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Spokane's shelters reaching capacity as temps drop

After a mild December, a frigid January is giving the city's system its first big test of the winter.

SPOKANE, Wash. — As Spokane sees its coldest temperatures of the winter so far, the city's shelter system is beginning to reliably reach capacity.

During an unusually warm December, shelters and warming centers rarely filled up. But with January temps in the teens, that's changing fast.

"We were close, but not all the way to full [in December]" said Julie Garcia, whose non-profit Jewel's Helping Hands runs a major warming center on South Cannon. "We're now 93 [filled spaces] every night."

Even though the Jewel's center is filling up, city data shows there has been space at other shelters this week. And Garcia says they've helped transport overflow guests to other facilities.

That data shows a total capacity of 780 across eight shelters and warming centers. On Tuesday night, 46 spaces stayed open.

But, not all spaces are accessible to everyone. Sometimes the only remaining beds are designated just for men, or just for women, or just for families. Distance can also be an issue. Furthermore, many shelter have barrier to entry.

"We have people who are banned from other facilities," said Garcia. "That is mostly the population that is still out on the street."

For those who can't get shelter, it's getting dangerous.

"Frostbite is what we see most commonly," Garcia said. "About 10 to 12 people here have it. We're sending people out to the hospital with it every day."

But Garcia says, on the whole, they're able to do a lot of good. Those they can't take in they try to keep warm with clothes. They recently got a new shower system that people come just to use. And, they're helping people connect to services.

"We've had 11 people get housing in the last month, because they're able to get to their appointments, where out on the street that's not a possibility," she said.

Garcia attributes those achievements to successfully fostering community in the shelter, in the neighborhood, with other shelters, and in Spokane as a whole.

"That is what I want to stress the most, is how amazing Spokane has been," she said. "[We have] a steady stream of volunteers coming through and volunteering. We have a steady stream of donations coming in."

The city also recently funded an additional 50 beds for women in a ninth shelter, which is not yet open but may become available at lower capacity sometime in the next week.

Once it opens, it's expected to also free up more space for men at other shelters.