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Woman’s Club of Spokane wants homeless shelter out of its building

The Women’s Club at the corner of Ninth Avenue and Walnut Street on Aug. 14 in Spokane.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
The Women’s Club at the corner of Ninth Avenue and Walnut Street on Aug. 14 in Spokane. (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

The Woman’s Club of Spokane issued a plea to its neighbors: call the cops on us.

More specifically, the club’s vice president asked in April, please report the people residing in our “hijacked” South Hill building.

“We can try to get them on nuisance behavior,” Robin Peltier wrote in a message shared on the neighborhood-based social network Nextdoor. “If we can get many nuisance behavioral complaints against ‘Jewels Helping Hands’ we may be able to get them out of our building very soon.”

The Nextdoor post was yet another escalation in a brief but intense dispute between the Woman’s Club of Spokane and Jewels Helping Hands over whether the homeless services provider has any right to operate a shelter at the club’s Ninth Avenue building.

Leaders of the Woman’s Club say they never approved Jewels as a tenant and have begged for help from city officials, elected leaders and police. They want Jewels out of their building, but the homeless services nonprofit refuses to leave until at least mid-May and it’s unclear if the Woman’s Club has any legal remedy.

Tension has risen as neighbors voice complaints to city officials and Spokane City Council members about the impact of the shelter on the surrounding area, which is primarily residential and surrounded by several apartment buildings and multifamily houses.

Jewels claims it reached an agreement with the club to take custody of the space in March, and that any misunderstanding is the result of disarray and disorganization among members of the club’s board.

In a March 30 email to city officials obtained by The Spokesman-Review, Peltier enumerated her concerns and described the situation as a “huge and horrible dilemma.” (Peltier resigned from the board of directors this week, citing dissension the issue has created between current and former board members of the nonprofit.)

The two organizations dispute whether any formal agreement or understanding was made prior to Jewels moving into the Woman’s Club building.

According to Peltier, the club considered allowing Jewels Helping Hands to operate in its historic building for only a matter of days or weeks – and only overnight – as the services provider transitioned out of its former location in the Garland District in March. Jewels founder Julie Garcia told The Spokesman-Review she’s been clear that Jewels intended to stay there through the summer and stay open 24/7.

The Woman’s Club believed Jewels needed the space only as supplemental shelter during a cold snap in February and believed Jewels would evacuate if the shelter interfered with any event at the club. The club also never had an inkling that Jewels would eventually take over the entire top floor of the building, according to Joshua Awesome, president of the club’s board.

“They were tugging on our heartstrings and making us think there was a severe need for that weekend (in late February) and we didn’t want people to die,” Awesome said.

The organization’s board, concerned about Jewels’ checkered history and a lack of clear communication from its leadership, ultimately voted against approving Jewels’ tenancy on Feb. 23, according to Awesome.

But a “huge misunderstanding” led to a Woman’s Club board member handing Garcia a key, Peltier explained.

“The key was specifically for the (fire) extinguishers to be tested and it was handed to her and stated we need this key back,” Peltier told The Spokesman-Review.

That apparently wasn’t the understanding of Garcia, who didn’t return the key. On March 1, she said, Jewels began to move in and has welcomed guests there since March 9.

After Jewels transitioned into the new space, the club’s board leaders wanted Jewels out and demanded Garcia present it with proof of any agreement that the nonprofit could stay there. She ultimately showed them a short letter that stated Jewels would stay in the space through August. Garcia was the only one who signed it, Peltier noted.

Garcia provided The Spokesman-Review with a copy of the letter, which indeed showed only her signature, and said a version signed by the Woman’s Club was never returned to her.

Garcia also provided The Spokesman-Review with a written copy of Jewels’ approval from the Spokane Regional Health District to distribute food at the site and a copy of its emergency exemption from building codes issued by the city’s Code Enforcement Department, allowing Jewels to operate a shelter there through June 12.

