Dec 22, 2022 6 min read

How the Spokane community shows up in a cold crisis

How the Spokane community shows up in a cold crisis
Mutual Aid Survival Squad provided warm drinks to people out in the cold Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2022. (Photo by Carl Segerstrom with an effect added)

Mutual aid and nonprofit groups are working to help unhoused people survive in subzero temperatures. More help is needed.

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As temperatures dove below zero, volunteers across the community showed up to help people in need on Wednesday. With a truck bed full of cold weather gear and an SUV stocked with food and drinks, Emma Buckles, Ian Butler, Journey Fitzpatrick and Jesse, who volunteer with Mutual Aid Survival Squad, set out to provide some comfort and sustenance for people living outside in the extreme cold. Staff and volunteers also collaborated to open up an emergency warming center at Compassionate Addiction Treatment’s downtown offices. There, they were able to reach typically shelter-resistant people and canvass the community looking for people they could provide aid to.

Mutual Aid Survival Squad hits the streets

Over the course of two hours on Wednesday evening, at four locations around downtown, MASS served hot drinks like cocoa, coffee and cider, food including ramen and rice and beans, and offered cold weather supplies to about 40 people living outside.

Mutual aid groups like MASS have long been a fixture in more urban and progressive communities, like Seattle and Portland and proliferated during the COVID-19 pandemic. MASS formed in November of 2020, and has since grown to a community of more than 50 members with about 20 regular volunteers and twice weekly mobile distributions.

MASS is one of a handful of groups like MAC Movement and Spokane Community Against Racism that provide meals to people in Spokane. (As an aside, we’re working on a community aid guide for Spokane, reach out to so we can add you!) Jesse said MAC, which provides free meals at city hall every Monday, helped jumpstart the work MASS now does. “We got shown the ropes and then we've just been trying shit out and seeing how it works,” she said. “It's incredibly unofficial. It's incredibly chaotic sometimes, but it always works out.”  

As cold weather has made life for people on the streets increasingly dangerous, and the holiday season finds students on break and people in the mood to give back, there’s been an uptick in engagement for MASS. “People are like, ‘oh, it's the holidays, I should give back,’” Fitzpatrick said.

But for the people who engage in this work on a regular basis, there’s definitely a sense of burnout in the face of overwhelming need. “Burnout is real — it's hard,” said Buckles, who regularly volunteers with Butler, her partner. “We have wonderful people in the group though that keep the group going.”

“If regular folks call out, people will kind of step up to cover the slack,” said Butler. “It’s really nice that we feel that we can take time off should schedules not work out, or if you just don’t have it in you to do it for a night.”

Since Butler started volunteering with MASS, he’s found himself serving people he knew growing up in Spokane. “It breaks my heart, but at the same time I was really glad to see them — to take a moment to catch up and be able to get them whatever they needed if we had it,” he said.

​​”It's rough, but also at the same time I'm very glad to see that they're at least still around,” Butler said. “Talking to them and realizing that even more people I know are on the streets — it brings it home that it's not too far away for a whole lot of people.”

Serving the unhoused has also given Butler an experience that defies stereotypes associated with people living on the streets. “The way folks are treated I think absolutely comes from the lack of interaction,” he said. “People just have a stereotype in their head that they cast broadly to everyone and don't take the time to understand.“

“I think that if more folks could have the interaction that we do, they would see that they're just people who need a little bit of help,” Butler said.

But, making that first step to breakdown stereotypes and connect on an individual level can be one of the biggest challenges. “It's hard to make those first interactions,” Buckles said.

The way Butler said he approaches the work is from a desire to help people regardless of their situation or need. “With the snowfall, I helped push a whole bunch of cars out of the snow, just knowing they just needed help,” he said.

To him, the calculus is simple: help people where they’re at without judgment. “No one would go, ‘oh, they should have bought a four-wheel drive truck, it's their own fault they got stuck,’” Butler said.

Compassionate Addiction Treatment, Yoyot Sp’q’n’i and CoolSpokane bring people in from the cold

Compassionate Addiction Treatment (CAT) hosted an all-night warming center for about 55 people Wednesday in partnership with Yoyot Sp’q’n’i and a coalition of organizations called CoolSpokane. They and other organizations in their coalition encouraged the folks who are usual clients of CAT to use the city’s shelter bed system

Many of the people who stayed at CAT overnight don’t typically stay at shelters, but found refuge at CAT’s DIvision St. warming center on Wednesday, according to Angel Tomeo Sam, cofounder and project manager at Yoyot Sp’q’n’i, who was volunteering all night at CAT.

“A lot of the folks we saw last night are folks that are pretty entrenched in the street life,” Tomeo Sam said. “And what I mean by that, is that a lot were or are in active addiction — a lot are folks who just found themselves in a bad place and who are struggling with mental health.”

Tomeo Sam drove around picking up people out in the cold who were in various states of medical emergencies and various levels of frostbite.

She said she met an elderly couple who had lost their housing after being exploited for their social security money, a separate elderly woman who had been stuck in her encampment for four days with frozen clothing and blankets, and a 19-year-old man who had appeared to have overdosed and who she figured was likely pushed out of a vehicle before other unhoused people found him on the street with his face frozen to the ground. In that case, the people who found him flagged the volunteers down and begged them to help him, Tomeo Sam said.

CAT staff and their street medicine team provided treatment to those that they could help, or in cases like the elderly woman who was stuck for four days, convinced people to be taken in an ambulance to a hospital.

“It’s real life, man. And I can imagine that there are people even less fortunate that we need to be looking out for,” Tomeo Sam said.

In her years of working with the unhoused community, Tomeo Sam was surprised at the amount of shelter-resistant people who finally went to get shelter, at Trent and   other shelters. The past few winters have been milder by comparison, and usually they tend to resist even in the cold. “To get that many shelter-resistant people into a shelter space is really a miracle,” she said.

More help needed

CAT, Yoyot Sp’q’n’i and their coalition of organizations are set to provide a warming center at CAT’s Division street office again tonight, as temperatures reach zero degrees. They’re also trying to connect with any churches who may be willing to open their doors for another warming center location that the coalition’s volunteers could staff — even if it’s limited to women or elders only. So far, they haven’t had any luck. If you are a member of a community group or faith community with space, contact them at 509-919-3362.

CoolSpokane organizers are asking for additional supplies (especially blankets, sleeping bags and pillows) and seeking volunteers to support shelter operations, cook meals and aid in outreach efforts during the life-threatening cold. If you’re interested please fill out this volunteer sign-up form.

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