By Dawn Shuster and Jennifer Calvert
Because of freezing temperatures on Dec. 26, the city of Spokane opened a temporary warming facility at the Convention Center. Although it was originally intended to shelter only 150 individuals experiencing homelessness, on Jan. 6 there were more than 310 individuals at the center and an additional 160 people were staying outside in three encampments. There were only 34 beds available at the four adult-only low-barrier shelters.
At 8 a.m. Jan. 9, the city closed the temporary warming facility at the Convention Center, sending more 300 people onto the streets, even though it was only 19 degrees that morning. The city’s action violated Spokane Municipal Code 18.05.030 section B3, stating that “At no time shall the City reduce or eliminate specific night-by-night shelter beds without first having in place additional replacement shelter bed capacity sufficient to meet the requirements of SMC 18.05 unless authorized by City Council resolution.” In addition, Spokane Municipal Code 18.05.020 states that warming centers “will be activated on each day during which the temperature is predicted by the National Weather Service to be 32 degrees Fahrenheit or lower.” The overnight lows are predicted to be at 32 degrees or lower nine out of the next 10 days.
In recent months the Spokane Police Department has greatly increased its “sweeping” of unsheltered individuals. This criminalization and sweeping of unhoused individuals does not solve the condition of homelessness. Those who are consistently forced to relocate, with or without a citation, are repeatedly traumatized by this experience. These individuals who are already suffering from extreme poverty are repeatedly told to move along with no legal place outdoors where they can shelter or rest. Adding to their trauma, their lifesaving gear is often seized. Sweeping makes it more difficult for our unsheltered population to survive, connect with services, and exit homelessness. During this inclement weather and given that there are not adequate low-barrier shelter beds for the over 450 people in our city currently living unsheltered, the city needs to stop the sweeps of these individuals experiencing homelessness.
Clearly there are simply not enough low-barrier shelter beds – those that don’t screen based on income, ID or sobriety – to accommodate the existing unsheltered population, as evidenced by the overwhelming number of people who accessed the temporary warming facility at the Convention Center. Additionally, there are no day centers for men and inadequate day centers for the rest of the homeless population, and there are no places for people experiencing homelessness to legally exist during daytime hours. Many of the shelters require overnight guests to vacate the premises each morning. When the temporary shelter closed Sunday morning, where did the city expect these individuals to go?
As a short-term strategy to immediately provide shelter for people living on the streets, the League of Women Voters of the Spokane Area agrees with the Spokane Business & Commercial Property Council’s proposal that the city immediately create a “safe ground” facility that can accommodate our unsheltered population. The SBCPC offers Modesto, California, as a model where that city was successfully able to immediately move 400 individuals off the streets, where they were being swept daily, to an outdoor area with security, bathrooms, showers and trash disposal.
The city has also been promising to provide a publicly accessible dashboard that contains real-time low-barrier shelter bed availability; however, this has yet to materialize. In fact, Spokane Municipal Code 18.05.030, which was passed on July 26, 2021, requires that the city do just that. In recent days, outreach workers and employees from the city’s Community, Housing and Human Services cannot agree on the number of available low-barrier beds. This dashboard would ensure that everyone has access to the same data, which would help individuals experiencing homelessness access available beds.
The League of Women Voters of the Spokane Area urges the city take the following actions:
• Immediately find replacement low-barrier shelter bed locations for those individuals who have been housed for the past two weeks at the Convention Center warming facility.
• Substantially increase low-barrier shelter bed capacity available 24/7, including meals, for unsheltered individuals on a year-round basis.
• Provide additional day centers for unsheltered individuals to go where it is safe, warm and dry.
• Provide sanctioned public places (“safe ground” facilities) with trash disposal and restrooms, where those experiencing homelessness can set up tents and/or park vehicles.
• Create and maintain a web-based dashboard which communicates real-time low-barrier shelter bed availability.
Please provide adequate shelter for these individuals!
Dawn Shuster and Jennifer Calvert are members of the Housing/Homelessness Committee for the League of Women Voters of the Spokane Area.
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