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Saturday, March 28, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Spokane

Former contractor of city homeless shelters says organization was falsely accused of wrongdoing

UPDATED: Fri., Feb. 28, 2020

Michael Shaw, founder and CEO of The Guardians Foundation, and Martin Burgess, staff security at the Cannon Street shelter the group operated, are shown March 12, 2019. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Michael Shaw, founder and CEO of The Guardians Foundation, and Martin Burgess, staff security at the Cannon Street shelter the group operated, are shown March 12, 2019. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

The Guardians Foundation is accusing the founder of Jewels Helping Hands of lying to Spokane city officials about witnessing sexual activity between patrons and employees of its warming center last winter in order to gain advantage in the competition for a city contract.

The city abruptly pulled out of negotiations with The Guardians Foundation, an Idaho-based nonprofit, just hours before it was set to negotiate an agreement to operate a city warming center for a second consecutive year last September, according to its founder and CEO Mike Shaw.

The Guardians later learned that the contract negotiations were canceled because the city had recently been made aware of allegations of sexual misconduct against staff at The Guardians when it operated a warming center at Salem Lutheran Church the previous winter.

Julie Garcia, founder of the fledgling homeless services nonprofit Jewels Helping Hands, emailed city officials on Sept. 22 claiming that “I saw with my own eyes employees engaging in sexual behavior with houseless women behind the Salem Lutheran Church.”

But in subsequent interviews with police, who followed up on the report in a formal investigation, Garcia acknowledged that she “did not see anything that happened with any of these women.”

“It was only her email that precluded me from moving forward,” Shaw said on Friday.

Garcia did not return a request for comment on Friday.

The Guardians released the contents of a police investigation into reports of sexual assault against its employees on Friday. It received the police documents through a city public records request.

The release of information came the day after Mayor Nadine Woodward’s administration told The Spokesman-Review it would hire a third-party investigator to review the past actions of its Community, Health, and Human Services department. The CHHS department oversees the city’s distribution of $17.5 million in grants and funding to homelessness and housing service providers, among others.

The city has characterized the planned inquiry as broad in scope and has not indicated that Jewels Helping Hands or the The Guardians are a target of the investigation. It also would not specify which of the department’s prior staff could be questioned. City Administrator Wes Crago, who was tasked by Woodward with overseeing the administration’s role in the inquiry, said the inquiry would not impact current contracts with service providers.

After plans to open a permanent emergency homeless shelter on East Sprague Avenue fell through last year, staff within the CHHS department rushed to find suitable locations and service providers to operate warming centers for the homeless as winter approached in late 2019.

One of those providers was The Guardians Foundation, which had operated warming centers for the city for the 2018-2019 winter season.

But the night before The Guardians was set to meet with city staff to discuss a contract, Garcia emailed then-CHHS Director Kelly Keenan and other employees to raise her concerns.

In addition to saying that she witnessed sexual activity between employees and warming center guests, Garcia wrote that “I know of 2 instances when a houseless woman who was staying at the warming center was taken home by a known sex offender and employee of the Guardians. I saw employees come to the warming center on their days off to engage in sexual behavior with our houseless women.”

Forwarding the email to CHHS leaders, department employee Tija Danzig wrote in an email obtained through a public records request by The Spokesman-Review that the accusations were “disturbing and upsetting.”

“I certainly would not have been open to working with Guardians Foundation had I been aware and would have taken immediate action had I known,” Danzig wrote.

Shaw said the investigation into The Guardians was concluded on Nov. 20, but the city has yet to put out a statement clarifying that the organization is in good standing.

In an interview with investigators on Nov. 12, Garcia reiterated multiple times that she had not witnessed sexual assault firsthand, but expressed concern because she “had seen people utilizing the shelter leave in cars with employees,” and had been “noticing strange things,” according to police documents. Garcia also said she knew of four to five other possible victims, but would not provide their names to police because the individuals were in fear.

Investigators interviewed one potential victim who was a guest of the shelter, but determined she “did not recall or witness any sexual assaults” at the warming center operated by The Guardians Foundation, according to police documents.

The woman did acknowledge that she engaged in consensual “sexual activity” and “drug activity” with Guardians employees at the home of a Guardians employee who is a registered level 2 sex offender, according to police documents.

Police suspended their investigation into potential sexual assault at The Guardians warming centers in November.

Shaw has pushed the city to criminally charge Garcia for knowingly making a false statement to a public official.

“There was complete and clear manipulation of the contract process by Jule Garcia,” Shaw said.

The city declined to discuss The Guardians Foundation’s calls for action on Friday, or the actions of any individual or organization.

“We’ve stepped back and will let a third party engage in the fact-finding and review process, and we’ll take recommendations from that third party and make necessary adjustments,” city spokesman Brian Coddington said.

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