Dec 8, 2022 5 min read

Trent shelter can now legally shelter 350 people

Trent shelter can now legally shelter 350 people
For real this time. (Photo illustration by Valerie Osier)

The update follows RANGE’s reporting that revealed the shelter was operating above its permitted occupancy.

A temporary permit of occupancy for the Trent shelter was issued Wednesday that allows the facility a maximum capacity of 375 people. That permit, like the one before it, cites a 2006 city law that allows exemptions to some state building codes for buildings that house “indigent persons,” thereby permitting space not designed for human habitation to serve as a shelter.

The expanded capacity follows a story RANGE broke on Monday revealing that the Trent shelter had been advertising a bed count over the legal limits of its existing occupancy permit. On Monday, Dermott Murphy, the Spokane Building Official who signed the initial Sept. 1 occupancy permit and a second dated Nov. 15, confirmed the Trent shelter occupancy was capped at 250 people total, including staff. The shelter has been advertising 275 available beds and has regularly met and sometimes exceeded that capacity, especially as temperatures turned cold and snowy in recent weeks.

Murphy’s statement contradicted weeks of assertions from administration officials and shelter operators that the Trent shelter was allowed to operate above the 250 occupancy limit to meet various demands on the system. This additional flex capacity was the city’s primary response to a 2021 law that requires the city to open additional warming shelter space when temperatures drop below freezing and shelter space in the system is over 90% full.

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City director of communications Brian Coddington told us “new layout documents were submitted to reflect an updated design following the change in operator,” but did not specify what date those documents were submitted. The Salvation Army replaced the Guardians Foundation as the shelter operator on October 27, and the Temporary Occupancy Permit dated November 15 shows a maximum capacity of 250.

Last Friday, Fire Marshal Lance Dahl, the top building safety official at Spokane Fire Department, said he had not seen an application for the expanded capacity. On Monday, Murphy, who serves in a similar role to Dahl within Spokane’s building department, told us he had not seen any application either.

Two days after our report came out, a new occupancy of 375 — enough for the planned flex maximum of 350 guests and up to 25 staff — was approved.

Trent Shelter Temporary Occ... by RANGE

The new occupancy permit sets out plans to reconfigure the space and stipulates increased restrooms,  showers and laundry facilities to accommodate extra guests. Currently, there are no washers or dryers on-site.

The new occupancy permit sets out plans to reconfigure the space and stipulates increased restrooms, showers and laundry facilities to accommodate extra guests. Currently, there are no washers or dryers on-site.

Building codes cover interior and exterior space to ensure that, in the case of an emergency, people can not only get safely out of the building, but can also navigate easily once outside to prevent bottlenecks in the evacuation. For spaces with smaller capacities, a single exit is often allowable. In order to reach the sort of capacity the city has been asking for at Trent, the International Building Code — which Spokane uses as its standard — requires enough exits to ensure that, regardless of where someone is in the space, the maximum distance any person would have to travel to reach an exit is no greater than 75 feet. In order to be considered a legal egress, the exits have to meet specific code requirements as well.

To achieve that 75-foot egress maximum at Trent, the plans attached to the new occupancy permit require upgrading one of the exits at the southern end of the building to meet code by adding a compacted gravel surface outside and additional lighting all along the southern exterior of the building as well. Without that south exit, a person in the southwest corner of the building would need to travel 232 feet to reach the nearest legal exit in case of an emergency. We asked director of communications Brian Coddington if the changes stipulated in the occupancy document are complete, or in progress, and we will update this story once he responds.

The plans document needed improvements to the south end of the building to safely allow a capacity of 375

Separately, RANGE has learned that the facility’s handwashing stations have been moved indoors. Last Thursday, we reported that during an outbreak of various communicable diseases, the handwashing stations had frozen in the cold or otherwise broken, making hygiene more difficult at a time when public health staff recommended additional precautions and shelter staff worked to contain the spread of illness.

While handwashing is vital, the stations are now separated from the portable toilets in the shelter parking lots. That means residents have to walk back inside — touching doorknobs along the way — before washing their hands after using the bathroom.

The final thing to note is that this is still a temporary certificate of occupancy, which will expire next May. It is unlikely that a permanent certificate of occupancy would be granted to a building with temporary restroom and shower facilities.

We have asked officials what plans, if any, they have for creating permanent facilities to accommodate these large numbers of people in the space, but nothing clear has emerged. Last week, in our civics newsletter, we noted that City Council had put a $4 million line item into its capital improvement plan to buy the building and install permanent restrooms, but the mayor vetoed that plan. Council may have the votes to override the veto.

In a subsequent conversation with Council President Beggs, he clarified that the budget item isn’t a guarantee the city will buy the building, but it gives them options. “We reserved an option to purchase [the building] that expires in January,” he wrote. “We are currently negotiating but [it’s] unclear what will happen.”

Judging by the plans attached to the occupancy permit, it’s unclear where permanent facilities might fit in the current footprint of the building, if they would potentially require expansion of the structure, and how additional facilities like indoor restrooms would impact the shelter’s occupancy.

As we learn more, we’ll follow up.

Additional reporting by Carl Segerstrom

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