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Warming space at convention center closes Sunday, freezing temperatures predicted this week

Jan. 9, 2022 Updated Sun., Jan. 9, 2022 at 9:01 p.m.

“I feel safe here,” says John Tyler Ensminger, right as he talks with Junior Burton of The Guardians Foundation at the temporary warming shelter at the Spokane Convention Center on Tuesday, Dec. 28, 2021. The shelter closed Sunday after remaining open for two weeks.  (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)
“I feel safe here,” says John Tyler Ensminger, right as he talks with Junior Burton of The Guardians Foundation at the temporary warming shelter at the Spokane Convention Center on Tuesday, Dec. 28, 2021. The shelter closed Sunday after remaining open for two weeks. (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)

The warming center at the Spokane Convention Center that offered refuge from recent bad weather closed Sunday, with service providers rushing to get people into shelters as temperatures continue to hover around freezing.

The Guardians Foundation and Spokane Public Facilities District worked with other city departments to keep the convention center open during a week with plummeting single-digit temperatures.

At 8 a.m. Sunday the center shuttered, and service providers as well as Guardians worked to make other arrangements for people, said city spokesperson Brian Coddington.

“It was always intended to operate as a temporary shelter,” Coddington said.

The 24-hour shelter acted as a low-barrier center for people who are often exposed to the elements, Guardians Executive Director Michael Shaw said in an interview the day the center opened two weeks ago.

The center also had a 24-hour soup kitchen and handed out donations of basic necessities like hand warmers and canned food, Shaw said.

Now that it’s closed, service providers are working to find beds in other shelters, said Stephanie Ullah, outreach specialist for Health and Justice Recovery Alliance.

“There’s not a central place that I can go to find the bed counts, and they’re not accurate,” Ullah said.

Ullah said she came to the convention center at 7 a.m. Sunday to help take people to other available beds.

Many people Ullah helped said they would have moved into a different space if there was one available, Ullah said.

“They were very confused by where they could go,” Ullah said. “They kept asking me, is there any space where can I go? … They didn’t know how to navigate from leaving there.”

Coddington said the city is searching for another location and has evaluated “dozens and dozens” of potential spaces, none of which made the cut.

“That continues,” he said. “We haven’t given up on that.”

Criteria they have to consider include access to public transportation, inhabitable space at least 20,000 square feet in size and accommodations of people’s daily living needs, according to a news release sent Sunday by the city.

Coddington said the estimated cost of running the warming shelter for the past two weeks will fall around $400,000.

He said it could take tens of thousands of dollars to repair the damage done to the center’s floors and bathrooms.

Around 150 people per day used the shelter, according to a news release from the city. At its most busy, 343 people reportedly used the space at once, Coddington said.

The night before it closed it hosted 158 people, Coddington said.

Signage was placed the week before to remind people the center planned to close Sunday morning, he said.

While the shelter stayed open during arctic cold weather and snowstorms, this week’s weather was predicted to bring patchy freezing fog. A low of 18 degrees was forecast for Sunday night, according to the National Weather Service Spokane office.

There was also a slight chance of snow and rain in the forecast, the weather service said.

Ullah said the need seen at the warming center highlighted a larger housing need within Spokane.

“They make everybody leave at eight in the morning, and where are these folks to go during the day?” Ullah said. “In my opinion, there are definitely not enough beds in the system.”

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