NEW YORK – With the first set of people moving into its new emergency shelter today, Catholic Charities Eastern Washington begins what it hopes will be a two decades-plus initiative to address a rise in homelessness in Spokane and surrounding communities.

Called “The Catalyst Project,” the initiative will allow up to 100 people at a time from a Spokane homeless encampment of more than 600 people to move into a repurposed Quality Inn hotel, where they’ll receive support and work towards finding work and long term housing.

Dawn Kinder, chief stabilization officer of Catholic Charities Eastern Washington – which serves as the Catholic charities branch for the Diocese of Spokane – told Crux in a recent conversation that the initiative’s immediate goal is “life safety and getting people indoors as quickly as possible.”

In the long term, she said, it’s about being an “interim stop gap” for people to live in a structured shelter with the support they need with an eye towards the future.

“Our goal is really to be that in-between space for people who are choosing to act more stably in their behaviors and want to be working on that long term solution, and really be that holding ground for folks trying to figure out how to get a job and how to get an apartment, but can do it safely with a lot of support,” Kinder said.

The Catalyst Project is funded by the Washington State Department of Commerce Rights of Way Initiative, which is a 2022 legislative session proposal from Gov. Jay Inslee to deliver housing and services to individuals and families living in certain state-owned rights of way.

It passed within the state’s supplemental operating budget, with total funding of $143,294,259.

Inslee visited Catalyst on Dec. 5, ahead of its opening. Last month, he spoke about the importance of homelessness funding and services and stated that “there is no question that additional capacity and more services will be a top budget priority in 2023.”

“There is no simple answer for fixing homelessness fast,” Inslee said.

“In the short term, we need more shelters that provide services so people get back on their feet,” he continued. “Over the long term, we need more housing that average workers can afford. Both of those solutions require every community to do their part.”

Like many areas of the country, homelessness has been on the rise in Washington in recent years. In Spokane County in particular, the 2022 Point-in-Time Count found a two-year increase of 13 percent. The data, published in May, found an estimated total of 1,757 homeless people, up from 1,559 people in 2020. Full data isn’t available from 2021 because the COVID-19 pandemic limited the count to people staying in emergency shelters and transitional housing projects.

Kinder explained that there are a number of factors contributing to the problem including lack of affordable housing and housing in general in the state, land use and zoning limitations, and COVID-19 related mental health issues and subsequent substance abuse that led people into situations where they had once had stable housing.

“If it was one thing we’d be able to fix it everywhere but we’re certainly seeing that it’s a very complicated subject, and we don’t have any good single reasons at this point,” she said.

More than 600 of the homeless people in Spokane County live in what’s called “Camp Hope,” an encampment in Spokane – the largest homeless encampment in the state. Those are the people who will move into The Catalyst Project shelter.

The shelter includes 87 rooms (14 for couples) that include a private bed and bath and is open to both men and women. Background checks will be completed for all potential residents.

Residents will be provided three meals a day and have access to a weekly laundry service. The site will include onsite case management, certified peer support, mental health and substance abuse counselors, and a large operations team, as well. There is also a full staffed security team who will patrol around a fenced and secured area 24/7.

Kinder said that there is no time limit to how long someone can stay at the shelter, so long as “folks are participating and they’re following the expectations.”

Not everyone in the community is on board with the initiative. Back in September, a group of people living in a neighborhood near the new emergency shelter sued Catholic Charities and affiliates of the initiative, including the City of Spokane.

The lawsuit was filed by the group “Spokane for Safe Neighborhoods,” who argued that the initiative violates Spokane City zoning and land use laws.

William Hagy, president of the group, also told the local in September that “there is a huge concern for public health and safety” with the project. He told Crux in a Dec. 7 email the introduction of the program has “caused a great deal of civil unrest, duress, and animosity amongst residents, businesses, as well as current developers.”

“Additionally, there has been a high number of homeowners who’ve vacated West Hills as a result of the proposed Catalyst program, as well as two long standing executive (West Hills Neighborhood Council] board member resignations,” Hagy said.

After the lawsuit was filed Catholic Charities Eastern Washington released a statement calling it “frivolous and completely without merit.” Kinder said the organization is making a motion for summary judgment on the lawsuit soon, noting that it didn’t impact the initiative’s opening.

Moreover, she said she hopes the initiative will be a mainstay for at least 20 years.

“Our big long term goal is to be here for at least 20 years,” Kinder said. “We’ve got an operating agreement for 20 years and just want to be creating as much stability for people as possible.”

Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburg