City of Spokane works to keep up with homeless problem in Spokane

SPOKANE, Wash. - Homelessness is a growing problem in Spokane, fueled in part by low vacancy across the city. City leaders are trying to keep ahead of the issue, but it's proving difficult.

"People are suffering, and will suffer more, likely die," said City Council Member Breean Beggs as he talks about homeless folks and the upcoming winter, "business owners and property owners will be beside themselves, even more than they already have been."

Those comments were made during a city council meeting on Monday night, in which more than one city council member described feeling like they were playing catch-up in responding to the House of Charity's cutback in services.

The House of Charity, run by Catholic Charities, has operated at almost triple capacity for the last 20 months, operating a 24/7 shelter in part funded by the City of Spokane. The overcrowding has become too much for the charity and for the neighborhood around the shelter, and conditions have become unsafe.

"We need to think pretty hard about the number of people with these significant barriers that we are telling to be in one place to access these services," said the city's Director of Community Housing and Human Services, Kelly Keenan.

He says his department is working with city counselors to put plans in place for a warming shelter during the winter, to provide those in need a chance to get out of the elements.

"We haven't operated warming shelters these last two seasons, as we focused on the 24/7 shelter model," he said.

That warming shelter would be a patch to get the city through until they open a more permanent shelter next July, but it's still a maybe.

"I don't want people to think this is a done deal," said Council member Karen Stratton, "it will be a rocky road until we find the money."

In other approaches to handling the homeless problem, the city continues to offer rent assistance for short and long term housing, but acknowledge the homeless problem is being exacerbated by low housing vacancy in the city.

The city has also doubled its funding for homeless outreach, adding caseworkers to meet the homeless individuals where they are at, connecting them with services they need.

"Outreach is a critical component of the city's coordinated system, its very effective at helping people exit their homeless strategies," Keenan said. "Often times those resources are necessary to help them obtain housing and maintain that housing."

He says the city is also looking into opening and supporting smaller more services specific shelters.

"We know that continuing to move towards targeted capacity shelters, which are smaller shelters tailored to the needs of the population to create flow out of the system, is in line with national best practices," he said.

He said they are still working on the location of the new shelter, but it will be outside of the downtown core.