COEUR d'ALENE — Local officials and nonprofits are discussing solutions for local homelessness with winter near and the recent closure of some services.
Coeur d'Alene Mayor Steve Widmyer organized a meeting of stakeholders on Thursday at Michael D's Eatery, hoping to get a jumpstart on the problem.
"This is just the beginning (of discussions)," Widmyer told attendees. "Please use me as a conduit on how we can collaborate as a group on homelessness."
The latest "point in time" count on the local homeless population last January indicated there were about 450 homeless people in the area. Some homeless outreach workers believe the statistic is lower than the actual number, and the next count will be taken in January.
Some of Thursday's discussion was about the recent closure of Fresh Start on Sherman Avenue that offered the homeless a place to go to obtain services in the morning and the transition of those services to St. Vincent de Paul's newly remodeled facility in midtown.
Another recent loss was that Second Street Commons no longer operates as a day center for the homeless, but only as a place for meetings. Last May, Volunteers of America announced that due to a lack of funding it was closing the doors of Crosswalk North Idaho, a youth drop-in center and outreach program based in Coeur d’Alene and formerly known as Project Safe Place. The Altar soup kitchen also closed due to a lack of volunteers.
Jeff Conroy, executive director of St. Vincent de Paul, said taking in additional people at the nonprofit's daytime center since the Fresh Start closure has been a smooth transition overall.
"We have seen an influx of 50 to 60 more people at our help center, and they've been respectful, courteous and kind," Conroy said.
Construction of St. Vincent's expanded dining hall, which will increase capacity from 17 to 72, is expected to be completed today. The hall was renamed to Father Bill’s Kitchen in honor of Father Bill Crowley who served on St. Vincent's board of directors.
The kitchen is also nearly complete and new showers at the campus are expected to be finished late next week.
St. Vincent's warming center sites in Coeur d'Alene and at Kamps Apartments in Post Falls will be activated from Sunday through Feb. 28 when temperatures fall below 25 degrees.
"We are pleased to offer this necessary service to help some of the most vulnerable people during harsh weather, Conroy said. "In planning for the harsh weather, we must consider the homeless and their safety."
The capacity at those sites is 72 in Coeur d'Alene and 45 in Post Falls. Conroy said the warming centers were open 48 days last year and they don't fill up.
"We'll get maybe 50 people maximum," Conroy said. "We have the room."
Conroy said some homeless people simply want to be left alone and stay in tents or vehicles and don't seek shelters. Others don't want to adhere to the rules of the shelter, he said.
St. Vincent is in need of donated sleeping bags, blankets, gloves and socks, Conroy said.
Gar Mickelson, Heritage Health homeless outreach coordinator, said not having Fresh Start available has been difficult for some of the homeless population.
"They're feeling a sense of loss of a place that was theirs," he said.
Multiple attendees expressed the need for serving the homeless with a holistic approach. Rather than just offering them services such as a meal or warming center in the short-term, there need to be long-term solutions to help people get on their feet and find work.
But Two Feathers, Heritage Health's case worker for homeless outreach, said there's also an immediate need for the homeless.
"Right now they have nowhere to go," he said. "Every time they find a place, they get moved. Now they have a problem of their personal belongings being taken away. They need a safe place to go and we need to be able to access them. The colder it gets, they'll go to storefronts (and abandoned buildings)."
He said homeless people were recently asked to move from their camp along the Spokane River in Coeur d'Alene after a fire in that area. He said the homeless population was blamed for starting the fire, but he said it was not a homeless person who started it.
Earlier this year, the homeless were chased from their camp on state property near the Huetter rest stop along Interstate 90.
Thomas Byrne, Heritage Health's homeless outreach director, said his agency has been collaborating with Kootenai Health to identify the "high utilizers" going to the hospital to be treated and why they're going there. The hope is to serve them through Heritage's mobile clinic, which can obtain federal funds, and to reduce the county having to pay for write-offs for the indigent population.
Jim Brannon, Kootenai County clerk, said 40 percent of his budget goes toward the indigent program.
"We've got to get this solved," he said. "(The costs) just continue to grow."
Some of the attendees said they've come in contact with folks who have a wealth of experience on homeless issues and whom they could bring to the table during future meetings.
Byrne said it will take all resources, including churches, nonprofits and government agencies, to come together to tackle homelessness.
"We need to use all of our community," he said.