Both of those approvals were given after building tours with public safety and city officials, Garcia noted. They included a board member and volunteer from the Woman’s Club of Spokane, she added.

“They had to be there with the inspections,” Garcia said. “They knew what was happening since February.”

But Peltier and Awesome believe Garcia took advantage of a well-intentioned board member.

Awesome acknowledged a communication breakdown between board leadership and the board member and volunteer who toured the space with Garcia, but remained adamant that the organization never agreed to let Jewels move in.

The Woman’s Club also alleges that Garcia promised it would give the club $5,000 of a $25,000 grant it won to operate the shelter, but that payment has not been made.

Garcia told The Spokesman-Review that the money was never promised. Jewels did receive the grant this week, she said, but won’t be sharing it with the Woman’s Club because Jewels won’t be there in another few weeks.

The Woman’s Club of Spokane has existed for more than a century and typically rents out its space for events. It had two contracts this summer and would not have approved a shelter that would interfere with those agreements, Peltier argued.

Garcia alleges that the Woman’s Club wants Jewels out because it saw the opportunity for rental revenue once Spokane County moved into Phase 3 of Gov. Jay Inslee’s reopening plan. She also believes that the Woman’s Club has caved to neighbors who don’t want a shelter nearby.

Peltier denies both charges, and noted that the club’s summer plans predated Jewels’ arrival.

A way out

If it wanted Jewels gone, Garcia has said all the club had to do is provide Jewels with a 30-day notice to vacate.

Awesome said his organization has made its wishes clear and provided The Spokesman-Review a copy of a written request, signed dated March 30, for Jewels to leave the premises by April 13.

Garcia has indicated Jewels Helping Hands is willing to leave, but been unclear exactly when that will be.

In an April 6 email to a club board member, Garcia wrote that Jewels “will be out just as we stated at (the) end of the month.”

In an April 9 response, Peltier wrote that the club “accepts the written agreement from Jewels Helping Hands to be completely out of the Woman’s Club of Spokane” by the “end of this month, April 30, 2021. This is now a non-negotiable date.”

Garcia then replied that she accepted Peltier’s email as a 30-day notice, meaning Jewels Helping Hands has until May 11 to leave, at which time “keys will be left and a final inspection can be done.”

A 30-day notice is important because its guests inherently have nowhere else to go, Garcia argued.

“It doesn’t work like that when there’s 40 people who you offered a space to,” Garcia said.

The Woman’s Club has contracts for the building’s use in May, Awesome said, but it’s unclear what legal means it has to remove Jewels.

“We need them out. That’s why I’ve been working with virtually anyone to get them the hell out. I don’t want the homeless hurt, I just really need them out,” Awesome said.

In the meantime, city leaders are fielding complaints from frustrated neighbors.

One neighbor who emailed Councilwoman Lori Kinnear said people have been peering over her fence and into her property. She feels vulnerable, Kinnear said, and “as a female you would be, too.”

The Spokane Police Department has responded to complaints in the area that include public urination and open drug use, according to department spokesperson Julie Humphreys. She noted that while callers attributed that behavior to shelter guests, the department could not make the same connection for certain.

Kinnear has asked police to step up patrols in the area and questioned whether the city should more tightly regulate pop-up shelters, which inevitably have an impact on the neighborhood.

“It would be the same thing as if a school was built across the street – there are going to be certain impacts to the neighborhood,” Kinnear said.

In a scathing April 10 email to Garcia, former club president Rosemary Small described Cliff-Cannon as a neighborhood in which residents of all income levels have come together and taken deliberate care for the area.

“Now, groups of random people, mostly male, are loitering on the Woman’s Club front lawn smoking, lying down and snogging together, sitting in our volunteer installed and maintained landscaping, using the hand rails for bike stands, tweaking on the clubhouse lawn in broad daylight, walking through residential backyards and jumping fences,” Small wrote.

