vote Monday on a five-year, $3.5 million funding commitment to the planned Way Out Shelter.
The good neighbor agreement would be the first of its kind in the city of Spokane. As such, some question exactly what a good neighbor agreement is, who the signatories would be and who would be responsible for enforcing it.
“Nobody even knows what a good neighbor agreement is,” Salvation Army Maj. Ken Perine said. “It’s very vague.”
While he questions the necessity of such a contract, Perine promised to keep the peace and said the nonprofit already has a solid relationship with the Emerson-Garfield Neighborhood Council.
“We’ve been here in Spokane for 150 years; I think our campus and previous campuses show we’ve always been good neighbors, so that kind of speaks for itself,” Perine said.
The shelter, operated in a building on West Mission Avenue owned by the Salvation Army, quickly launched on an emergency basis last year during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The shelter is closed as it undergoes renovations and prepares to reopen as a bridge housing program, open by referral only to guests who are believed to be ready for a transition into permanent housing.
Part of the council’s confusion on Monday was whether the lower floor of the building would be used for emergency night-by-night shelter. Perine said that remains uncertain, but “it’s not going to be something that works in opposition to what we do upstairs.”
What’s a good neighbor?
For Stratton, the issue is not the shelter or its operating model. Rather, it’s demonstrating to the surrounding neighborhood that they will have a voice – something she feels they’ve been mostly robbed of since the shelter opened abruptly last year.
Mayor Nadine Woodward also understands the anger some neighbors have about the haste with which the building was purchased and opened as a shelter last year, but stopped short of demanding a good neighbor agreement.
“We were looking for emergency housing for our vulnerable population, so there wasn’t the process that would normally be in place,” Woodward said.
Stratton points to a good neighbor agreement used for a shelter in Portland, where former Neighborhood, Housing and Human Services Director Cupid Alexander worked prior to his brief tenure in Spokane.
The Portland shelter’s agreement is not legally binding, but lays out shared goals and expectations for the shelter, the city, neighborhood businesses and organizations.
“What I was trying to get across,” Stratton said of Monday’s council meeting, “is everybody’s gotta take responsibility for what happens at that site.”
City attorneys have suggested the operating agreement between the city and a shelter is the place to make stipulations about its rules, not in a separate document.
Stratton sees value in a standalone agreement and wants to know that one is in place before she signs off on funding.
“Would I buy a house without looking at the contract?” Stratton asked.
Woodward questions why the Salvation Army has been singled out for scrutiny. The council also approved a $1 million commitment to Volunteers of America for the new Crosswalk Youth Shelter on Monday. Like the Salvation Army, it does not have a formal good neighbor agreement.
It’s not just the Salvation Army that should be required to have a good neighbor agreement, it’s every operator, Stratton said.
If that’s the case, Woodward wants shelter providers included in this discussion, she said.
“As a community, we should expect that our providers operate their facilities in a way that doesn’t detract from the neighborhood,” Woodward said, but she questions who would be responsible for enforcing such agreements and worries that burden would fall on city staff.
Many of the concerns about the shelter stem from the way it was operated as a low-barrier facility over the last year, not the way it is expected to be operated in the future, said Mike Hogan, branch manager of the nearby Chimney Rock Mortgage.
“I’m not so sure the neighborhood is upset with the concept of the Way Out Shelter,” Hogan said. “It seems to me like it’s a start in the right direction for this community.”
But the uncertainty about the building’s potential partial use as a low-barrier shelter gives Hogan pause. When the shelter was open over the last year, foot traffic in the neighborhood greatly increased, Hogan said.
“It’s the visibleness of people who are, for lack of a better word, loitering in and around your business, and I think it does cause a little bit of concern for people who are walking by,” Hogan said.
Perine is concerned that the Salvation Army would be expected to be responsible for every person who is homeless anywhere near the shelter, regardless of whether they’ve actually accessed services there.
The shelter can take responsibility for the people engaged in its services, Perine said, but not those who aren’t.
Some people “just want to see the homeless disappear, and that’s just never going to happen,” Perine said.
Other council members share Perine and Woodward’s hesitation.
“I don’t know how you enforce it, and we can’t get the police involved in enforcing a good neighbor agreement,” Kinnear said.
Stratton is supportive of shelters, she said, and she views good neighbor agreements as a way to combat a “not-in-my-backyard” attitude that she believes is on the rise.
The council is expected to vote on the funding for the Way Out Shelter on Sept. 27.
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