Changes are coming to homeless shelters in Spokane. The city and charitable organizations are exploring new strategies to address homelessness.
The House of Charity, Spokane’s largest shelter, will reduce the number of people it sleeps, beginning Sept. 1. Those beds won’t be replaced until the city opens a new shelter in nine months or so. Many social service advocates are concerned about what that will mean for homeless people this fall and winter.
Until January 2016, the House of Charity, operated by Catholic Charities and funded by the city of Spokane, sheltered 109 men at night. They all slept on the second floor of the two-story building. When the building was transformed into a 24/7 shelter, the first floor became not only a dining hall and social area, it also became a sleeping area, catering to men, women and their animals. The shelter essentially tripled its population to more than 300.
“Over the past two winters, for the first time in probably the history of the city of Spokane, we basically slept everybody indoors," said Rob McCann, president of Catholic Charities. "You would have a hard time over the past two winters finding homeless people sleeping outside at all.”
But all this took its toll.
“The staff became quickly overwhelmed, but also our block," said McCann. "Our neighbors who are business owners on the block have been overwhelmed by just the number of people. There are lots of people in this crowd and that’s a big burden. What’s good for downtown Spokane, the Apple Store and the Riverfront Park Mall has been challenging for our block and the House of Charity.”
Heather Schleigh, the director of the House of Charity, gives me a tour. As we approach, a lot of people are loitering outside. This is a point of contention in the neighborhood. Schleigh acknowledges the complaints and hopes the police will start to help clear the area when it no longer operates 24/7.
As we go inside, she shows me the area downstairs.
“This is where the men sleep," she says, motioning to a large dining hall. "There are about 70-80 mats. Then we have women’s mats in there, there and there. So this place is covered with people sleeping, and a lot of snoring. The building was never intended to be used that way.”
I ask, “You’re still going to have women down here?"
Schleigh replies, “We are. And that was our commitment. We did not want to displace the women.”
The shelter will close during the afternoon for cleaning. At night it will still house more than 100 men upstairs, but the men downstairs will be gone. Where they will go, remains a point of contention.
Kelly Keenan is Spokane’s director of the Community, Housing and Human Services Department. He says the reduction in capacity will be temporary, because the city is opening a new shelter in July that will sleep over 100 people. This, however, leaves a nine-month gap.
“What we learned over the past 20 months is that concentrating that number of people, who are facing very difficult circumstances, in one place is not a healthy and dignified solution," Keenan said.
But, the fact is, the city will lose around 100 shelter beds for a nine-month period, including during the coldest time of the year. Keenan says the city will still operate warming centers during the coldest nights.
There are other shelters in Spoakne with room, but they are not “low-barrier” shelters where everybody is welcome. The Union Gospel Mission, for example, has stricter requirements, including a commitment to sobriety. Phil Altmeyer is the executive director.
“When you have homeless people, where addiction is the number one reason why a lot of them are homeless, and they are trying to change their lifestyle and get some help, it’s pretty hard to break those addictive behaviors when you put someone trying to stop with someone who is still using," Altmeyer said. "So we’ve chosen to be the shelters in town that are for those people who want life change and want help, and we are there for them.”
McCann sees it differently.
“We will help you stop drinking if you would like to try and stop, but we won’t take away your basic human dignity because you can’t stop drinking," said McCann. "Are we worried that people who are drinking are going to cause the ones who are not to fall off the wagon? We’ve never seen that. In fact what we see is the exact opposite. What we see is people in the building rally around that one guy who can’t stop drinking and help support him to stop.”
Even after the changes, the House of Charity will remain low-barrier.
“It’s about serving human beings," said McCann. "I don’t care where you’re from. I don’t care what you’re religion is, I don’t care what your sexual orientation is, I don’t care what your nationality is. You’re welcome at Catholic Charities and we’re going to serve you every time.”
Schleigh says her staff is communicating with people staying at the shelter to help make the transition go as smoothly as possible.