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Shawn Vestal: Trent shelter report to council charts progress, big challenges

The Trent Resource and Assistance Center on Trent Avenue is seen on Sept. 1, 2022.  (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)

As the city has gone all in on the Trent shelter – and only the Trent shelter – as a response to homelessness, the project has been plagued by questions and inconsistent public statements about its capacity and other issues.

On Monday night, officials with the Woodward administration and Salvation Army addressed many of those questions in a session before the City Council. Some of the answers are summarized here.

(It’s worth noting that as of Monday, the shelter had been open for 117 days. It was publicly proposed and in the works at City Hall for almost eight months prior to that. The Salvation Army took over operations of the Trent and Cannon Street shelters after the cancellation of the contract with the previous provider, the Guardians, in the wake of admissions that a Guardians employee had embezzled $100,000 or more.)

Just how flexible is that flex capacity? Among the hardest things to pinpoint in recent weeks has been exactly how big the shelter’s “surge” capacity is – its ability to take in people during weather and smoke emergencies. The initial plan for the shelter called for 250 beds during normal times; that’s been expanded to 350 (though this figure came as a surprise to council members).

The surge capacity has been harder to nail down. It has seemed as if it was – for political purposes – being viewed as more or less infinite, a rhetorical flexibility to answer all questions.

City building official Dermott Murphy told the council the maximum number of people who could be crowded into the shelter in an emergency, based on egress regulations, is 688.

Which would be very, very crowded, with the overflow crowd sleeping on mats.

Councilwoman Lori Kinnear said, “Essentially, they’d be like cordwood.”

Murphy agreed. “Jailhouse,” he said.

But we’re not there yet: Even if the cordwood solution was workable, the shelter isn’t ready for it yet. In fact, Salvation Army Executive Director Ken Perine said that it wasn’t ready for even the nonemergency capacity yet.

“We’re not 100% ready to go right to 350 at this point, just simply because of the way the building is currently laid out,” he said. “The wooden beds just take up a lot more space and there’s only 245 beds there right now. We have 100 mats.”

He added, “There’s a lot more people out there than I think people realize. If they all showed up, that wouldn’t work.”

(Here would be a good place to note that the administration is required by city law to provide warming shelters during extreme cold, and it seems to be simply ignoring this, claiming its plan is to rely on existing shelters, which do not have enough room.)

Wooden beds? Salvation Army has stepped into a huge challenge – akin to trying to fix a flying airplane. Adding to the lift is the fact that it has had to improve some of the most basic elements of the operation, such as workable beds.

Perine described problems with beds at both Cannon Street and Trent shelters.

At Trent, his organization will be replacing wooden beds with 350 metal beds and metal “pony wall” partitions. The wooden beds had been built and installed by the Guardians. In addition to taking up more space, the wooden bed frames are susceptible to infestations of bed bugs.

The problems didn’t end there. At the Cannon Street shelter, the beds are breaking regularly, Perine said.

“The beds are not designed for adults,” he said. “They are bunk beds designed for teens.”

Additionally, too many bunk beds have been crammed into the shelter, he said.

“There are too many beds in the space for safe habitation,” he said “There is no space for meals or resource help.”

Improvements: In the 42 days since taking over shelter operations, the Salvation Army has implemented numerous steps that Perine highlighted. He did not criticize the previous operators, but the implicit message was clear that operating standards needed to be improved.

Immediately after the Salvation Army stepped in, during the first week of November, the number of people using the shelter jumped dramatically – from an average of 160 a night to 250, Perine said.

The organization has retained more than 40 employees from the Guardians and added 74 more. It has also added storage space for residents and office space, and is offering bus passes and laundry tickets to residents so they can have their clothes cleaned.

The efforts to establish access to services for people are in the early stages. Layne Pavey, with Revive Counseling, described it as akin to drinking from a firehouse.

Hot water: The conversion of a warehouse without indoor plumbing into a shelter has been managed with porta-potties and outdoor hand-washing stations. Showers are available in a trailer facility.

This is more or less the bathroom setup at Camp Hope.

The hand-washing stations and showers aren’t suited for freezing weather, Perine said. The hand-washing stations have frozen during the recent cold weather – even as many in the shelter have been sick with viral, seasonal illnesses.

The Salvation Army is going to increase the showers available in outside trailers, from six to eight. It also plans to double the number of hand-washing stations from five to 10, with five of those being inside where they can’t freeze. Perine said the service provider of the stations was still working on a solution to allow the outdoor hand-washing stations to work when it’s freezing.

Maxed out: City administrator Johnnie Perkins said the city has spent all it can spend on homelessness, and it’s time for other governments to share the burden.

“The city’s ability to go further is done,” he said. “We need support from our regional partners.”

While other cities in the region should help, the elephant in this particular room is Spokane County. The county recently contributed $500,000 to operations at Trent. That money is helping to replace the wooden beds, among other things.

That half-million was among very few significant contributions from the county in memory, and it’s beyond miniscule compared to the efforts of the city – to say nothing of the state’s $25 million investment in trying to move the residents of Camp Hope into housing.

(There is talk now racing about the community that a truly regional approach, with the support of elected officials – from the mayor to the county commission – may be in the offing. Making that happen should be the community’s New Year’s Resolution.)

It’s what kind of center? The mayor has called the Trent site a “navigation center” built on the Houston plan. The Houston system – admirable in many ways – does indeed rely on navigation centers to help people move out of homelessness.

For purposes of comparison, here is some of what’s available in Houston’s signature navigation center, known as The Beacon: a commercial kitchen preparing three hot meals a day, served in a cafeteria; an on-site laundry service; computer and phone access; mail services; case management workers and robust on-site access to legal help, social services, medical care, treatment providers and housing navigators who work to move people quickly into permanent housing.

Not to mention indoor bathrooms and private showers.

Editor’s note: This story was changed on Dec. 16, 2022 to correct the spelling Ken Perine, executive director of the Salvation Army in Spokane.

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