As someone who's been homeless in Spokane, Harold Carpenter has seen the same story play out again and again.
First, a homeless shelter closes. Then, the city promises there will be a new shelter soon. But unforeseen obstacles get in the way, and by the time the first snow falls, the city is still scrambling to find shelter space.
It happened in 2018, prompting activists and people who were homeless to demand more shelter space and form a tent city outside City Hall.
It happened in 2019, when the city — failing to meet its goal to have a new shelter running that summer — couldn't add enough space in temporary warming centers until late December.
And each time, it's forced Carpenter, who says he's been homeless since his wife died four years ago, to sleep out on the streets.
"You just tough it," Carpenter says. "You just go outside, and you try to get out of the rain or the snow or whatever."
So will this winter be any different?
Elected leaders, city officials and shelter providers tell the Inlander that they're optimistic. Oddly enough, they credit the COVID-19 crisis. The pandemic, they say, has ignited more regional collaboration between city and county officials, and it's unlocked federal dollars used to address homelessness, resulting in an additional 102-bed shelter on Mission Avenue that opened this August — a triumph in the region's plan to address homelessness that's been years in the making.
"I think the pandemic really helped us. At the beginning of this year, we really came together as a region in the emergency operations center, working out of there with all the jurisdictions, all the elected [leaders], to address all of the issues that came along with the pandemic, including homelessness," says Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward. "We were kind of forced into it."
But not everyone is as optimistic about shelter space this winter, when demand inevitably grows. The Mission shelter, operated by the Salvation Army, is already turning away around a dozen people each night, says manager Gerriann Armstrong. While the city plans to open more warming centers, it's unclear how those will be paid for with the city's budget stretched thin due to the pandemic.
Today, there's a total of 450 low-barrier bed spaces in the shelter system. That's more than last year at this time, but it's still short of the peak capacity of 519 spaces needed last winter, according to the city's shelter capacity report. And even then, the peak capacity of last year may not be enough in a year of a pandemic. Shelters are already full, and adding space beyond what was required in previous years may be difficult for the region's homelessness response system to do.
"I am worried that the demand for shelter beds is going to exceed what we're planning for," says Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs.
IN IT TOGETHER
Woodward's celebration and support of new shelter space may come as a surprise to followers of her 2019 tough-on-homelessness mayoral campaign. A year ago, she criticized the city's plans for a new low-barrier emergency shelter, arguing that such shelters don't provide the personal "accountability" needed to lift people out of homelessness. She had similar criticisms of Housing First, a model touted by the Housing and Urban Development department that considers housing as the necessary first step to treat underlying conditions of homelessness like mental illness and drug addiction.
Yet Spokane's current plan, which Woodward supports, relies on both low-barrier shelters and Housing First programs. But Woodward insists her position has never wavered. She says she still believes that "temporary drop-in shelters" aren't the answer, and that there "needs to be accountability" along with mental health and drug treatment. Crucially, she points out that the Mission shelter will eventually provide that accountability: Next year it will transition into a bridge shelter, meaning guests will have to be referred there and receive case management.
In the meantime, she says no-barrier shelters that don't require sobriety are necessary in the cold.
"We can't have people freezing on the streets," she says. "That's something we will always provide."
Early on in her tenure as mayor, however, the city took criticism for once again forcing homeless people onto the street. The city abruptly closed a shelter on Cannon Street at the end of April that briefly resulted in a tent city forming in nearby Coeur d'Alene Park in the Browne's Addition neighborhood, where those in the shelter were told they could go by the shelter operator, Jewels Helping Hands. To members of the City Council, it looked like the issues from former Mayor David Condon's administration had carried over to Woodward. Within months, the council passed a law that now prevents the city from closing a homeless shelter without a replacement plan.
But Beggs says that overall, he's been able to find plenty of common ground with Woodward. For instance, he too supports the plan for a bridge shelter as a way to get people into stable housing while receiving services. He adds that Woodward's campaign rhetoric hasn't had an impact on her policies.
"She's paying for and operating no-barrier shelters right now, and she's not complaining about it, or fighting about it," Beggs says.
Woodward, who previously spent nearly 30 years as a local TV news anchor, does admit that she's experienced a steep learning curve since coming into office. For instance, when she took over as mayor, she didn't know about Spokane's Continuum of Care board, a collection of regional stakeholders, service providers and people who have experienced homelessness that aims to address the issue.
"Coming into office, I wanted to set up a task force on this issue. But then I realized we had this Continuum of Care group," she says. "Instead of setting a task force that would be a duplicate of the efforts they're putting out, I thought it was important that we get electeds together so that we make decisions that are aligned with what the Continuum of Care board is suggesting for our region."
What the Continuum of Care board is suggesting can be found in its recently finalized five-year plan to end homelessness by 2025. That plan says that low-barrier shelters "play an important role" in the system, and that "the city-funded emergency shelter system is Housing-First." It adds that by 2025, the goal is to add emergency shelter space, like the current Mission shelter, along with shelters targeted toward specific demographics. A new young adult shelter (for 18- to 24-year-olds) that the city wants to establish would serve as an example of the latter.
Pam Tietz, the board's chairwoman, applauds the coordination between the city and county governments in seeing some of the goals come to fruition. The board's current governance structure was implemented in 2017, and she says that laid the groundwork for coordination between the county and the city, giving both common language and goals moving forward. The major change this year, she says, is that the pandemic created a greater sense of urgency.
