Thursday, January 18, 2024

More than 200 Spokane churches were asked to open their doors to homeless people during dangerously cold weather — four agreed. (Spokane, WA Inlander, January 18, 2024)

 The original print version of this article was headlined "Shelter From the Cold". From the Spokane, Washington Inlander, January 18, 2024.

More than 200 Spokane churches were asked to open their doors to homeless people during dangerously cold weather — four agreed

More than 200 Spokane churches were asked to open their doors to homeless people during dangerously cold weather — four agreed
Erick Doxey photo 
Julie Garcia, director of Jewels Helping Hands, helps run the New Apostolic Church in northwest Spokane as a warming shelter during this year’s cold snap. 

It's the same every year.

A dangerous cold snap is forecast. Hundreds of unhoused people are in danger of freezing to death, and there isn't a clear plan to keep them warm. With the clock ticking, the city scrambles.

Spokane Mayor Lisa Brown criticized the city's perpetual lack of planning during her run for office last year, and pledged to put a better system in place. But when a blast of arctic air descended on Spokane and brought temperatures below zero during her second week in office, she, too, was forced to scramble at the last minute.

"The system my administration inherited is not as coordinated as we would like it to be," Brown said during a Thursday meeting to discuss emergency warming plans with City Council members.

Brown declared a state of emergency and said 183 additional beds would be available during the dangerously cold weather. The city's Trent Resource and Assistance Center and other local shelters squeezed in more beds. Compassionate Addiction Treatment also opened its South Division Street location as an emergency shelter. On Friday, the city reopened the Cannon Street Shelter, which closed last May because of funding issues.

The city's efforts this year were also aided by a small group of volunteers and homeless service providers who had spent months working behind the scenes on an ambitious project to keep people from freezing.

The plan was simple: Open the churches.

The idea of using churches to house homeless people during cold weather has been long in the making. In theory, it makes sense: Hundreds of Spokane churches sit empty every night. With city shelter space consistently below what's needed, why not ask the faith community to help?

But making that vision a reality has been an uphill battle.

Past efforts haven't always gone smoothly, and many churches are wary of what could go wrong. In 2021, Jewels Helping Hands — a nonprofit that recently managed the East Central Camp Hope homeless encampment — partnered with the City Church Spokane on West Garland Avenue to operate it as a warming shelter on a first-come, first-served basis. Some people ended up sleeping in the neighborhood, and nearby businesses complained about significant disruptions.

"We noticed the impact on the neighborhood," says Julie Garcia, director of Jewels Helping Hands. "This has been trial and error for us."

Despite trepidation over past incidents, a group of volunteers was able to convince four churches to let Jewels use their buildings as warming centers during this year's cold snap — this time with a new model designed to minimize disruption.

"It was a big step for us," says Deb Conklin, the pastor of Liberty Park United Methodist Church. "But it is simply living out our mission."

The volunteers say it was a huge success and hope that other churches will see how things are going and agree to get on board in the future. Garcia says the goal is for each of the four churches participating in the program to continue hosting people through the end of February.

"There's always going to be some risk," says Christian McKinney, a project assistant with the Spokane Low Income Housing Consortium. "But at some point, you just have to think, 'What are we called to do?'"


As the arctic air crosses the Cascades and rips toward Spokane, Garcia is at the New Apostolic Church — a small building in Spokane's Garland District with boarded up windows that's been unoccupied for some time.

Garcia says the owner, who lives out of state and is trying to sell the building, was happy to help when the volunteers asked about using it as a shelter. Because it's unoccupied, Jewels staff members are able to operate it 24/7 as a shelter specifically set aside for women and people with intensive medical needs. The other churches need the space during the day, and are open as shelters from 8 pm to 8 am.

There are 20 beds set up inside New Apostolic, each paired with a storage crate for people's belongings. On Thursday afternoon, only one bed was occupied. The woman sleeping there came in that morning and told Garcia she had spent the night before sleeping near Second Avenue and Division Street — a notorious intersection that's long struggled with drugs and crime.

"It was the scariest thing she'd ever been through," Garcia says. "She was just so thrilled to come here. She was freezing cold, she'd been wearing the same pants for four months."

Today is the first test of a program that Garcia and a group of volunteers — called "Love Spokane" — have spent months pitching to local churches.

The basic idea is this: Each participating church will host about 20 people per night. Jewels will provide two paid staff members at each church to stay awake through the night and keep an eye on things. People staying at the churches also have to sign good neighbor agreements that outline expectations regarding behavior and substance use.

Garcia says her organization initially planned to use its own budget to cover staff costs, but last week Brown indicated that the city would reimburse some of Jewels' expenses during the cold snap. (Garcia estimates that the total cost to operate five churches for two months would be $162,000.)

The volunteers want to make sure people don't congregate in the neighborhoods and create issues for the churches, so instead of operating on a first come, first-served basis, Jewels and the Spokane Low Income Housing Consortium are using a referral system to screen guests and transport people to the churches from a pickup spot at the downtown Central Library. They're also trying to avoid publicizing the addresses to prevent people from showing up unannounced.

"It doesn't have to be chaotic and crazy," Garcia says. "This is 20, 25 people at each place in the middle of neighborhoods. It's more calm."

More than 200 Spokane churches were asked to open their doors to homeless people during dangerously cold weather — four agreed
Erick Doxey photo 
Liberty Park Methodist Church in the Perry District. 


On the other side of town, Ken Crary, an outreach supervisor with Jewels, is in the basement of Liberty Park United Methodist Church in the Perry District. He's settling in for an evening shift and training a new Jewels employee on how to manage the shelter and maintain order for the night.

