City Says First Step Trips On Code Violations Recovery Club Faces Tough Battle Over Services It Offers
First Step Services, a private addiction recovery club that operates as an informal neighborhood watchdog on East Sprague, is violating city and state codes, officials said Friday.
City code enforcement officers served a notice of violation on the club Friday morning.
The notice says First Step Services, 1927 E. First, is not zoned or licensed to operate as a mission or detox center.
“If this stands, I’m done,” said First Step owner Darold Johnson. “I can’t help anyone anymore.”
Johnson says he operates a clean and sober club, not a homeless shelter. First Step is used by the neighborhood’s residents as a gathering place, he said. Many of the area’s homeless and prostitutes also frequent the facility.
Johnson was told he has 14 days to stop providing shelter services or the city will take legal action.
City officials said they’ve received three complaints about the private club.
The first complaint came on Jan. 22 from a man who lives in an apartment above a business on East Sprague just north of First Step.
He told city officials that people panhandle and sell drugs and sex outside the club. He said people appeared to be living inside. On Wednesday, Department of Corrections officer Richard Jost filed a complaint after a man told him he lived at First Step.
On Friday, East Central COPS president Tom Bernard also filed a complaint.
“I feel they are condoning suspected illegal activity by letting the suspected drug dealers and prostitutes use the club,” Bernard wrote. “The activity at this club really concerns me as they are not fighting crime but encouraging it.”
Johnson and members of First Step’s board of directors crowded the club’s office on Friday, questioning the city’s motives.
“This is harassment,” Johnson said.
City officials said they are just doing their job.
“We respond to complaints,” said Roger Flint, the city’s director of general services, which oversees code enforcement.
“This … is not in compliance with city zoning ordinances. They have no special permits to run a mission or a detox center. We have to act accordingly.”
The code enforcement officer who served the notice, Scott Emmerson, said he was told by his supervisors not to talk about the situation.
First Step has been at its First Avenue location since 1994, providing support and a place to rest, eat and shower for drug and alcohol abusers, and anyone who needs a hand.
Johnson and his wife, Penny, run the club with their own money and donations. It receives no government funding.
“We’re doing the same thing now that we’ve always been doing,” Johnson said.
In recent months, local prostitutes have used the club as a safe haven while police investigate a serial killer responsible for at least four murders of Spokane women.
Social service agencies, including Community Detox, also have referred people in trouble to First Step.
But city and state records show the club is operating improperly.
The First Step building is in a B2-L zone, which allows for businesses such as service stations, dry cleaners and union halls, according to the city ordinance.
The property would have to be zoned B3 for First Step to function legally as a detox center or shelter.
First Step, run by volunteers, has never advertised itself as a shelter or a detox center, but a portion of the club is set aside as a sleeping area for referrals from social service agencies, Johnson said.
There are no licensed professionals at the club. People who are intoxicated are given a cup of coffee and a place to sit, Johnson said.
“If giving someone a cup of coffee is considered detox, then we’re guilty,” said Tom Eby, a member of the First Step board of directors.
City officials said allowing people to sleep in the club requires a special permit. To operate as a legal detox center, the club would need state certification, which is at least a sixmonth process. “They’re basically just permitted to be a counseling center,” not provide other services, Flint said.
City officials don’t believe First Step is intentionally violating codes.
“They had a good heart,” said June Shapiro, the city’s Human Services director. “But I’m not sure they knew all the rules and regulations, or didn’t have the resources to do so.”
“It’s been a daily fight before I ever opened up the doors,” Johnson said.
“We help people and we are going to continue to do it until they bodily pick us up and get us out of here.”
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The following fields overflowed: BYLINE = Robin Rivers Staff writer
Staff writer Jonathan Martin contributed to this report.