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Westminster UCC in Spokane offers basement for shelter

Recognizing that many strategies are needed to address homelessness, Westminster Congregational UCC trustees, then the church council, congregation and volunteers said “yes” to an immediate need for emergency warming shelters on freezing nights in Spokane.

Members of the Guardians Foundation will staff the overnight shelter at Westminster UCC. Photo courtesy of Andy CastroLang

Last winter, the House of Charity had accepted up to 400 homeless people for overnight stays in facilities with a real capacity for 174 people.

The City of Spokane’s Community Housing and Human Services Department knew they needed to find a solution, but winter arrived, and the need was on an emergency level.

First, Salem Lutheran Church in West Central Spokane opened its fellowship hall, which was secure and separate from the rest of the church, for 60.  A building on West Cannon opened for 40.  Westminster opened and in last December the Salvation Army opened a shelter in an empty former furniture store for 65.

Andy CastroLang, Westminster’s pastor, received an email from the city about the need.  She talked with the chair of the trustees and moderator.  They met with folks from the city to learn about the need and let them know what was needed to make it possible for Westminster to accept some people.

“We needed doors that locked between stairs to the basement and the narthex/sanctuary.  We needed a security camera.  We needed for there to be staff skilled to interact with the homeless people,” she said.

The city said staff from The Guardians Foundation would set up, do intake, clean up and put away the mats every day.

“We didn’t have the human resources to do it, but we have a building near downtown, and our gift could be to offer the space rent free,” Andy said.

The trustees met and said “Yes, this is what we should do.”

The council met and said, “Yes, this is what we should do.”

To the many questions raised, the city offered answers, saying the church had a good location near the Shalom Ministries site that served breakfasts, near the Crosswalk program for youth and near Frontier Behavioral Health.

The church also had lights, heat and bathrooms.

In fact, church volunteers were already in the process of remodeling the basement restrooms. They put their efforts on fast track.

The church was also concerned that 150 children use the building during the week day afternoons and evenings—Lego League groups and Spokane Youth Choirs and Spokane Youth Symphony.

“There were many parents and volunteers with those groups.  We needed to assure that they would be safe from harassment or panhandling,” Andy said.  “We needed to be sure the building would be secure for the renters who use the building, while we stepped up to say that our homeless neighbors are our neighbors, too.”

So the shelter uses only the west door on 4th Ave. and restricts access to the rest of the building with the elevator closed, a baby gate across the stairway and a fire door on the main level.  There are locks on kitchen and boiler room doors.

A security camera outside the east door on 4th Ave. means those inside can see who is outside, knocking to come in.

The fire marshal said there was need for two exits from the basement.

“Westminster went to work to make it happen fast,” Andy said.

Security doors were ordered, but had to be modified to fit the uneven doorways of the building built in 1890.

The City of Spokane is paying about $20,000 including the cost for extra hours for the church’s custodian and secretary.

Since it opened after Christmas, there have been three to 22 young people staying there.

“The city has a low threshold for allowing people to come into a shelter out of the cold,” she said.

Some with pets may bring them, but they can’t bring a shopping cart of belongings down the stairs, which are the access to the basement.

Being a downtown church, Andy said that Westminster has had education programs about homelessness and has been involved with and raised money for the Volunteers of America Crosswalk program for homeless youth, for Transitions programs for homeless women, including a Mardi-bras collection.

It has been involved with the Odyssey program for at-risk youth and with providing meals periodically for homeless families staying in the Spokane Friends Church through the Family Promise program partners with 35 churches, 14 of which host families for a week at a time in their buildings.

“This was something concrete we could do this winter,” said Andy.

Opening doors to welcome up to 24 young adult men and women from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m. on cold nights took the church saying “yes,” the city saying “yes” and the fire marshal saying “yes.”

At Spokane’s permanent shelters, Union Gospel Mission, has 255 beds; Family Promise, 80 (soon); House of Charity, 174; St. Margaret’s Shelter, 18; Volunteers of America’s Crosswalk, 21 for youth; Hope House, 36 for women; Truth Ministries, 65, and YFA Connections,16 for children.

That’s not enough to meet the increasing numbers of homeless people, said Tija Danzig, program manager with the city’s Community, Housing and Human Services. 

The shelters provide services to help move people from the streets to education, health care, jobs and permanent housing. 

The Guardians Foundation, which helps run several warming shelters, provides security and referrals.  Frontier Behavioral Health also provides teams to help people find long-term solutions.

One church member’s daughter is bringing food from Campus Kitchen—sandwiches, veggies and breakfast burritos.

“The temporary shelters are at least a safe, warm place to be and connect with resources,” Tija said. “While the City of Spokane is supporting these warming shelters this winter, it seeks long-term solutions, including 100 to 150 more beds in a 24/7 permanent shelter space by summer.”

Meanwhile, Catholic Charities of Eastern Washington continues its commitment to build 800 permanent housing units for chronically homeless people—with 525 built.

When one staff member of the Guardians walked through the sanctuary for an orientation to the location, he saw the rainbow flag, an earth flag, a transgender flag and a flag from Felsorakos, Romania, a sister congregation.

“I’m going to go home and tell my husband about this,” he told the pastor.

Andy said that this is something that the church is offering this year until the city develops a long-term solution and shelter.

“Church basements shouldn’t be a city’s solution for homeless people,” she said.

“Outreach needs to include mental health care, drug and alcohol treatment, and other ways to address issues that give rise to homelessness as families, culture and economic opportunities break down,” Andy said.

For information, call 624-1366 or email or visit


Copyright © January-March 2019



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