The shelter is a linchpin of Spokane’s homelessness response.
On a recent visit to the Trent shelter, RANGE spoke to staff and guests at their wits’ end. They recounted a wide range of safety, security and basic hygiene shortfalls that have made life hard for people seeking shelter there, and the employees serving them.
We went as part of our ongoing effort to understand the city’s homelessness response and its impact on unsheltered residents in the community. Our goal was to understand how the new facility is operating under the Salvation Army, what services are being offered, and to get a sense of the capacity and conditions on site. It soon became clear that shelter staff harbor serious concerns about the ability of the shelter to provide a healthy environment for people experiencing homelessness.
RANGE Media spoke with four shelter staff and three guests over the course of an hour and a half. The four staffers spoke to RANGE simultaneously and were joined at times by other staff and guests, who confirmed each other’s stories as they recounted the conditions at the shelter since the Salvation Army has taken over. After that group conversation, RANGE followed up with staff on an individual basis to confirm details of the claims they made. The staff spoke on the condition of anonymity as they either search for new jobs or fear losing their current jobs. RANGE has requested that staff go on the record when they are comfortable sharing their story, but we are not going to reveal names at this time as it would put these staff members’ livelihoods at risk.
“Clients are terrified,” one staff member said. “We’re here to keep guests safe and we’re trying to do it. But we’re working with skeleton crews — since the Salvation Army took over it’s been a shitshow.”
One example was literally that: staff and guests told RANGE that portable toilets at the facility had been overflowing with feces to the point where one could not sit down on a toilet without coming into contact with excrement. One staff member said the situation lasted from Thursday to Sunday of last week. Portable toilets are the only means guests have to relieve themselves at the facility.
Other dangerous and unsanitary conditions described included medications being taken from guests for over 30 hours, leading to adverse health episodes, and inadequate supplies of basic necessities like drinking cups and blankets. On one occasion, breakfast arrived with so much spoiled fruit staff had to pick through it to salvage what was still edible and supplement the meal with cookies intended for lunch.
The city and county have looked to the Trent shelter as a means to add capacity in the shelter system and resumed enforcement of sit-lie laws that ban resting or residing on public property after the shelter opened. The shelter has also been a linchpin in city plans to move people off of Camp Hope. But as cold weather has hit, it’s become clear that the current homeless population, including the 450 people at Camp Hope, cannot all seek shelter at the facility.
If the facility is to serve as a key cog in the city’s housing program, conditions must improve. As one Trent staffer put it, “100% if Camp Hope people find out how it’s running they won’t come here. Some people from Camp Hope have already come and then went back.”
The Trent shelter, a converted warehouse in an industrial area east of downtown, has quickly filled to at or near its current capacity of 275 beds. Plans are in the works to flex the capacity of the shelter to 500 beds with support from the county, according to reporting by Rebecca White at Spokane Public Radio.
Since unseasonably cold temperatures and snow arrived in early November, availability has ranged from a couple dozen beds to zero at the low-barrier shelter, which does not require sobriety or religious affiliation. When all available beds are in use, as they were on a recent evening, people lie on 2-inch mats on the concrete floor.
It’s unclear what the ultimate limit is for how many people can stay in the building, and as it stands there doesn’t appear to be much extra floor space where beds could be added. “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 Kirstin Davis, the city of Spokane’s communications manager.
The Trent Shelter and most of the other city shelters have been at or near capacity for much of the last week, according to daily independent shelter availability reports and the SheltermeSpokane.org website — a collaboration between Spokane Valley, the Spokane Regional Health District, Spokane County and Spokane City. Currently, that official tracker, which does not include Truth Ministries or the YWCA Shelter, which account for about 85 beds, shows 922 total beds in the shelter system.
As of 2 p.m. November 15, 91% of the low-barrier shelter beds were occupied — leaving a total of 65 low barrier shelter beds available. It’s also important to note that bed availability depends on age, gender and, in the case of high-barrier shelters, sobriety, religious affiliation or tolerance of being in a Christian-faith-based program.