"They can't go outside that gate after they come in," Crary says. "This is a nice warm spot to go to sleep, charge phones... but you can't go out in the neighborhood and run around."

Crary has seen the consequences of the cold firsthand. When Jewels was managing the City Church shelter in 2021, he recalls walking to work one morning and finding an unhoused person lying motionless on the street.

"He was laying right there, frozen to death," Crary says. "Nobody wants to find something like that."

Crary hopes the new model of partnering with churches will help stop that from happening again.

"It's a big deal — this could be groundbreaking," Crary says.

Johnny Edmondson, the family ministry director at Shadle Park Presbyterian Church, helped organize this year's efforts to open up churches. Over the course of about three months, Edmondson says the group of volunteers and service providers contacted 227 local churches.

He says almost every church said they were interested in supporting the effort. But many expressed concern about potential liability, damage to their buildings and other things that could go wrong.

The biggest hurdle, Edmondson says, was fear.

By late December, a few churches were considering the idea, but none had officially committed. McKinney with the Low Income Housing Consortium says there were moments when he worried the project would fizzle.

"As Christians, we're called to help and love and serve people, and this is such a tangible way [to do it]," McKinney says. "Our buildings are one of the biggest things we have to offer."

But then news of this year's cold snap started to spread, and things got moving quickly. Conklin sent out a poll to board members of her church explaining the plan, and she was able to get unanimous agreement.

"It certainly was an incentive for my church to say, 'Go with it,' to make that choice to jump," Conklin says.

By Thursday, three churches had committed. Several others were on the fence.

Garcia says she's grateful to see the support but disappointed that more churches didn't step up.

"In talking with some of these churches, I think people forget who Jesus was," Garcia says. "We've gotten away from 'What would Jesus do?'"

Jesus, Garcia says, would open his doors.


The cold is here in full force. The grass outside New Apostolic Church is coated in a thin layer of diamond-like frost, and the air is thin and aggressive. A few minutes outside is all it takes for a stinging numbness to start climbing up your fingers.

Inside the church, Garcia is eating lasagna with a group of volunteers and overnight guests. More people are asleep inside the main chapel, which is closed off with blackout curtains. The atmosphere cozy — like a rustic cabin in the woods.

Chris Bell, 51, arrived that morning. She says she's been homeless for much of her life and knows all too well what it's like to survive out in the cold.

"It's unbearable," Bell says. "You freeze and your hands shake."

Bell says she's had bad experiences at local shelters and spent recent weeks sleeping outside. She says she was able to escape the cold on Thursday by sleeping in the laundry room of an apartment complex. ("It was open so I went in," she says.)

On Friday morning, a Jewels van picked up Bell and a few others and brought them to New Apostolic. Bell says the church has been a welcome relief — especially compared to some of the larger city shelters where she's previously stayed.

"I've been really accepted," Bell says. "That means everything to me."

Garcia says she's considering purchasing the church for use as a permanent respite space for Jewels.

Sharyl Brown, a Jewels employee, worked the day shift at New Apostolic on Friday. She says it's been "shockingly chill" — especially compared to Camp Hope, where Brown previously worked.

"It was just work, work, work," she says. "I didn't have time to breathe."

But Brown says the small size of the church warming shelters has made things easier to manage — and given her time to give individual guests the attention they need. She says, proudly, that she's already been able to connect one couple who came in with low-barrier housing. Another man agreed to start detox once treatment centers open on Monday.

"If it were a larger scale, if we were packed, I wouldn't have any time to do that," Brown says.

More than 200 Spokane churches were asked to open their doors to homeless people during dangerously cold weather — four agreed
Erick Doxey photo 
New Apostolic Church sheltered about 20 people per night during the cold. 


Getting neighborhood buy-in for homeless shelters is a notoriously difficult process.

Conklin says the volunteers were wary that news of the plans could create a "brouhaha," and ended up waiting until after the shelters were up and running to reach out to neighbors.

"If we just quietly start it, and neighbors see how it's going to work, then they're not as likely to have issues with it," Conklin says.

It's Sunday afternoon, and Suzi Hokonson, a local textile artist who volunteered to help the effort, is going door to door in the Emerson Garfield neighborhood to let people who live near Knox Presbyterian Church know that the church is hosting about 20 unhoused people per night.

"I just want to let neighbors know that Jewels Helping Hands is working with the congregation," she says to one neighbor, who seems unfazed by the news.

Overall, Hokonson says the reaction from people who live near the churches has been "just so wonderful." A few neighbors were "a little leery" at first, but Hokonson says volunteers were able to assuage their concerns by showing them the space in person and explaining how it works. Some neighbors even joined the dozens of other volunteers who signed up for shifts to help Jewels staff manage operations.

"Neighbor response has been really great," Edmondson says. "Some neighbors noticed and stopped by to offer their support. Some are bringing food and dropping off blankets."

Each of the three churches was at full capacity on Saturday and Sunday night. On Monday, Jewels staff opened a fourth church: Morning Star Baptist Church in northwest Spokane.

"We're hoping maybe next year there will be 15, and maybe the following year there will be 30," Edmondson says.

Garcia says several more churches have expressed interest, but that her organization is limited by a lack of staff resources. She says plans for additional church warming shelters are dependent on what costs the city ends up agreeing to cover.

Garcia says the first few days of the operation went "smoother than I ever thought it would be." No calls to the police or fire departments. No major incidents or complaints from neighbors.

"The community has shown up in ways I've never seen," Garcia says. "I've never been prouder of my community than I have been this last week." ♦

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