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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Group of nonprofits, advocates urges city of Spokane to rethink policy on cooling centers as heat wave sets in

Makayla McCray uses sunscreen provided by the pop-up cooling center on Second Avenue and Madison Street on Thursday afternoon.  (Jase Picanso/The Spokesman-Review)
By Jase Picanso and Mathew Callaghan The Spokesman-Review

A group of community members and nonprofits is opening pop-up cooling centers as temperatures in the area soar, claiming in a letter that the city of Spokane’s heat response has been inadequate.

The cooling centers like one on Second Avenue and Madison Street are meant to provide water and food for anyone who needs it.

The organizations and individuals who signed the letter urged the city to follow their example of taking action with what they call the Cool Spokane movement. The initiative aims to help both housed and unhoused people have easy access to resources like food, water and shelter.

Among other requests, the letter specifically asks the city to open cooling centers when the temperature reaches 85 degrees or higher for at two days in a row or longer. The city’s threshold for centers is 95 degrees for the same stretch of time.

“The current Spokane human rights ordinances dictating emergency shelter activation requirements have proven inadequate. So many gaps in service have been left unfilled during this year’s heat wave,” the letter sent to mayor Nadine Woodward, City Administrator Johnnie Perkins and the City Council reads.

Other groups, like Spectrum Center, Latinos in Spokane, Spokane Community Against Racism, Mutual Aid Survival Squad, Shalom Ministeries, the MAC movement and many others signed the letter Wednesday.

Kirstin Davis, a spokesperson for the city, said the Spokane City Council sets such policies.

Davis said the Spokane Fire Department received nine calls for heat-related situations Monday through Wednesday.

“We expect that to increase in the next 48 hours, but we aren’t seeing any significant increases at this time, and we are confident that when those increase, we have all of the medical response necessary to take care of them.”

Still, the community saw a need, said Angel Tomeo Sam, an advocate for the Compassion Addiction Treatment nonprofit, who is part of the cooling movement.

“We know in the past the city has struggled to provide for the community during heat waves,” Sam said.

City Councilwoman Betsy Wilkerson said she was dismayed at the city’s plan.

“This is just the beginning of the hardest part of the summer,” she said. “So if we think it’s only going to be a week that we have these temperatures … we are sorely mistaken.”

Wilkerson said she would consider voting in favor of the suggestions from the letter.

“I hadn’t really thought about how hot the blacktop gets … how it holds the heat in. But when we wrote the ordinance, we didn’t take that into consideration,” she said of the city’s rule on cooling centers. “But I think it’s something we should look at. And that might mean us going back revising the ordinance.”

Other City Council members couldn’t immediately be reached for comment Thursday.

At the cooling center on Second and Madison on Thursday afternoon, Mariah Villanpando, an advocate for the Health and Justice Recovery alliance, was managing a booth with volunteer Thomas Savage.

If nonprofits and ordinary citizens could come together to help, Villanpando said, who knows what the impact would be “if we actually had the help from the city they said they were going to give.”

“We’re just trying to come together and fill those gaps as much as we can with community volunteers,” Villanpando said.

Savage said he felt compelled to help rather than stay isolated in his own cool environment.

“I’m sitting at home with a nice air conditioner and I know there’s people on the streets that don’t have that same luxury,” Savage said.

In the blazing heat of midday, a man adorned with a cross necklace, sunglasses, red shirt and dark shorts rode up to the cooling center on his bike.

The man, Aaron Mikes, believes it’s great that nonprofits in the Spokane area are providing water and food for all members of the community.

“I don’t like to sit and dwell on things that don’t make me happy,” Mikes said.

Another member of the community who lives in a tent near the cooling station managed by Savage and Villanpando had a simple message for other homeless people: “Be respectful,” Oliver Stewart said. “Clean up your stuff.”

Stewart said he believes the biggest problem the city has with the homeless population is a lot of them do not clean up after themselves.

Stewart also said he believes the mayor’s office is not doing enough to help the homeless.

Georgina Bronowski walked up to the cooling center, saying the refuge “means a lot, really.”

“I’m, like, dying right now … It’s really hot out,” Bronowski said with a bit of a chuckle.

She is concerned not enough people are aware the cooling centers exist.

“They’re stuck wherever they’re at,” she said, “like under the bridges down by the Tiki Lodge, there’s a bunch of people down there that don’t know about this.”

To Bronowski, even something as simple as spreading flyers could help those most at risk.

Advocates said each day hundreds of individuals are already being helped by the resources provided by the Cool Spokane Movement. Team members like Stephanie Ullah from the Health and Justice Recovery Alliance are going to locations like parks to look for homeless people in need struggling in the heat. Ullah offers these individuals food and water, and a ride to a cooling center. She was delivering meal boxes from CHAS to the cooling center at Second and Madison .

“It’s really been a collaborative group effort,” Tomeo Sam said.

Carmen Pacheco-Jones, the executive director of Health and Justice Recovery Alliance, feels that city cooling centers are not good resources for homeless people as they are being stigmatized there.

“It was very disheartening to see the city tell individuals to go to libraries and things like splash pads,” Jones said.

Jones said these people don’t have access to clean clothes, and are right away judged in these locations.

But Davis said in a statement that “people have been accessing available resources through the heat wave whether it’s going to the mall, heading to the libraries, hitting the splash pads early in the morning.”

“People are adjusting their daily behaviors to deal with it,” she said.

Still, Wilkerson expressed frustration with the Woodward administration. She pointed out that the city’s planned homeless shelter on Trent Avenue is still unopened, and city cooling centers are far enough to make some people uncomfortable leaving the large Camp Hope encampment at Second and Ray Street.

“The mayor says, you know, they don’t want to make homelessness comfortable,” she said. “But being out in this type of weather is not comfortable for anybody.”

“I’m frustrated that we haven’t partnered with those folks who are meeting a need for the citizens who live in Spokane,” she added.

S-R reporter Greg Mason contributed to this article.