In a wobbly ring around the perimeter of the room, huddled in layers of sweaters and jackets, homeless people, social advocates and the press remember, silently, the Spokane homeless who have died in the last 10 years. Sheets of paper with photocopied illustrations of tombstones line the walls and cover the windows. Each tombstone contains a name: Corby West, Willie Castama, Henry White.
Marilee Roloff, who works with Volunteers of America and the Crosswalk center, pipes up at one end of the room. "The kinds of stories we're telling today -- they're all preventable," she says. A handful of the people whose names are listed on the walls died of a very simple cause: exposure to inhospitable weather. "That's what breaks my heart."
A moment later, Scott Stanger, homeless for four years, echoes her sentiment. "I wasn't gonna talk," he says, "[But] I'm a little aggravated to see how many people have died. A lot of these names haven't been spoken about in years. I don't want to see another name added to this list if there's something we can do about it."
The memorial was part of a string of events put on by Spokane social service organizations for last week's National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week. The timing for such an event couldn't be more appropriate, as winter is hitting the city early and hard, with nighttime temperatures dropping into the 20s.
And while they can do nothing to change the weather, social service advocates believe there is something they can do to protect homeless people from it. For the last eight or nine months, they've been working on a "cold-weather implementation plan" -- an emergency response plan for caring for the homeless when the outside temperature sinks to five degrees or below.
Like the old Homeland Security threat-o-meter, the cold-weather plan has multiple levels. Spokane Homeless Coalition leadership team member Rusty Barnett says that, should the city experience a cold snap with temperatures at five degrees or lower, lasting less than five days, social service agencies would be alerted by a central information source to implement Tier I of the plan. That means that if shelters like Hope House or the House of Charity have already reached their maximum overnight capacity (the former has 34 beds; the latter has 108), they would be allowed to open up additional "warming centers," or overflow rooms, to get more people out of the cold.
A Tier II response would be activated, Barnett says, if the cold weather were to last more than five days. In that case, more staff and volunteers would have to be called in to keep the warming centers running, and additional organizations like the Salvation Army and the Spokane Neighborhood Action Program would most likely become involved.
Tier III, she says, "would be an ice storm." Those or similarly perilous conditions would call for more drastic measures -- more staff, more volunteers, opening up the gymnasium at North Central High School, whatever it takes.
But pulling off any of the components of the plan can be difficult for organizations that already operate with little money and small staffs. Some organizations have already implemented Tier I-style services in past years, when it's gotten particularly cold. But, says House of Charity Director Ed McCarron, "it's a huge burden when we do that. We gotta give comp time later on, [people work] a lot of hours, people don't know when they're working ... We need a heck of a lot of staff."
One impetus of last week's events was the need to raise money. Though the amount they collected was unavailable at press time, the agencies brought a plan before the City Council that would, among other things, put the city's Department of Human Services in charge of the money.
"They're going to be the administrators of the account that's for the cold weather fund implementation," says Barnett. "When [the plan] goes into effect, we as shelter providers would follow through with what the plan states. If there were financial repercussions from that, we would ask to be reimbursed."
On Monday afternoon councilman Joe Shogan, who has been working closely with service organizations on the issue for months, told The Inlander that the proposal had passed through public safety that morning, and that he would likely make a motion during the council's afternoon administrative session to suspend the rules and get the proposal approved that night. He did, and the proposal passed 7-0 during the evening legislative session.
Even with the proposal approved, however, Barnett says the city's social service organizations are not ready to use it just yet. "It's a plan. It's an idea," she says. "It's not anything that we can implement at this point." She adds that while providers could probably address a Tier I situation right now, anything beyond that would be difficult to manage, largely because each organization in town has a different set of qualifications for potential volunteers.
"At Hull House, we'll take any woman over 21 who's interested in volunteering [pending a background check]," she says. Other groups have tighter, or looser, restrictions. Addressing a Tier II or III situation, she says, would most likely require volunteers moving efficiently from one organization to another. And that, she says, is simply not yet possible.
Still, Bob Peeler, with the Spokane Neighborhood Action Program, thinks the council's approval of the plan would be a step in the right direction, and that the first year would be a kind of test run. He says they've set the temperature limit at five degrees because most organizations have opined that setting it any higher would bring in more people than they can support. Next year they'd review this year's process to see if existing shelters have enough support to raise the limit to 10 or 15 degrees. The House of Charity's Ed McCarron reports that their normal nighttime bed facilities are already full, in mid-November. The same is true at other shelters.
According to National Weather Service statistics, over the last five years Spokane has seen an average of 15.4 days per year that have dipped below 15 degrees. It's seen only 2.4 that have sunk below five degrees.
Jeff Logan, who lost his friend Arlo to freezing temperatures, estimates that the city needs about 100 more beds to meet the demands of the homeless population in Spokane. Asked what he thinks about the proposal to open more warming centers, he says, "That would be really cool." There's nowhere else for homeless people to keep warm, he says. During the daytime they can hang out at the library, or rake up enough change to sit in a bar for an afternoon, but once night -- and temperatures -- fall, the world grows very cold very fast.