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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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What’s straining Spokane’s homeless shelter capacity? It’s complicated

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)

After the contentious closure of a temporary warming shelter last week, the Spokane City Council and Mayor Nadine Woodward have come to at least one clear agreement: Spokane needs more shelter beds.

City Council members demanded answers from Woodward last week about the closure of the temporary shelter – which she said was due to damage and upcoming events already scheduled for the convention center – and plans for a replacement. The shelter, which operated for two weeks during inclement weather, had more than 100 guests the night before its closure, with a peak use of 343 people.

Woodward held a press conference last week to outline her administration’s struggles to find a suitable location for a shelter within the parameters it has set for the search – including that it be away from businesses, schools and daycares.

“What my position was, even coming into this office, was that I didn’t think we should continue to build more low-barrier shelters. That comes at a high cost to our taxpayers,” Woodward said. “But I have reassessed that philosophy and see that we do need more low-barrier space.”

On Monday, the day following the Convention Center shelter’s closure, the citywide capacity report showed zero low-barrier beds available in shelters for adult men, shelters for adult women, and in co-ed adult shelters. Of the 40 hotel rooms the city has made available for the winter, only four went unused that night.

Why are shelters – particularly low-barrier ones without requirements like sobriety – full?

Here are a few factors straining shelter capacity.

The way out

The Salvation Army operated a low-barrier shelter with 102 beds on West Mission Avenue earlier in the COVID-19 pandemic, adding much-needed beds that had been lost in the shelter system due to social distancing requirements.

Spokane County purchased the building in 2020 and handed it off to The Salvation Army, which closed it last year and carried out renovations to the building.

Now, it’s reopening as a transitional bridge housing program envisioned as the final stop before a person finds permanent housing.

The Way Out Center, as it is known, should have 60 beds. Right now, it has 16.

The shelter got off to a later-than-expected start last year after City Council members insisted that The Salvation Army sign a “good neighbor agreement” to satiate the concerns of businesses and residents before making a five-year funding commitment. The Salvation Army questioned why it’s being told to sign such an agreement when it has not been required of any other shelter in Spokane.

Eventually, the City Council agreed to the funding commitment, and to circle back to the good neighbor agreement.

An agreement has yet to be signed and, on Monday, the City Council narrowly shot down a proposed commitment of $1 million to partially fund The Way Out Center’s startup costs.

Council members Karen Stratton and Michael Cathcart continue to advocate for a policy for good neighbor agreements with shelters citywide.

“Other cities have done it; we can do it,” Cathcart said on Thursday.

Workers

The Salvation Army’s more immediate challenge is staffing.

It struggled to hire staff over the holidays, according to Salvation Army Maj. Ken Perine, but now “we’re ramping up.”

The Way Out Center is not the only shelter with staffing issues.

Hope House women’s shelter operated for much of the early winter at limited capacity. It opened a new building last year and expanded capacity from 60 to 80 beds, but there was a lag in hiring staff, according to Fawn Schott, CEO of Volunteers of America of Eastern Washington and Northern Idaho, which operates the shelter.

And as COVID-19 cases surge in the community, staff members are increasingly absent.

The pandemic has been particularly hard on the shelter’s workforce, which is more than 80% female, many of whom “are hugely impacted by the reality of (having) school-age kids.”

“When schools are shut down or in limbo or there are not enough daycare slots in the community, it makes working impossible for them,” Schott said.

COVID-19 has also impacted Catholic Charities’ House of Charity shelter.

With support from the Department of Health, it launched a pilot program last year to relax social distancing requirements and expand capacity to 135 beds.

With the rise in cases due to the omicron variant, the shelter has reverted to its previous social distancing requirements, according to Catholic Charities spokesperson Sarah Yerden.

Empty beds

City officials often maintain that beds are available in the system – but some shelters have more open beds than others.

Union Gospel Mission routinely has beds available in its men’s and women’s shelters. But they are not considered low-barrier, as they do not allow guests who are not sober to stay overnight except in an emergency.

Although capacity has been tighter this week, Truth Ministries also routinely has beds available. It is located on East Sprague Avenue, away from downtown and apart from any other shelters.

The new, regionally funded young adult shelter in East Spokane – also operated by Volunteers of America – was lauded as a much-needed addition to the system when it opened last year.

But, so far, it’s routinely had about three dozen or more beds open on any given night. Schott attributes the empty beds to the move to a new location near Spokane Community College late last year.

“We’re still exploring to try to figure out with outreach teams if there’s different things we can do to market that and get the word of mouth out,” said Schott.

People are stuck

As The Spokesman-Review recently documented, the housing crisis has not spared the lowest rungs of the market.

Rapid rehousing programs, which offer financial support to swiftly place the homeless back into a home, have been stymied by a lack of available housing inventory and low apartment vacancy rates in Spokane.

Likewise is the case for federally funded housing vouchers, which have a yearslong waitlist in Spokane. Even those with a voucher often have a hard time finding a landlord who will accept one.

It’s a problem Eric Finch, interim director of Neighborhood, Housing, and Human Services, has learned the scope of since taking the helm last year.

Shelter providers have told Finch that “there’s potentially double-digits (of people) within their groups that are ready to move on or really go to that next place, but they’re just not available,” Finch said.

Temperatures declining

The 2021 Point-In-Time Count, an annual census of the homeless, was hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic and did not include the usual outreach to people living on the street.

The City Council has called on Woodward’s administration to develop an estimate for the number of unsheltered people living in Spokane, but it has not.

To many advocates for the homelessness, the high use of the Convention Center was proof that more beds are needed and homelessness is on the rise.

“That tells me that we do have a greater need than we see in our existing shelters, and that is going to be exacerbated by inclement weather,” Schott said.

No new shelter

The City Council and Woodward agree that the city needs a new low-barrier shelter, with the latter reversing her campaign position after learning more about the realities of homelessness in Spokane.

The money is in hand, and officials have been on the hunt for a new shelter space for months and come up empty.

On Thursday, Woodward asked the council for help.

She implored council members to provide the administration with three options for a temporary shelter in their districts, and promised to join council members in assuaging the concerns of community members.

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