That number does not leave enough room for the 450-plus people at Camp Hope and it’s far short of the estimated 823 unsheltered homeless people in Spokane County from this February’s point-in-time count. Not only are there not enough beds to meet the needs of the unhoused population, the conditions at the largest, newest and most expensive facility raise serious concerns about the health and welfare of people residing there. With operators straining to safely house 250-275 guests, it’s unclear how they can ensure safe and sanitary conditions should the capacity expand to 500. It’s also unclear what monitoring and safeguards for unhoused guests and shelter staff, if any, the City of Spokane utilizes at the location.
Trent was originally operated by The Guardians Foundation. On October 27, that organization, which also operated the Cannon Street shelter, was stripped of its city contracts after it was revealed that a long-term employee had been embezzling funds. When the city cut ties with The Guardians Foundation, they transferred the management of both the Trent and Cannon shelters to the Salvation Army.
The Salvation Army retained most of the Guardians staff running the shelter. Since the change in management, the staff we spoke with say there has been a long list of challenges in the operation of the Trent Shelter.
They told us that daily emptying of the port-a-potties by the contractors who provide the toilets has not occurred as necessary since the Salvation Army started running the shelter, leading to the situation where people could not use those toilets without coming into physical contact with feces. Both the toilets and the shower are outside in the parking lot and require residents to either use a flight of stairs or a ramp.
There have also been dangerous situations created by a misunderstanding of how medicine is managed at the shelter. According to staff, the process they have had in place since the opening of the shelter is to secure people’s medicine and then provide it when requested. But, as the staff who were running the shelter have started working with existing Salvation Army staff, existing procedures have been disrupted. At one point, staff say medicine that was being held for shelter guests was taken off site for over 30 hours, resulting in adverse health outcomes for at least three shelter residents.
Two separate shelter guests confronted staff about the missing medicine while RANGE was reporting at the shelter. “My medication was taken and now I’m missing a quarter of the bottle,” said Deniece Raney, flashing a bottle with a printed prescription label on it. “I’ve been taking these pain pills for years for arthritis. They held it, then it was gone,” Raney said.
While Raney was frustrated, another man who didn’t share his name aggressively approached staff to complain that his medicine had been taken against his will and that his HIPAA rights had been violated. He accused staff of taking his medicine so they could determine what his medical conditions were and keep a file on him and the rest of the guests.
According to shelter staff, the medications have since been returned to the site and are being held for people who choose to have them held as a security precaution. There’s a legitimate concern around theft of medication, but the staff members we spoke with said people’s medication schedules and health have suffered from the incident where the meds were taken off-site. “We have had three seizure calls today because people haven’t been able to take their seizure medicine,” one staff member said. RANGE Media has reached out to the city and requested dispatch logs to confirm this statement and is currently waiting on a public records request.
Spokane city officials and Salvation Army leaders were independently presented the claims made by staff and guests in this story. The Salvation Army said they would not directly respond, and that the only response would come from the city. Communications Manager Kirstin Davis’ response on behalf of the city to questions outlining shelter conditions including overflowing toilets, spoiled meals and missing medications reads, in part:
“To be expected, there are always challenges when a change in operations happens, especially when it happens quickly. We have shared this feedback with The Salvation Army team to review with operational staff. The Salvation Army has been a trusted partner throughout our work to provide services in the community for the most vulnerable.”
The overarching concern of shelter staff is the gaping disconnect between what has been needed at the shelter and what the Salvation Army management was willing or able to provide. Staff said that since the organization has taken over management, the meal service has not operated smoothly, and basic necessities like clean bed linen and cups have not been provided in a timely manner.
“I wish they just spent time here and actually talked to us — the staff and the guests,” an employee said. “We’re here because we personally care about the people who are here and we worry what would happen if we were to walk away,” they said. “It feels like [Salvation Army management] just comes down here to put on a show for city officials and the media and then they leave. It’s pretty fucked up.”
Edited by Luke Baumgarten