Two warming center operators have been fighting for their own reputations - and against each other

click to enlarge Despite the controversies the recently formed nonprofit has faced, Jewels Helping Hands plans to open a new warming center on Friday. - YOUNG KWAK PHOTO
Young Kwak photo
Despite the controversies the recently formed nonprofit has faced, Jewels Helping Hands plans to open a new warming center on Friday.

It was "sabotage," Julie Garcia alleged on Facebook.

On Nov. 5, the morning of the election, news broke that Garcia's partner Jason Green — who co-founded with Garcia the Spokane nonprofit Jewels Helping Hands — had served 21 months in prison for embezzling from a former employer.

Garcia had a theory as to why city Councilman Mike Fagan had brought the story to the attention of local reporters: It was "revenge."

Jewels had been recently picked by the city to manage a homeless warming center on South Cannon Street, instead of the Guardians Foundation, which had operated several warming centers last year. Fagan's son, Garcia noted on Facebook, worked for the Guardians.

"We have been very candid about the serious concerns and complaints made against the Guardians regarding their operation of the warming centers," Garcia wrote. "Every step of this process we have insisted those issues not be repeated."

For months, whispers of complaints against the Guardians Foundation had been circulating, concerning everything from a failure to maintain order to allegations that an employee had sex with one of the homeless women at the shelter. Many of these complaints had been forwarded by Garcia and her allies.

Then, this month, allegations against both groups began to spill out onto social media, including an old attempted theft charge against Garcia herself.

Now, these two nonprofits — which took on the herculean task of running low-barrier warming centers to stop homeless people from freezing to death — are each in the fight for their organizations' survival, as they both defend their reputations and attack each other.

"You come in at 7 o'clock and you know they've been out there freezing all day long, and you look in their eyes and you can see how close they are to death."

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INCIDENT REPORTS

Last Christmas morning, according to Guardians Foundation founder Michael Shaw, a warming center employee knocked on his door with a serious allegation: The employee said that Brendan Zaebst, then a Guardian site supervisor, was telling her to not to record certain incidents at the city-funded warming center, lest it jeopardize their funding with the city.

Zaebst, in a recording made by Shaw, fervently denied that he was asking the employee to falsify documents, but acknowledged that he warned her that it would make the Guardians look bad to report comparatively minor incidents.

"I mean if we were to write an incident report every time that, you know, we asked someone to stop doing something or we asked somebody to leave, we'd have 12 a night," Zaebst said in the recording. "And it would be literally 'A gentleman was high on meth and wouldn't sit still.'"

A furious Shaw didn't buy his excuses. By the end of the conversation, Zaebst was terminated. Zaebst went on to volunteer for Jewels.

Shaw has been running — and living at — homeless veterans shelters in the region for the last seven years. But running a low-barrier warming center, the kind that doesn't turn away drunk or high people, was a different sort of challenge. It was a pressure cooker where staff had to handle "stabbings, beatings, verbal threats, throwing people through windows, kicking, stealing," Shaw says.

An employee, he says, tried to intervene in a domestic altercation at a warming center and ended up getting stabbed with a pair of scissors.

Shaw was used to danger. He'd served in Iraq, he says, where his Army unit was "pretty much decimated." Two came home in body bags. One guy came home with no legs. Six or seven were diagnosed with "raging PTSD."

Still, even he was scared sometimes at the warming centers, not just for his safety, but for the lives of people staying there.

"You come in at 7 o'clock and you know they've been out there freezing all day long, and you look in their eyes and you can see how close they are to death," Shaw says.

Other community members saw the same crisis and rushed to fill in the gaps. Activists and volunteers, including Green and Garcia, joined together to serve meals outside of the warming centers.

Sharon Smith, with the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund, helped fund some of their efforts, including an effort organized by Jewels to house homeless people in hotel rooms until a cold snap was over.

"There was one night they found a woman who was unconscious with cold," Smith says of Jewels Helping Hands. "Julie crawled in her sleeping bag to warm her up until the paramedics got there."

At times, the Guardians teamed up with the Jewels volunteers. Together, they fixed up a trailer to turn it into a mobile shower unit, providing clean showers to homeless people.

