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New details, but few clear answers: Homeless provider Jewels Helping Hands remains under investigation by city

Julie Garcia, of Jewels Helping Hands, was on site at the Cannon Street warming center, Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019. Dan Pelle/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW  (DAN PELLE)
Julie Garcia, of Jewels Helping Hands, was on site at the Cannon Street warming center, Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019. Dan Pelle/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW (DAN PELLE)

Drug use inside the shelter, employees using racist slurs and bed bugs on mattresses.

If true, the myriad allegations lodged against Jewels Helping Hands would be damning, but city officials say they’re still in the process of reviewing the nonprofit’s response.

The homeless services provider, which operated the city’s Cannon Street warming center last winter, has rejected almost every complaint among the lengthy list disclosed by city officials in December. The center was allowed to shelter about 90 people each night and often was at capacity.

The Spokane Police Department was unable to substantiate allegations of potential criminal behavior, but an administrative review is ongoing, according to city spokesman Brian Coddington.

Now, Julie Garcia, its founder, said Jewels plans to file a lawsuit against the city, which she says tarnished its image and disqualified it from $2.5 million in city contracts while the investigation remains open.

“The way that the city does their contracts, it’s not fair and it’s not consistent,” Garcia said. “There has to be some kind of system. The problem is the damage to our reputation. The city still keeps putting out that we’ve been under investigation for almost close to a year, and no response.”

Jewels questions why the city has taken so many months to explain the basis of its investigation, which has resulted in the nonprofit being barred from city-funded homeless services projects since its contract to operate the Cannon Street warming center expired last April.

Nearly a year later, the nonprofit’s standing with city officials remains in limbo.

Though he can understand the frustration, Coddington argued that the investigation needs to be thorough. Even for the target, “it’s in your best interest for the integrity of that investigation to be maintained so if the case comes out in your favor, it’s credible,” Coddington said.

“It can feel like it takes some time to get that done, (but) it’s in the interest of everybody that it takes the time it needs to take,” Coddington said.

The relationship between the city and Jewels has been rife with friction since before the nonprofit was even fully operational at the city’s warming center last winter.

The city temporarily disqualified the nonprofit from applying for contracts to provide city-funded services starting last April, but it had not, until December, illuminated to the press or Jewels Helping Hands why it had any cause for concern.

Jewels Helping Hands leaders said they were finally provided a list of the more than 100 complaints on Dec. 6.

The list, shared with The Spokesman-Review by the nonprofit, is broad and covers serious allegations that include staff members distributing marijuana edibles to shelter guests, paying certain employees “under the table” so they could continue to collect benefits and improperly maintaining shelter records.

In a December email to Jewels Helping Hands, city Community, Housing and Human Services Director Timothy Sigler noted that the list was compiled after the city received a request “by a community advocate” that the city interview three prior Jewels staff members, six guests who stayed at the warming center and two other community advocates.

Jewels has responded to each issue, either dismissing them as entirely unfounded or not pertinent to its contract to operate the shelter.

One staff member claimed she was fired for calling 911 during an emergency.

“Personnel issues are private issues and if someone truly feels they were wrongfully terminated then they have remedies through Labor & Industries or the courts,” Jewels responded. “As a general statement, it is expected that our employees use de-escalation techniques first and police calls are limited to serious issues.”

Jewels also responded to a slew of other allegations.

For instance, one complaint suggested staff members called guests by racist names.

“Our staff included people of various racial backgrounds and sexual orientation. This would never be permitted, especially in our organization that is founded and ran by a Hispanic Woman,” Jewels wrote.

The bed bugs, the nonprofit said, were handled by a pest control company.

And drug use, by staff or guests, was not tolerated inside the shelter, the nonprofit claims. Garcia argued that drug use is common among low-barrier shelter guests and that the problem is not unique to Jewels Helping Hands, but she was adamant that those who were caught using on-premises were asked to leave.

At one point, the warming center was allegedly donated a “truck” full of shoes, but they were never given to guests, the city’s report said. That’s false, according to Jewels. It was a single box, and “some were taken to the shelter for guests there and some distributed during outreach.”

Garcia and her husband, Jason Green, were accused of allowing guests to stay in their personal home, but forcing them to use food stamps to contribute to the household.

“Julie and Jason’s home is outside of this contract nor are the rules the same in their home as in a shelter,” Jewels responded. “No payment (cash or groceries) has ever been a requirement of staying in our home. There are standards and accountability items, but money/food is not one of them.”

One staff member allegedly ran into a guest downtown and threatened to punch him in the face. It didn’t happen, Jewels responded, and even if it did, what employees do outside the warming center is beyond the scope of the city contract.

Guests who volunteered to work at the shelter were given special treatment, one complaint alleges. That’s true, according to Jewels, which said they were often given “first pick” because they were tasked with sorting donated items.

The process

Sigler wrote in his December email, “we will quickly review the documentation you have provided and compare it with the documentation we have available.”

Since filing its responses, Jewels hasn’t heard a word from the city, according to Garcia.

She welcomed a full investigation, noting the city had cameras inside and outside the facility, but she also felt that Jewels was singled out and held to a higher standard than other shelters.

“I don’t care if the city digs deep into our lives, as long as they’re doing that for all of the other city-run shelters. When you are opening your scope of investigation into our employment practices, that literally is not part of the contract,” Garcia said.

Coddington disputed that assertion.

“When you’re dealing with a vulnerable population, you have to take these allegations seriously,” Coddington said.

In 2019, the city canceled warming center contract negotiations with another nonprofit, The Guardians Foundation, largely because of allegations of misconduct brought against it by Garcia.

Garcia urged the city to investigate reports of sexual activity between guests and staff at the warming center operated by The Guardians during the 2018-2019 winter. The city paused negotiations with The Guardians on a new warming center contract, which was eventually given to Jewels Helping Hands instead.

The subsequent inquiry found issues with The Guardians’ operation, but it did not result in criminal charges. The organization now operates the Cannon Street warming center, 527 S. Cannon St.

Despite raising a red flag about The Guardians in 2019, Garcia says that The Guardians was treated unfairly while it was under investigation, too. Its CEO, Mike Shaw, “should have gotten to know why he was being investigated” much earlier, and “he should have been able to respond.”

“That’s my problem with the whole thing … if you’re getting complaints about a person or an entity, then you investigate them and move on,” Garcia said.

Shaw was blindsided when his organization’s contract negotiations were abruptly canceled in 2019. He was aware of unspecified allegations months earlier and “welcomed an investigation,” but never heard anything from City Hall, he said. The organization ultimately had to file a public records request to learn the details of a police investigation into its alleged misconduct.

“They seemed more interested in sullying our name and letting the residue sit,” Shaw said.

Ultimately, The Guardians and the city repaired their relationship.

“We exposed some things that we need to do a better job at, but we exposed to the city that that’s not who we are,” Shaw said.

The Guardians sued Jewels Helping Hands in Spokane County Superior Court last year for interfering with its contract negotiations. The two organizations reached a settlement in October. Shaw would not reveal its terms, citing a nondisclosure agreement.

Jewels is frustrated that it has waited months for any clarity. Meanwhile, it has opened a temporary warming center at City Church on Garland Avenue without city funding.

City officials are reviewing Jewels’ responses and the process should wrap up soon, according to Coddington.

“Some of them are quite complex, so some of these things just take time to work themselves through,” Coddington said, also noting the COVID-19 pandemic has lengthened the inquiry.

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