Plus, the county is able to use money from the CARES Act to invest in facilities within the city, like the Mission shelter. That shelter alone should prevent at least some last-minute desperation for shelter space this winter.
"I think this year, unlike previous years, we won't be scrambling," Tietz says. "I think we've got a plan."
However, the Mission shelter, combined with other existing shelters, won't be enough. Though the warming centers opened late last year, they added hundreds of shelter spaces by January — combining for an overall shelter capacity that would eclipse the shelter capacity today. That's why the city and regional stakeholders know they need to add more warming center space before winter comes.
And that's where the pandemic may complicate things.
FINDING THE MONEY
Autumn and Jae Ives lost their home two years ago. Ever since, the couple has been trying to get back on their feet. They've cycled in and out of shelters, and sometimes stayed outside camping while Jae had a job at Burger King, which was their only source of income.
"We were doing OK," Autumn says. "Then COVID hit, and he lost his job."
Now, they're at the Mission shelter — the only place they can stay as a couple. And they don't know when they'll have their own place again.
"We're not trying to spend Christmas here," Autumn says.
Gerriann Armstrong, the shelter manager, says she's already seeing ways the pandemic is causing homelessness. Either people were already homeless and struggling to find a job or housing, or they're just now losing their homes.
"We are seeing more and more folks that have not been in the shelter system, who are brand new to seeking shelter and things like that," she says. "So that is definitely a concern."
That concern is shared anecdotally among those working closely with people experiencing homelessness. While it's hard to find statistics on homelessness locally, at least until next year's Point-in-Time count, city officials worry the number of people who are homeless is growing.
"I think we have had an increase," says Tietz, who's also the executive director of the Spokane Housing Authority. "What I worry about is, what happens when the eviction moratorium has lifted?"
That can make it hard to plan for adequate shelter space. Tim Sigler, director of the city's Community Housing and Human Services Board, says it's hard to say whether there will be enough space this winter or not because it depends on the demographics. In the past, families and single women typically have been able to find shelter in the winter, while shelter fills up fast for adult men.
If the number of people seeking shelter this winter hasn't drastically increased, however, Sigler is more confident that the city is prepared. The city, on behalf of the Continuum of Care, has already begun the process to find an operator to run the shelter at Cannon Street like last year.
"Once we get the Cannon site up and operational, that will get us very close to what capacity normally is," Sigler says.
Plus, Armstrong says the Mission shelter may increase its winter capacity from 102 to 120. Still, Beggs says the council is urging the administration to be prepared for more overflow warming center space if needed. And though the process has already started to find an organization to run the Cannon site, it remains unclear how that will be paid for.
Beggs says the mayor's proposed budget summary, presented to council members in September, shows a $3 million budget deficit for 2021. And that summary didn't account for at least another $2 million that would be spent on opening overflow warming centers. Woodward says the administration is still in the process of identifying where that money would come from, and if there's a way to open Cannon and potentially other warming centers at a lower cost. She didn't rule out dipping into reserve funds if need be.
"That's something we've had to do in the past," Woodward says. "We certainly don't want to, but if we have to, we might have to."
For Beggs, it's not even a question. Just like it's a no brainer to spend money combating wildfires, it's a no brainer that the city will pay for the Cannon shelter and other warming centers, he says. That just means that the city budget will find itself in further trouble.
"It's not a question of are we going to open Cannon or not. Yes, we are."
"If there's a 911 call, you have to answer. If it's a serious matter of life or death — and shelter is that — we just have to treat it the same way."
But what if that still doesn't come close to meeting the need? What if the city needs to spend millions more to open other warming centers just to keep people alive?
In the past, Beggs says the previous city administration would cut off extra spending like that, despite the council feeling that it was necessary. So far, he says, Woodward's administration hasn't given an indication that will happen again. Yet that remains his top concern: Despite better regional coordination and planning, the city will again be desperate to add shelter space this winter, without the resources to do so.
"If there's a 911 call, you have to answer," he says. "If it's a serious matter of life or death — and shelter is that — we just have to treat it the same way."
Gerriann Armstrong first met Harold Carpenter nearly two years ago. Armstrong, operating a warming center for the Salvation Army, says Carpenter was a guest there and he wasn't in good shape. He struggled with his health, physically and mentally, and he seemed resigned to the possibility of one day dying outside in the cold.
"He was one that I was afraid wouldn't make it through this last winter," Armstrong says.
Thankfully, he made it. But it was hard, Carpenter says.
"I've just been trying to stay alive out there," he says.
Carpenter says he just wants to settle down. He's from Sandpoint and moved to Spokane 30 years ago, where he lived up to his name and, yes, worked as a carpenter, he says. His wife died of cancer, he says, and he became homeless. When he's been forced to sleep on the streets, he's had his belongings stolen, and sometimes that includes Social Security cards and his ID, which he needs to seek employment and housing. It's why he's grateful for the Mission shelter.
"You have to come into places like this to get your act back together," Carpenter says.
Today, he's getting treatment at Frontier Behavioral Health, and he's working on getting into a home.
"My dream is to see Harold in an apartment, sitting in a La-Z-Boy, watching a big screen TV and enjoying the rest of being a senior," Armstrong says.
What Carpenter craves the most is stability. And that's been the hardest thing to come by. He's lost count of all the different homeless shelters he's been to, of all the different alleyways or hidden places where he's set up for the night. He wants to end this cycle of chaos he's been through the last few years in the city he chose to live in.
"I am in my older years now," he says. "I don't want to go anywhere. I'm tired. I'm real tired." ♦