Offering homeless people 'dignity,' new Union Gospel Mission rules limit access

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The Union Gospel Mission says it wants to encourage more people to get off the street and stay overnight at its men's shelter on East Trent Avenue. But to do that, the UGM is taking a controversial approach: adding a barrier for people wanting clean clothes, a shower, or something to eat.

Until recently, those were services open to anybody, even if a person didn't want to stay there for the night. But now, homeless people who go to UGM wanting to shower or to take clothes from its clothing bank have to stay there overnight.

And if a homeless person wants a meal? UGM wants them to show photo ID.

"The stance we're taking is somewhat different than a lot of social service agencies," says Gabe Shippam,  UGM men's rescue director. "We knew people would be upset, and people are upset. But some people that we serve really agree with the changes."

Shippam says UGM had been discussing whether to implement the changes for months before they went into effect in November. The goal was to cultivate better relationships with the people they serve, and, he says, to give them more dignity.

Dave Wall, UGM director of community engagement, says the shelter was being "inundated" by people not using overnight services. Specifically, he says clothes from the clothing bank were being taken and then discarded along the Spokane River. The UGM, he says, decided that rather than having homeless people camp on the river, those individuals would have a better chance of safety and protection at the shelter.

The new requirements at the UGM are in addition to the already-existing rule that people must be sober if they stay at the shelter overnight. Wall says the shelter's 185 beds have never been completely filled.

"We're not preventing them from [using our services]," Shippam says. "But if we're giving people everything they need to live out on the streets, what that may say to someone is, why should they check into the shelter?"

For Rick Eichstaedt, executive director of Center for Justice, what's concerning is the new rule that asks for photo I.D. before homeless people can get a meal. He says many homeless people, particularly if they have a mental illness, don't have the documents necessary to obtain identification.

"Unless they're providing assistance [in getting those documents], that really can be a barrier to providing service to that community," Eichstaedt says.

The UGM, Wall says, has always taken pictures of people who want a free meal in order to track who is using their services. He says requiring identification is a better way to do that. Shippam says the shelter won't turn anyone away if they don't have photo ID.

"We want people to have photo IDs," Shippam says. "If they don't we'll still serve them."

Wall says some men have refused to offer photo ID already because they fear it will be disclosed to law enforcement. The UGM wouldn't share information unless police have a warrant or subpoena.

The people who "really need our services" are more OK with the changes, Wall says. He says there's been more backlash among the chronically homeless who may use only some services provided by the UGM. He notes that if people don't want to spend the night at UGM they can go to another shelter in Spokane.

The changes at UGM went into effect Nov. 1, the same day the city of Spokane announced the House of Charity homeless shelter would be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week during the winter.

Ryan Oelrich, chairman of the Spokane Homeless Coalition, says homeless people have expressed concerns about the new rules at UGM.

"The homeless individuals I've specifically talked to shared concerns about overcrowding at the House of Charity now that they aren't able to access resources and services at UGM," Oelrich says. "One gentleman shared that he's struggling with a meth addiction, but doesn't think he can get clean while on the street — that he needs shelter first in order to kick the habit."

Oelrich says the Spokane Homeless Coalition has asked the UGM to explain the reasons for these changes and the impact to the homeless community.

"It is our hope that the result will be better understanding and collaboration and that together we can find solutions that are in the best interest of the homeless individuals we all serve," Oelrich says.