Garcia denies having any issues with criminal activity or nuisances associated with the shelter.

Guests at the shelter acknowledge there are some people who cause a problem, but said they’re generally quickly taken care of. Raven Barnett, a guest and volunteer at the shelter, said he cleans up trash in the neighborhood.

“This place is clean,” said Michael Gossett, another guest.

Several shelter guests expressed frustration, and that people without housing are expected to not be seen or heard – even though they have nowhere else to go. If Jewels’ shelter is closed, Barnett said, “I’ll probably go buy myself a tent, to be honest.”

According to the city, shelter capacity is not currently an issue. There have been between 90 and 100 beds unused in the city’s network of shelters in recent days, mostly for adult men and women like those served by Jewels, according to city spokesman Brian Coddington.

Past shelters

The Woman’s Club is not the first space Jewels has used for a pop-up shelter.

After briefly providing shelter at the Westminster Congregational United Church of Christ, Jewels Helping Hands had a contract and operated a warming center at City Church on Garland Avenue from December through the end of February.

Church leaders later reached a “handshake agreement” with the nonprofit to let it stay into March, not wanting to “kick 30 people out in 20-degree weather,” said Jason Krauss, a church pastor.

Krauss said Woman’s Club leadership recently called and asked him how the church got Jewels Helping Hands to leave. But, for City Church, it was never an issue.

“They just left,” Krauss recalled.

In fact, despite initial concerns from the local business district and some neighbors, Krauss said things went smoothly with Jewels Helping Hands.

“It was, for us personally, a great experience; we left on good terms,” Krauss said.

But Jewels has experienced friction elsewhere, including with the city of Spokane. And its dispute with the Woman’s Club isn’t the first time Jewels’ tenancy of a building has been contested.

In 2019, the organization denied a city request to vacate the city-owned warming center on Cannon Street. Jewels had been selected to operate the shelter for the winter, but city officials asked Jewels to leave the space when past allegations surfaced against Garcia and Jewels’ treasurer, Jason Green.

After it won the city contract, reports revealed that Green had served time in federal prison after pleading guilty in 2013 to receiving illegal kickbacks at a previous job. According to court records, Garcia was investigated by police for allegedly stealing from a 96-year-old man while working as his in-home caregiver in October 2012. The charges, which Garcia denied, were dropped in 2015.

Within days, the city rescinded its request that Jewels leave the Cannon Street warming center, which it operated through the winter of 2019 and 2020.

Through nearly all of 2020, the city barred Jewels from winning shelter contracts while it investigated more than 100 allegations made by former employees and community members as it operated the Cannon Street shelter. The complaints included one from a former employee who said they were fired for calling 911 during an emergency, and reports of regular drug use and distribution inside the facility. But earlier this year the city dropped the investigation and welcomed Jewels to once again apply for city contracts.

Meanwhile, Jewels faced the legal consequences of allegations Garcia made against The Guardians Foundation, another homeless services provider with which Jewels competes for city contracts.

Garcia warned the city in 2019 that she had personally witnessed a staff member of the Guardians – then operating a city warming center – engage in sexual activity with a shelter guest. She later told police she did not personally witness the activity, but the Guardians had already lost out on a city warming center contract that instead went to Jewels.

Claiming unfair interference in its attempt to win the city contract, The Guardians sued Jewels Helping Hands last October. The two organizations eventually reached an undisclosed settlement.

The future

Despite a history of turmoil, the organization touts its ability to serve people experiencing homelessness. It not only operates a shelter but conducts street outreach to unsheltered people, offers transportation and runs a mobile shower.

That work will continue, Garcia said, while the organization looks for a new home.

“We’re working on a respite facility because most of our guests are people who can’t care for themselves,” Garcia said.

With Peltier’s departure, the Woman’s Club is left with only two board members, Awesome said. It’s been closed through the pandemic, and still hopes to generate revenue through events this year – assuming Jewels leaves.

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