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Sunday, January 19, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Spokane

‘The system is working’ after capacity at Jewels Helping Hands grows, advocates say

UPDATED: Wed., Nov. 27, 2019

The capacity of Spokane’s new warming center more than doubled on Tuesday.

A city-hired contractor finished expedited safety repairs to the warming center operated by Jewels Helping Hands on Tuesday, allowing the shelter west of downtown to expand to a capacity of 80 overnight guests.

“Everything’s going good. The guests are happy. We have one gentleman who just got housing yesterday. We’ve been getting people to services they need,” said Julie Garcia, who founded Jewels Helping Hands.

The city’s newly expanded network of warming centers – operated by various nonprofits – met the needs of the homeless population on Tuesday night, said city spokeswoman Kirstin Davis.

There were 12 unused beds available at Jewels Helping Hands for adults. Union Gospel Mission, Truth Ministries, Hope House and the House of Charity all reported having beds available on Tuesday evening through the city’s Homeless Management Information System, Davis said.

“The system is working,” she said.

The warming center at 527 S. Cannon St. opened on Nov. 23 in a limited space, taking in only 32 clients and turning away dozens of homeless people or transporting them to other shelters by van.

Jewels Helping Hands, the nonprofit tapped by the city to operate the warming center, had vocally pushed the city to hasten the repairs necessary to bring the building up to code and allow more people inside.

When it opened, Jewels was limited to the building’s lower floor while improvements were made to bring a second room – which was already replete with bunk beds and mattresses – up to modern safety standards.

Last week, city officials had estimated that the repairs – which include lighted exit signs and a new door – wouldn’t be complete until mid-December. But the repairs were completed ahead of schedule, allowing the nonprofit to more than double its overnight count.

“It will increase, we’re not in the very cold months,” Garcia said of demand for shelter beds. “We always see an increase come December and January.”

The warming center offers its clients breakfast, a sack lunch and a hot dinner every day. It deploys a van to transport people to appointments and social services.

“We’re trying to break down that transportation barrier,” Garcia said.

The nonprofit posts updated lists of needed items on its Facebook page. People can also connect with Jewels via its website, jewelshelpinghands.org, or via email at jewelshelpinghandsspokane@gmail.com.

“The community has been amazing, how they’ve stepped up to provide things,” Garcia said.

Critics have questioned why the city did not enforce safety regulations last winter, when a different operator used the building as a warming center. City officials addressed those concerns at a City Council meeting on Monday.

One notable difference is that the city now owns the building, having purchased it in October for $415,000.

“We had to get things done very quickly last year and we had to move as quick as we could, and we had to learn some lessons,” said Tim Sigler, the city’s interim director of Community, Housing and Human Services.

Sigler said the city met with fire, police, code enforcement, health district and nonprofit shelter officials to assess what could have been done differently last year and how the city should prepare for the shelter’s operation this year.

As was the case last winter, the city’s last-minute push to expand capacity at warming shelters has been marked by controversy and disarray.

Since it ended an agreement with Catholic Charities to operate the House of Charity 24/7 in 2018, the city had pledged to open a permanent emergency shelter with wraparound social services.

It appeared close to doing so this summer when it unveiled plans for a shelter at the former Grocery Outlet store on East Sprague Avenue, but the concept fell apart amid strong opposition from neighbors and a failure to win funding support from Spokane Valley and Spokane County.

At one point, as cold weather approached, the Spokane City Council introduced a resolution and held a news conference calling on Mayor David Condon to present it with a plan to shelter the homeless through the winter – which the council promised to fund. In response, Condon hastily organized a press conference of his own and criticized the City Council.

Community, Housing and Human Services Director Kelly Keenan – who was leading the search for a new shelter – abruptly resigned in October. Although he did not expound his reasons for leaving, he described the decision as “very difficult and personal.”

Already months behind in its plans to purchase and open a permanent, 24/7 emergency shelter, the city announced a plan in October to temporarily buttress the funding of existing service providers and open its own temporary warming center.

The City Council selected Jewels Helping Hands to operate the warming center, but the city nearly quashed the agreement before it was signed when concerns about the criminal histories of two of the nonprofit’s leaders surfaced. After a preliminary investigation, the city decided to stick with Jewels as the operator.

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