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Spokane leaders ask for state help in finding a homeless shelter; search comes up empty

UPDATED: Mon., Jan. 10, 2022

The Spokane Convention Center is shown earlier this winter when it was used as an emergency homeless shelter because of a cold snap. A plan for a temporary homeless shelter in Hillyard was abandoned by Mayor Nadine Woodward on Monday amid fierce neighborhood opposition.  (Jordan Tolley-Turner/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW / The Spokesman-Review)
The Spokane Convention Center is shown earlier this winter when it was used as an emergency homeless shelter because of a cold snap. A plan for a temporary homeless shelter in Hillyard was abandoned by Mayor Nadine Woodward on Monday amid fierce neighborhood opposition. (Jordan Tolley-Turner/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW / The Spokesman-Review)

The city of Spokane is looking for a new emergency shelter but continues to come up empty, even after a request for help from the state’s Emergency Operations Center.

The problem, according to city officials, is that relatively few buildings are suitable to host a homeless shelter, and a hot real estate market makes those that are a good fit harder to obtain.

The city’s recent temporary shelter, which opened during frigid temperatures late last month, closed on Sunday. City leaders acknowledge that additional temporary shelter is still needed.

The city is actively searching for a space to host an emergency shelter, according to city spokesman Brian Coddington.

It recently reached out to the state’s Emergency Operations Center to request help in identifying a potential emergency warming shelter.

In turn, the Emergency Operations Center asked the state Department of Enterprise Services to assess whether any state-owned facilities would meet the city’s requirements.

The state did not have “property either leased or owned that would meet their requirements,” according to spokesperson Sarah Foster.

The city has been searching for additional emergency shelter space for months and reviewed dozens of properties but has yet to land on one, Coddington said.

The shelter would have to be appropriately zoned, have about 20,000 square feet of space, have existing bathrooms or room on-site for temporary bathrooms, and be accessible by public transportation.

The city is looking for a building that is well-distanced from schools, day cares and businesses.

While residents have suggested empty big-box stores, they tend to be in the middle of a strip mall and surrounded by other businesses.

The real estate market also has been a challenge, Coddington said. Several properties have been sold or leased before the city has even been able to initiate discussions with a broker.

Funding is not an issue.Mayor Nadine Woodward included $2.8 million in operational funding for a new low-barrier shelter in her 2022 budget, which was approved by the City Council in December.

The city is willing to open another temporary shelter while it looks for a permanent home for a new shelter, Coddington said.

The city opened the temporary warming shelter inside the Spokane Convention Center with an initial capacity of 150 people, but scaled it up to accommodate as many as 343 people at its peak. On the night prior to its closure, 148 people were in the shelter.

Advocates for the homeless have taken the temporary shelter’s robust usage as proof that the city’s existing network of shelters is inadequate.

According to city law, the city is required to open an emergency shelter whenever the low-barrier shelter system is operating at least 90% capacity or above and the forecast temperatures are below freezing. Capacity across the system was below 90%, according to Coddington.

The shelter at the Convention Center was intended to be temporary, Coddington stressed. It was closed because the center plans to host upcoming events, Coddington said. The facility’s use as a shelter resulted in damage to its bathrooms and to a ballroom carpet.

The city estimates the two-week cost of the shelter’s operation is about $400,000.

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