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Shawn Vestal: Snow flies, and city is still seeking answers to shelter crisis

November 11, 2018

The temperatures had just peaked above 40 degrees on Wednesday, boosted by the bright sun.

Zach was bundled up in clothing, coats and a blanket, curled up on his side under the railroad overpass on Lincoln Street, eyes closed, head resting on his knapsack.

He opened his eyes as we approached. When asked where he’d spent the previous night, when temperatures had sunk to 32 degrees, he jabbed a thumb northward, indicating another spot a couple of blocks away that was, basically, the same spot: On the street.

“I just didn’t have anywhere else to go last night,” said Zach, who did not want to offer his last name.

A couple of blocks away, a homeless woman named Christine, who’s been on the streets for 15 months, said she’d spent the previous night in a little “cubbyhole” in a doorway. “I felt safe there,” she said.

Parking lots, underpasses, cubbyholes, hiding places, camps in the woods – Spokane’s homeless population is trying to find places to stay warm as it gets cold. Crowds of panhandlers have gathered on street corners where single individuals used to fly a sign. Homeless people have spread away from the city center into parts of town where it’s historically been less common to see them. And complaints about safety and nuisance problems, especially in some pockets downtown, have intensified.

In the two months since the city lost around 100 shelter beds, there’s been slow progress toward replacing them this winter – even as freezing nights and the first snowfall has arrived. The city is planning to build a shelter to open next year, but temporary solutions in the interim have been slow to emerge.

The city is ready to expand some shelter capacity for women and families with minor children. As for single men – who make up a significant part of the population no longer sheltered at the House of Charity – “we are continuing to work with several community centers and churches on a network of sites that can serve households without children, and we will bring those added components to Council as soon as we can,” city spokeswoman Julie Happy wrote in a message to me.

That answer isn’t all that different from the answer the city gave to its strategy two months ago, when it closed the 24/7 program at House of Charity. And it isn’t much different than what officials had to say in July, when the decision was first announced.

But the city received few answers from community nonprofits and organizations when it put out a call for proposals for shelter space this winter, said Kelly Keenan, who oversees a wide range of homelessness programs at the city. And now staff are scrambling to develop other options – including the possibility of using community centers in neighborhoods as warming shelters.

If there is frustration at the pace of progress, it’s not because the city isn’t committed to finding ways to keep people sheltered this winter, he said. The plan for this winter is still to find warming shelters to serve everyone who needs them, and on all nights – not just the coldest ones.

“In no way is there a lack of a commitment to doing something this winter,” he said. “It’s later than we want it to be, there’s no doubt about it. But I can tell you we’re working really hard on it.”

Already freezing

The city launched an ambitious effort two years ago to provide a place to sleep for anyone who needs it, at all times. The first effort to meet that 24/7 shelter goal essentially put all the burden on the House of Charity, and that didn’t work – it caused problems both inside the overcrowded shelter and in the surrounding neighborhood.

The city now plans to build a new shelter, with the goal of having it available by next summer. It has also increased its budget for homeless services in the upcoming budget year, and is embarking on a new approach to contracting out services, taking proposals from organizations that will result in five-year contracts being awarded for a wide array of services, including shelters, housing and job skill training.

These longer contracts represent a change in business at the city that is intended to break the continual short-term cycle of one-year contracts, making it possible for groups to take a longer-term approach and measure efforts more effectively.

But the short-term crisis that resulted from the changes at the House of Charity, and the fact that the city hasn’t yet solved that crisis, has left some members of the City Council frustrated.

“We’ve already had freezing temperatures,” said Councilwoman Kate Burke. “It really worries me, what folks are going to do.”

In August, Burke put Keenan on the spot at a council meeting. “The interim plan is there is no plan,” she said. “These people are going to be suffering and it’s going to be a very bad state for the most vulnerable people out there on our streets.”

Councilman Breean Beggs said the City Council has committed to spending what’s necessary to shelter people over the winter months, but has been awaiting a concrete plan for the city.

“At this point, it’s more of an operational issue,” he said. “Council has said we will fund what needs to be funded. We just need an operational plan to do it.”

‘Wits’ end’

Kristine has been sleeping on the streets for 15 months, part of a spiral of problems that she said grew from her drug addiction.

She and others I interviewed last week on the streets were quite familiar with the problems that led to the changes at the House of Charity – because homeless people were as often as not the victims, too. That was one reason officials cited for the change; it wasn’t safe or dignified for the homeless population.

During the two years that the shelter was accepting everyone, sober or not, problems erupted both inside and outside the shelter. During the daytime, the neighborhood around the HOC became a tangle of problems – crime, drug use, nuisance complaints.

“Ever since they cut back, there’s definitely been less crime there,” Kristine said, standing in a Spokane alleyway with her rolling suitcase and an unlit half a cigarette in hand.

The downside, she said, is winter’s on the way. Though she hasn’t stayed in that shelter – she said she feels safer on the streets by herself – she said significant numbers of people just don’t have anywhere to go.

And the crime and nuisance problems haven’t vanished, either, as business owners have grown greatly frustrated, Burke said.

“They’re really at their wits’ end,” she said. “We can’t put all the burden on downtown businesses.”

Meanwhile, below-freezing temperatures are forecast almost every night this coming week.

Zach, who was sleeping on a sidewalk under the overpass last week, was as bundled as can be, and trying to catch the midday sun with the mercury in the low 40s – and still he seemed to be losing the battle to stay warm.

How does he stay warm enough at night?

“Sometimes I don’t,” he said.

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