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News >  Spokane

Police push homeless out of park after Spokane shelter closure raises controversy and tent city

UPDATED: Fri., May 1, 2020

Bowser Vecito found a spot to pitch his new tent under a pine tree, Thursday, April 30, 2020, in Spokane’s Coeur d’Alene Park. Jewels Helping hands’ contract on its South Cannon Street expired on Thursday, leaving over 100 people to take up residence in tents in the park. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Bowser Vecito found a spot to pitch his new tent under a pine tree, Thursday, April 30, 2020, in Spokane’s Coeur d’Alene Park. Jewels Helping hands’ contract on its South Cannon Street expired on Thursday, leaving over 100 people to take up residence in tents in the park. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

FRIDAY MORNING UPDATE: No arrests were made on Thursday night as police cleared Coeur d’Alene Park of people experiencing homelessness and directed them to available shelters. Jewels Helping Hands, with permission from the city of Spokane, reopened the Cannon Street warming center for one final night. It is expected to close at 10 a.m. Friday.

Spokane police officers ordered dozens of people experiencing homelessness to leave Coeur d’Alene Park on Thursday evening after a warming shelter closed and those affected pitched tents in the Browne’s Addition park.

The problems happened as the city’s contract with Jewels Helping Hands, the nonprofit running the warming shelter, was about to expire.

When residents left the closing shelter and began setting up tents in the nearby park, the city of Spokane scrambled to reopen its Cannon Street warming center on Thursday with a different operator.

That was an abrupt change of course for the city, which had planned to leave the building vacant when Jewels left, but those new plans didn’t work out.

Jewels has run the Cannon Street warming shelter since last year and refused to immediately make way for a new operator after it closed on Thursday.

Jewels leadership told city officials that they planned to exercise a contractual right to remove their belongings from the shelter building before handing over the keys to a different operator.

“This is insane, this is really so unbelievably insane,” Jewels Helping Hands founder Julie Garcia told The Spokesman-Review.

As planned, the city said it would allow its contract with Jewels Helping Hands to expire at 11:59 p.m. Thursday. But in a reversal of course, the city attempted to temporarily keep the warming center open – under a different operator – until Jewels refused to immediately leave on Thursday afternoon.

Under its contract with the city, Jewels has 14 days to clear its possessions from the building.

Jewels has the right to remain on the property, city spokesman Brian Coddington acknowledged, but it can not operate the site as a shelter.

“Jewels has served their clients and their guests well. … It’s unfortunate that for the next 14 days we’re not going to be able to continue that service on behalf of their guests,” Coddington said.

It is not likely that Jewels would need the full 14 days to remove its belongings, Garcia said.

“We’re not trying to occupy the building or get the city to pay us. We just need to get our things,” she said.

Also on Thursday, Jewels evacuated its shelter space at the downtown Spokane Public Library, which it operated as part of the regional COVID-19 response effort. That space, which sleeps 59 guests, was expected to reopen under oversight of The Guardians Foundation on Thursday night. Coddington said the materials inside the library shelter space belong to the city, not Jewels.

The library shelter is expected to remain open until May 15. It was operated by Jewels under its existing contract with the city, which expired at 11:59 p.m. on Tuesday, Coddington said.

The closures occurred one day after regional leaders informed the nonprofit in a letter that it was ineligible to be granted a new contract to operate the shelter through the COVID-19 pandemic because “the city has recently been contacted by multiple parties with legal, civil, and contractual obligations that have risen to the level of being investigated.”

Coddington would not divulge the details of the investigation, stating only that it is ongoing.

Jewels handed out more than 120 tents to its patrons on Thursday morning.

Soon after, Coeur d’Alene Park became a makeshift tent city and the city of Spokane announced plans to temporarily reopen the Cannon Street shelter, as well as its counterpart in the downtown library, with a different operator.

Although the warming center’s closure was fully expected, city officials appeared caught off guard by the fallout and quickly worked to reopen it under the oversight of a new operator, The Guardians Foundation, on Thursday.

Alternative shelter sites, planned as part of the regional response to the COVID-19 pandemic, are not ready.

Combined, the two Jewels-operated shelters sleep more than 100 guests.

