Dec 5, 2022 5 min read

Spokane Building Official says Trent shelter is not authorized for more than 250 people

Spokane Building Official says Trent shelter is not authorized for more than 250 people
It's not thaaat big of a difference, right? (Photo illustration by Valerie Osier)

This contradicts listed bed availability of 275 and messaging from city administration that Trent can “flex” even higher to accommodate shelter needs

UPDATE: Since this story ran, Spokane issued an updated occupancy for Trent shelter that allows capacities for up to 375 people. This will allow for Salvation Army’s stated target of 350 beds, and also accomodate the nonprofit’s staffing needs. Building capacities are inclusive not just of the people utilizing the space, but also the staff of whatever organization runs it.

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For weeks, officials at the city of Spokane have told its citizens, the press and support providers looking to guide unhoused people to shelters that the Trent Resource and Assistance Center (TRAC, commonly called Trent shelter) had occupancy of 275, with the ability to “flex” to meet whatever needs arose as temperatures dropped this winter.  

Communications Director Brian Coddington doubled down on that assertion as a snow storm flew in last week and temperatures dropped below the threshold that requires city officials to open extra warming shelters. A 2021 City ordinance states that in periods when temperatures drop below freezing and shelters reach 90% full or above, the city must open additional warming shelters. “The Salvation Army’s practice is not to turn anyone away,” Coddington wrote in an email to RANGE on Dec. 1.

Now, in an interview with RANGE, Dermott Murphy, Spokane’s Building Official and the person who signed off on the Trent shelter’s Temporary Certificate of Occupancy (embedded below), has told us that Trent has been permitted for 250 occupants and nothing more.

RANGE: From your perspective as a building official, though, [the Trent shelter] should not be “flexing” anywhere over the capacity of 250
Dermott Murphy: Correct

Trent has been advertising a guest capacity of 275 for weeks on the Shelter Me Spokane site — which lists all shelter capacity in the city as a way of helping unhoused people and service providers find available beds.

When we asked Murphy why officials like Coddington, communications manager Kirstin Davis, and city administrator Johnnie Perkins would say that Trent shelter was authorized to “flex” above 250, Murphy replied, “I was unaware of them flexing above it.”

We then asked Murphy what enforcement mechanisms, staffing or inspections the city has in place to ensure anyone, not just the Trent shelter, is abiding by the legal maximum occupancy as determined by Murphy, he said wasn’t sure. “I’m not aware of that,” Murphy replied, “ I wouldn't be able to answer to that.”

Updated Trent shelter certificate of occupancy by RANGE on Scribd

A phone call to Brian Coddington and email to Coddington and Davis were not immediately returned. A phone call to Major Ken Perine of the Salvation Army — which operates Trent shelter — and Cassandra Cram, who runs the shelter day to day, were not returned either. If anyone responds we will update this story.  

Last week, Fire Marshal Lance Dahl told us that the city issues all building occupancies and that those numbers are hard and fast.

It’s possible to have different capacities based on the configuration of furniture and other criteria, but that higher capacity should always be documented in an occupancy permit, and have a layout plan for the additional capacity that is reviewed by fire marshals and ultimately approved by Spokane’s building official. Dahl explained the process by using the Davenport Hotel as an example:

“[At] the Davenport Hotel, you've got a ballroom, right? And they might come to us with four different floor plans that we pre-approve ahead of time that allow them to flex that space in four different ways,” Dahl said. Conceivably, those four plans “might have four different occupant load numbers based on how they use that space,” he explained. “Is it all tables and chairs? Is it half dance or half tables and chairs? Is it, is it a show floor where they have booths set up?”

Murphy told us that he has seen no such application for additional capacity based on revised floorplans, and directed us to the Fire Department.

As of Friday, Dahl said he had seen no such application or amended capacity either, and told us to call Murphy.

It’s unclear where the buck stops with Trent’s capacity, a question we asked to Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer. We asked how Trent could be operating above its approved capacity and who in the chain of command might have authorized that if neither Murphy, the building official who signed the temporary certificate of occupancy, or Dahl, the head fire marshall, had.

Schaeffer said he didn’t know. “There is so much ambiguity in the process right now,” the Chief said, “before I make a comment to really understand it a little bit more.” Schaeffer said he would do some research regarding that ambiguity and get back to us.

There is a 2006 ordinance that allows the suspension of building codes in buildings that were not originally built to house people but are reconfigured as emergency housing for “Indigent Persons.” It’s unclear if that law is what the city is using to justify flexing the building capacity beyond the listed capacity determined by the building official, but it was clear from the perspective of the building official that the capacity should be 250 people.

Murphy wrote a memo on September 1 explaining the criteria for the emergency exemptions, and that Trent met them, but still concluded in the occupancy permit he also signed, that the maximum allowable occupancy at this time is 250.

Meanwhile, last week at the Spokane Homeless Coalition meeting, Perine said that the Salvation Army is staffing up to add more capacity at Trent. An order of 350 beds is set to arrive mid-December. “The goal is to be operating about 250, then surging up to 350.”

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Communicable diseases are spreading at Trent, Camp Hope and across the shelter system
Service providers say, and city officials confirm, that Trent has lacked handwashing facilities necessary to prevent disease transmission. Communicable diseases are currently spreading throughout the Spokane shelter system and unhoused community, including the Trent shelter, Camp Hope, and various…
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