Yet activists also were worried about the conditions of the warming centers. Smith says that she even discussed hiring "secret shoppers" to stay overnight at the centers to report back on what was happening.

"I did talk to a woman who had been sexually preyed upon — she was enticed into a sexual relationship [with a Guardians staff member]," Smith says. "It was heartbreaking."

By February, Shaw says, he got a call from Kelly Keenan, the city's director of Community Housing and Human Services, raising a similar concern.

Without the name of the suspected employee, Shaw says he asked his staff if they were aware of anything — they all denied it — and reiterated to his staff that having sex with the homeless clientele was unacceptable.

Even after the warming center program wound down in April, the complaints continued. According to Jewels spokeswoman Tanya Riordan, the Jewels team and several homeless individuals met with City Council members and city staff in July to discuss incidents at the warming centers. That same week, Garcia spoke with Shaw personally, this time naming a specific former Guardians employee she alleged had taken advantage of a homeless woman.

But Shaw says the man she named fervently denied the accusation, offering to take a polygraph to clear his name. He did the same when contacted by the Inlander.

In the meantime, both Jewels and the Guardians were competing for a five-year contract to run a full-service city homeless shelter.

At a Sept. 23 council meeting, Jewels volunteer Mercy Aguilar stood up and said she was aware of "the intimate details of the things I witnessed the Guardians doing to and against our homeless."

Shortly before the meeting, Aguilar had sent a nearly 2,700-word email to the city and two council members, detailing scores of accusations and complaints of "vile behavior" from the Guardians Foundation. She excoriated the nonprofit on the conditions of their warming centers, saying there often weren't any clean blankets available and that the portable toilets were overflowing and smeared with feces. She said that an older male volunteer at one center exchanged "a shot of meth" for a sex act with a young woman staying at the shelter.

"I can bring you each of the people mentioned in this letter," she concluded. When the Inlander contacted Aguilar last week, she declined to comment, directing all questions about her accusations to Riordan, Jewels' spokeswoman.

Shaw disputes much of the letter, but acknowledges that several points were at least partially true. Blankets were being stolen, he says, at the rate of about "10 percent per day." The portable toilets, managed by the city, were overburdened and were so damaged that they had to be condemned.

And he says that there was a person potentially in line for a job at one of the warming centers who was accused of injecting a woman with meth. Shaw says that when the prospective employee told him "his meth was his own business," Shaw pulled the job offer.

But despite all this, on Sept. 19, Shaw says the city was planning on tapping the Guardians to run at least one temporary warming center this winter.

click to enlarge Guardians founder Mike Shaw accuses Jewels Helping Hands of trying to tarnish the Guardians Foundation with accusations. "If this didn't stick, they're going to come up with something else," Shaw says. "What else are they going to say to prove their point?. - DANIEL WALTERS PHOTO
Daniel Walters photo
Guardians founder Mike Shaw accuses Jewels Helping Hands of trying to tarnish the Guardians Foundation with accusations. "If this didn't stick, they're going to come up with something else," Shaw says. "What else are they going to say to prove their point?.

"Their quote was, 'You are running the shelter,'" Shaw says. "'Get your ass up here so we can get this contract signed.'"

But a few days later, Shaw says, the city suddenly changed its mind — pulling the offer to run the warming center — and wouldn't tell him why. For nearly two months, Shaw says, he operated under a cloud, unsure what exactly his organization was being accused of.

In a phone call to the Inlander on Friday, City Attorney Mike Ormsby refused to confirm or deny that there was — or ever had been — an investigation into the Guardians Foundation.

But an hour after Ormsby's phone call, Shaw says he was contacted by Tim Sigler, interim director of the city's Community, Housing and Human Services Department, and was told that the "Guardians Foundation is no longer under investigation and the allegations were proven to be unfounded."

It was only on Monday of this week, Shaw says, that the city informed him about what the investigation was concerning: He says he learned that in a Sept. 20 meeting with the city, Jewels had apparently raised allegations charging that at least one Guardians employee had sexually assaulted a patron. Shaw was horrified by the charge.

