Mike Shaw got the call at about 1 p.m. Thursday.
The city of Spokane asked if his organization, The Guardians Foundation, could step in to operate the city’s warming center on Cannon Street with just a few hours’ notice.
Shaw said yes, and The Guardians snapped into action, scramblingto step in and oversee the warming center, which closed when the city allowed its contract with former operator Jewels Helping Hands to expire on Thursday.
The foundation was already on deck to take over a temporary shelter set up inside the downtown branch of the Spokane Public Library, but taking over the warming center meant it would play a much bigger role in the region’s plans to shelter people who are homeless during the COVID-19 pandemic.
As it closed Thursday morning, Jewels handed out tents to its guests, many of whom promptly set up camp in nearby Coeur d’Alene Park. That scene forced city officials to just as promptly reconsider their plans to leave the Cannon Street warming center vacant.
Although its services were not needed on Thursday night after all, The Guardians ultimately moved into and reopened the Cannon Street building on Saturday, after Jewels cleared its property out of the building.
“It was an emergency basis, the staff stepped up and figured it out,” Shaw said. “I just have to thank my employees for making that happen.”
The Guardians Foundation now operates the Cannon Street building and, as of last Thursday, a temporary shelter set up within the downtown Spokane Public Library. Both spaces were overseen by Jewels – until its city contract expired on Thursday – and slept 105 guests in total..
Shaw had anticipated and prepared for taking the reins at the library after Jewels closed, but the request to run Cannon Street was a surprise.
The Guardians Foundation now runs both facilities, and provides security at the COVID-19 isolation facility opened last month at the Spokane County fairgrounds.
The new responsibilities represent a major change of fortune for the group.
As its contracts with warming centers expired on Thursday, the city plans to transition to a regionally vetted plan to fund homeless service providers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Jewels Helping Hands was cut out from the process, with city officials citing unspecified allegations against the nonprofit.
With the library shelter set to close on May 15 and the Cannon Street building part of the city’s plans for a day-use shelter, officials hope to locate an alternative facility to replace both during the pandemic.
Shaw knew he could piece together the staffing for the library shelter, pulling from the 40-person crew assigned to work at the fairgrounds isolation facility. But the Cannon Street facility forced the nonprofit to pull out all the stops.
“We were able to make the library work fairly smoothly,” Shaw said. “When Sunday came around, we just had to do more juggling.”
To sustain its operations, The Guardians restructured its staff schedules, transitioning from three 8-hour shifts in a day to two 12-hour shifts in a day. Each employee now works four days on, three days off.
“We were then able to fill a whole shift with our current capabilities,” Shaw said. “We were able to take care of three facilities with not much more staffing with one facility. With that alone, we believe we’ve found a good stewardship of the budget here.”
About six of the eight or nine employees that The Guardians had hired on an all-call basis have been brought on full time. There are still holes in the schedule that need to be filled, but Shaw is working on resolution.
Shaw acknowledged the deep ties many in the homeless community had to Jewels Helping Hands, which operated the warming center since its opening last November.
Issues that surfaced last year between The Guardians and Jewels – which have led the former to sue Jewels and founder Julie Garcia for allegedly interfering with its quest for a city contract – caused him “pain and suffering,” Shaw said.
Some guests at the shelters have lingering doubts about The Guardians.
“This is just the residue, and it’s fading away as fast as I hope it can,” Shaw said. “The reports I’m getting back from my staff and as I’m walking through the sites – there’s been some comments made, yes, absolutely, but nothing that hasn’t been mitigated through just politeness back.”
Shaw said there were four former Jewels Helping Hands employees that he was “looking hard at” as candidates for help with The Guardians. But given the city’s apparent investigation into Jewels that precluded it from earning a new contract, Shaw said he is proceeding “with major caution.”
Garcia, in a Facebook post, urged former Jewels employees to apply at The Guardians.
“Please know our mission is to serve our houseless friends and to do so with love, kindness and compassion in any capacity,” not only through Jewels, Garcia wrote.
Over the weekend, there were shelter beds available for adult men, adult women and families, according to Tija Danzig, a program manager for the Community, Housing, and Human Services department.
The Cannon Street shelter and the supplemental shelter space at the downtown Spokane Public Library had open beds, Danzig said in a briefing to the city council’s Public Safety and Community Health Committee.
Across all populations, there were between 45 and 58 beds available.
“That’s a positive thing to report,” Danzig said.
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