Garcia said Jewels was OK with closing the Cannon Street shelter and did not expect a contract extension, as long as people still had a place to sleep.

“I don’t want to run a permanent shelter with the city of Spokane … that’s not the issue,” Garcia said. “Jewels, as an organization, is never OK with people sleeping outside.”

In executing both closures, Coddington said the nonprofit violated its contract with the city – even though both occurred less than 24 hours before the contract was set to expire.

Garcia said that if the city’s intention was to have The Guardians take over the Cannon Street shelter, all it needed to do was say so. As of Thursday afternoon, no one from the city had communicated to Jewels that The Guardians would move into the building, she said.

“We would have been happy with people having somewhere to go,” Garcia said.

Instead, Garcia said Jewels’ guests were wracked with anxiety on Wednesday night because the warming center was set to close the following day. Garcia said she reached out to members of the Spokane City Council on Thursday, but none had been informed of the new provider.

“Nobody knows, it’s just getting made up,” Garcia said.

Shelter was available Thursday night at the downtown Spokane Public Library, operated by The Guardians, as well as the other shelters in the network of homeless services providers throughout Spokane.

The city “has quickly mobilized to make sure that everybody has a safe place to sleep tonight,” Coddington said Thursday. “We’re encouraging everyone who’s currently in the park to go there.”

But some in the park appeared ready to resist leaving Thursday.

Shortly after 5 p.m., Spokane police circled the park. Capt. Tracie Meidl addressed those congregated at Coeur d’Alene Park over her vehicle’s public address system, stating that camping is not allowed and that transportation would be provided to shelters.

Calls to line up for shelter sparked confusion among those gathered at Coeur d’Alene Park, and many called out to others to stay put.

As police drove out of the park, dozens of people chanted, “Heck no, we won’t go.”

Daniel Rose, who has been homeless for about two years, described the closure of Jewels Helping Helping Hands as abrupt and called it “devastating.”

“There still has to be a place for us to go,” Rose said. “Once we know something for sure, of course we’ll take that option.”

Many wanted to come to Coeur d’Alene Park after Jewels closed on Thursday “to make a statement and let people know, ‘Hey, this is what’s going on,’ ” Rose added.

Lloyd Allen Myers was also at the park on Thursday evening.

“You back us into a corner, you give us little or no options, we’re going to go somewhere,” said Myers, who has been homeless for more than 25 years.

The city announced earlier this week that, as part of a regional effort, it was searching for an additional shelter site or sites for homeless people during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Cannon Street warming center, officials said, would be closed and eventually reopened as a day-use shelter separate from the regional plans.

But on Thursday the city abruptly changed course, pledging to keep the Cannon Street site open until the regional shelter plan is solidified and beds are available.

Initially, Coddington said that “there was a belief in the system that there was an ability to absorb the day-to-day fluctuations in the population of those shelters” as Cannon Street closed on Friday.

“Due to the disruption that’s happened today, through no fault of the occupants of those shelters, the city felt it was in the best interest to maintain continuity and provide space in a similar manner while the regional search goes on,” Coddington said.

Although it has not yet identified a new shelter location or locations, the county’s Emergency Operations Center has already selected five providers to fund through the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Coddington.

Jewels applied, but was not selected.

The Guardians was picked to operate both the library shelter space and Cannon Street building previously occupied by Jewels under a single contract, according to Coddington.

There is a history of conflict between Jewels Helping Hands and The Guardians Foundation.

Last year, Julie Garcia told city officials she had witnessed sexual activity between employees of The Guardians and guests at the warming center it operated for the city in early 2019, prompting a police investigation. Police found no evidence of sexual assault and dropped the investigation.

In return, The Guardians CEO Mike Shaw accused Garcia of lying to police and, in doing so, of scuttling its chances of winning a city contract to operate the Cannon Street shelter.

The applicants for COVID-19 funding were reviewed by a committee with representatives from the Spokane Regional Health District, the city of Spokane Valley, the city of Spokane and Spokane County, Coddington said.

By embarking on a regional effort, the city hopes that shelter related to the COVID-19 will be funded by federal coronavirus aid, which is distributed through Spokane County, not the city.

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