When shelters fill, the city’s emergency warming response kicks in. The response, though, relies entirely on availability at Trent, which has no available beds or mats and no set capacity limit.
In 2021, Spokane passed an ordinance detailing the specific situations when shelters are full or nearly full and the weather is especially dangerous — either for heat, cold or air quality reasons — under which the city must open additional shelter capacity to people experiencing homelessness.
Here’s the ordinance language:
With temperatures projected to be below freezing into next week and limited shelter availability, the city has reached the thresholds for cold and shelter capacity listed in the ordinance, but the city doesn’t have any plans to open additional emergency space. Instead, city spokesperson Brian Coddington tells us the Trent shelter is the only emergency warming center and that no one will be turned away there. (These plans were outlined in a city council committee meeting on September 19). “The Trent Resource and Assistance Center was established to expand system capacity and introduce capability to flex based on demand,” Coddington wrote. “Individuals seeking shelter will not be turned away from the navigation center.”
According to shelter staff, though, the facility is at capacity as of this evening. “We will have to (turn people away) if we have more people show up,” one staff member said. Staff also told us they have not received the directive to not turn people away once the 275 person capacity is reached. Social media posts from previous nights and the Shelter Me Spokane dashboard have shown the shelter regularly reaching capacity.
As late as 8:02 p.m., staff responded to phone calls inquiring about capacity by telling us the shelter was full.
As of 3 p.m. this afternoon, Spokane had 75 low-barrier shelter beds available according to the Shelter Me Spokane dashboard, a regional government collaboration to track shelter capacity. That number, which does not include available mats at Trent shelter, puts the local shelter utilization rate at 91% — above the 90% threshold that triggers the city’s emergency warming shelter ordinance.
SHELTER UTILIZATION | as of 3:00 pm Nov. 30
While staff say there’s no room at the shelter, city officials and The Salvation Army’s administration haven’t clarified what, if any limits exist to the shelter’s capacity. “A maximum flex amount hasn’t been established through the transition, but The Salvation Army will not turn anyone away,” said Coddington in a statement that is at odds with people currently working at the shelter.
The shelter availability tracker regularly lists the shelter as full with 275 of 275 beds taken. That number is higher than the initial occupancy according to communications with the city. “The building official issued an initial occupancy of 250 persons with the ability to flex to a higher number based on the available floor space and other building code requirements,” said city communications manager Kirstin Davis in response to previous questions from RANGE trying (unsuccessfully) to establish the maximum capacity of the facility.
Establishing a maximum safe capacity for occupancy is a primary purpose of building codes. Giving the Trent shelter a floating, undefined capacity is not only extremely uncommon, it seems to go against the spirit of those building codes entirely.
Confusion over the capacity at Trent isn’t limited to the building’s capacity, it’s also reflected in the Shelter Me Spokane website, which often lists the shelter as full when mats are available. The tracker is useful for unhoused people to know if they’re wasting their time taking a bus across town to any of the shelters if there are no beds available, said local organizer Hadley Morrow. But, she added, it doesn’t clarify if accommodations can be made for certain folks, like people with mobility issues who can’t use bunks or mats.
The dashboard also doesn’t make it immediately clear which beds are and aren’t low-barrier, said Morrow. Currently, the dashboard labels shelters that have a majority of high-barrier beds as low-barrier shelters. Traditionally high-barrier shelters, like UGM Men’s Shelter, require a breathalyzer test at check-in for everyone and a urinalysis test for previous clients. On the dashboard, the Men’s Shelter is labeled low-barrier because 12 of its 125 beds don’t have those requirements. “We know that the definition of how many shelter beds are available is fluid, depending on who you're talking to,” Morrow said. “The city’s tracker is helpful, but misleading.”
With a lack of clarity around if, how and when the city might extend extra emergency services to unhoused people in the community, organizers are working to provide aid on their own. In doing so they are building on the community response galvanized by this summer’s heat wave. That’s when volunteers, including Morrow, and Compassionate Addiction Treatment worked together to provide pop-up cooling tents across the city.
During the record-breaking heat waves, the city extended library hours and offered free bus rides to get to them. This library-centric solution was widely criticized by supporters of Camp Hope who said that the solutions were inadequate for that large group of unhoused community members. In the end, Camp Hope organizers constructed a cooling tent despite opposition from the city administration. That tent has since been repurposed to provide additional services and an area to warm up. After weeks of squabbling, the tent currently has operating permits from the city.
The street response from mutual aid groups last summer included a map of locations for each center where people could sit in the shade, drink cold water, eat fruit and cool down with fans. While those groups can’t provide similar pop-up shelters in a snowstorm — because providing warmth to people requires more infrastructure — CAT is working toward operating a small warming shelter at their office on Division Street with donations and volunteers from Yoyot Sp'q'n'i, MAC Movement, Human Rights Activist Coterie of Spokane, SCAR Spokane, and Mutual Aid Survival Squad.
Organizers are also asking the city to do more. CAT and other mutual aid groups and volunteers are advocating for supplemental funding and comprehensive planning from the city as they provide what they can to unhoused people.
Taking on this huge community effort without support from the city administration creates a challenging balancing act that’s ripe for volunteer burnout, Morrow said. But, they believe the effort is necessary to keep people safe. “We will be the band aid because we don’t want people to die, but we want to advocate for more sustainable partnerships with the city,” Morrow said.