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January cold response taps out Spokane’s extreme weather sheltering budget

Spokane Neighborhood, Housing and Human Services Director Dawn Kinder briefs the city council, Monday, February 12.
Video screenshot via YouTube
Spokane Neighborhood, Housing and Human Services Director Dawn Kinder briefs the city council, Monday, February 12.

Spokane has committed nearly $454,000 to emergency warming centers since New Year’s Day, more than the city budgeted for extreme weather sheltering for the entire year.

The news came from Dawn Kinder, Spokane’s Neighborhood, Housing and Human Services Director, in an update to the city council this week.

The city’s allotted budget for emergency sheltering is $250,000. Documents included in the agenda package for Monday’s Urban Experience Committee meeting said all of that is now spoken for, along with $120,000 in ARPA funds from the federal government. That means city leaders will have to come up with $83,997, plus operational funding for the Cannon Street shelter. That funding is “to be determined next week,” according to the agenda documents.

In a statement to Spokane Public Radio, Mayor Lisa Brown said she anticipated there would be challenges for funding emergency shelters. Her administration is trying to learn what’s already in place and explore additional options for money.

"We’re scrutinizing the contracts we inherited to ensure we get the maximum benefit out of the resources that the Council has allocated to this purpose,” Brown said. “We are also right in the middle of the legislative session and my team is actively working to identify new sources of funding from both the state and federal level."

Most of the committed money went into contracts with service providers, including the Salvation Army, Jewels Helping Hands, Compassion Addiction Treatment and Family Promise. They were partners in the city’s response to a severe cold wave that hit the region beginning January 11. Kinder’s department said current shelter services will continue through March 1 to get through the worst anticipated winter weather.

In Monday’s city council briefing, Kinder said the rapid response went well, but should not be considered the norm.

“I’d like to not repeat the pace at which we had to accomplish things this year and have a plan going into next winter long in advance of the first cold snap,” Kinder said. “But give the circumstance we were in, things went pretty smoothly.”

Speaking to Spokane Public Radio, Councilman Michael Cathcart said paying for the current warming centers is only a start. Leaders will also have to consider how to fund shelters for the rest of the year. City code requires safe places to be opened during extreme weather events.

“We still have, obviously, smoke events that might come. We still have days where it’s really hot and we need cooling centers,” Cathcart said. “So in addition to the current issues with the spending on [the cold weather response], we’re going to have to come up with some other resources down the road.”

Cathcart said the situation points up the need for more long-range planning for critical budget items.

“I want to see us adopt a biennial budget that forces us to think long-term, sustainably, rather than just year-by-year,” the councilman said.

Cathcart added that the city should take a closer look at how it’s spending money to address homelessness. He suggested cost savings could be achieved by adopting a bigger role for volunteers, and by joining a proposed regional collaborative.

That proposal, called Spokane Unite, would create a panel made up of people from municipal and county government, health care, housing and public safety that would plan and manage collective efforts to address homelessness. Discussions about the regional approach have been largely paused since late last year.

One upside of Spokane’s January response is improved communication between city officials and homeless service providers, Kinder said. Shelter providers are also sharing more information about how many beds are available, and how to get people into those spots.

“For me, that’s really exciting, because I think historically that kind of transportation coordination on a night-to-night basis was not happening,” Kinder said.

Brandon Hollingsworth is your All Things Considered host. He has served public radio audiences for fifteen years, primarily in reporting, hosting and interviewing. His previous ports-of-call were WUOT-FM in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Alabama Public Radio. His work has been heard nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Here and Now and NPR’s top-of-the-hour newscasts.