The backlash was swift.
Rumors spread in early January that an emergency homeless shelter could be located at a former Albertsons grocery store on 37th Avenue.
They were quickly batted down as false by city officials, but the tornado of opposition served as a firm reminder that it’s a formidable challenge to open a homeless shelter without meeting resistance from the people who live and work around it.
Advocates are pressing Nadine Woodward to open a new emergency shelter at least through the winter, but she says she’s likely to run into not-in-my-backyard attitudes wherever it goes.
Woodward supports the concept of a new shelter, but has yet to land on a location.
“Wherever you try to locate a shelter, we’ve seen pushback in certainly the two years that I’ve been in office,” Woodward said.
Not-so-distant-history supports her claim.
After COVID-19 forced existing homeless shelters to increase social distancing measures and limit their capacity, Spokane County deployed its federal aid dollars to purchase a building at 55 W. Mission Ave.
The Salvation Army was tapped to operate the temporary shelter, with plans to eventually convert it into a regionally funded “bridge housing program,” the last step on a journey out of homelessness with more rigorous requirements of its guests than a traditional low-barrier shelter.
Concerns aired by the neighborhood threatened that long-term plan, and the City Council members – who fielded calls and emails from constituents – complained the shelter was hastily opened and without input from the neighborhood.
After significant consternation voiced by council members, the council approved a five-year funding commitment to the new bridge housing shelter, dubbed the Way Out Center, but continue to push for it to sign a good neighbor agreement. They’ve also required that the building never be used for emergency shelter like the type for which the city is currently looking.
Although there is no clear template for a good neighbor agreement in Spokane, the general concept is for it to set mutual expectations between the shelter and surrounding neighborhood in regards to issues like on-site security.
The Salvation Army has steadfastly refused to sign an agreement, and the nonprofit’s leaders have questioned why it’s being asked to sign an agreement that existing shelters never have.
Councilwoman Karen Stratton said the city initially facilitated conversations between the shelter and the surrounding Emerson-Garfield neighborhood, but they died down.
“The city, we failed,” Stratton said.
The Woman’s Club of Spokane briefly served a temporary shelter last spring. The matter roiled the neighborhood and the small club, leaders of which claimed the building was only turned over to homeless services provider Jewels Helping Hands in error.
It was the second time that winter the nonprofit drew the ire of neighbors .
Previously, it had run a shelter inside City Church in the Garland District, which neighbors said failed to live up to the promises the nonprofit’s leaders made when they moved in.
And in the waning days of his administration in 2019, former Mayor David Condon proposed a new shelter on East Sprague Avenue. Support among members of the City Council – who had initially approved a tentative purchase agreement on the property – dwindled after concerns were raised that the shelter would sit adjacent to a nonprofit that offers day services to adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
As it continues the monthslong search for a new shelter, the Woodward administration has faced questions about why it is focused on finding a single, large building instead of smaller, neighborhood-based shelters.
Her answer, in part, is based on the fear of neighborhood reaction.
“Trying to find one location is difficult,” Woodward said. “I can’t imagine being that successful.”
Locating a new shelter is difficult, but the alternative – not opening a shelter – is “also a NIMBY issue,” said Council President Breean Beggs. It leads to unsheltered people sleeping in downtown doorways and in encampments near the river.
“There’s no perfect way to do it that people aren’t going to be complaining,” Beggs said. “If you have a process that has a semblance of rationality and fairness, then you do everything you can to mitigate (neighborhood impacts) and you’re transparent as you can be about it, that’s all you can do.”
Stratton said she’s tired of the excuse that shelters will meet resistance from neighborhoods.
“We don’t have good neighbor agreements, other cities do, and at least have enough respect for all of the players to have them talking to each other and what the expectations are,” Stratton said.
Volunteers of America is often noted for its positive relationships with neighborhoods surrounding its shelters, including Hope House and Crosswalk.
Fawn Schott, CEO of Volunteers of America of Eastern Washington and Northern Idaho, noted that its shelters serve populations – such as women and young adults – that tend to garner more sympathy from prospective neighbors.
Still, Schott noted that it sites shelters – such as the new young adult shelter near Spokane Community College – with great care and consideration of what’s around it. The nonprofit engages with neighborhood councils early and often. Once open, it reminds guests that they are part of a neighborhood and what those responsibilities entail. Neighbors are provided with a 24/7 phone number to call in case of an emergency.
“We’re active and engaged,” Schott said.
All of that work, however, takes time. And that’s something the city doesn’t have much of.
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