He says he's convinced that Jewels was trying to sabotage the Guardians, to take them out of running for operating a shelter or warming center. He accuses Jewels of spreading falsehoods against the Guardians for their own ends.

"This is after we gave her a very nice trailer to use," Shaw says of Garcia. "After I hooked her up with a contract with [Feed Spokane] to support her food program, after giving her a f—-ing $500 power washer."

THROWN STONES

Riordan denies that Jewels' intention was to sabotage the Guardians.

"The only interest was to make sure that these women's stories were presented to the right authorities to investigate properly, to make sure they were not preyed upon by service providers," Riordan says.

Instead, she accuses Councilman Mike Fagan, father of a former Guardians employee, of sabotage, saying he made it his "mission to attack Jewels and Jason and Julie personally."

But Fagan, who has repeatedly questioned Jewels' qualifications, says that all he did was to publicize the contents of an FBI press release about Green's 2015 embezzlement conviction that he was sent anonymously. After the news about Green's embezzlement broke, it caught the attention of some of Garcia's former co-workers, who flagged criminal allegations against Garcia herself.

"I turned the information over to the authorities," Fagan says. "And suddenly I'm being called 'Satan.'"

In 2013, Garcia was accused of attempting to steal from a 96-year-old man while she worked at the in-home health care agency Comfort Keepers. The police detective wrote that he confirmed with Wells Fargo that the elderly man made Garcia the beneficiary of his $50,000 certificate of deposit. The detective also raised concerns about nearly $2,500 in checks written directly to Garcia instead of the home care agency and noted the possibility that at least one of those checks was a forgery. Garcia hasn't publicly explained the transactions and, through Riordan, declined to sit for an interview with the Inlander.

Instead, Riordan put out a statement claiming "the case was dismissed because the allegations were completely false and made by someone with a personal vendetta."

To the contrary, the court documents indicate the charge was actually dismissed because Garcia suffered from "chronic medical issues," and the prosecutor on the case tells the Inlander that it appears like "the defendant's chronic illness impeded my ability to successfully prosecute the case."

Still, some community members have rallied behind Jewels. After a rock was thrown through Garcia and Green's window on Nov. 8 — allegedly with a note reading "brown bitch shut up!" — the NAACP, the Spokane Coalition of Color and the Center for Justice all signed on to a letter condemning the incident. When the city asked Jewels to vacate the Cannon Street warming center while it investigated the allegations against Garcia, activists protested outside City Hall and the city backed down.

Where others saw a black mark on Garcia and Green's records, supporters like Sharon Smith — Jewels' fiscal sponsor — saw stories of redemption.

"So many of these nonprofits employ previously incarcerated employees," Smith says. "It would be a real shame if that turned into something bad."

Yet one of the biggest complaints leveled by Jewels against the Guardians was Shaw's decision to employ sex offenders.

"When you have employees responsible for vulnerable people in an overnight situation," that's different, Smith says.

Indeed, two of the Guardians employees, Shaw acknowledges, were sex offenders. In 2012, the Guardians made a resolution that they wouldn't discriminate against sex offenders.

"If we discriminate against this person, who's next on our list of discrimination?" Shaw asks.

Instead, he says, he's tried to make sure that the sex offenders he works with aren't put into any positions that would violate their terms of probation.

However, he also says the City Council needed to know about Green's background before they approved the contract.

"The problem here isn't second chances," Shaw says about the allegations against the Jewels founders. "The problem is the process."

On Friday, the Cannon Street warming center is scheduled to open. After paying for an extra insurance policy demanded by the city, Jewels will still be the operator. And now, Jewels will face many of the same challenges the Guardians faced last year.

"No one is prepared. No one is prepared to deal with trauma you have to deal with when you're faced with 300 destitute individuals," Shaw says. "No one is prepared to deal with that on a daily basis for months on end." ♦

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About The Author

Daniel Walters

A lifelong Spokane native, staff writer Daniel Walters is the Inlander's City Hall reporter. But he also reports on a wide swath of other topics, including business, education, real estate development, land use, and other stories throughout North Idaho and Spokane County.He's reported on deep flaws in the Washington...