The city doesn’t have regular quality control measures, or guidance and protection for whistleblowers.
In the early morning hours of March 28, staff at Trent Resource and Assistance Center (TRAC) made a call to 9-1-1 to report a sexual assault.
The incident recording captures a frustrated staff member attempting to provide dispatchers with details of the alleged crime, while also trying to relay instructions from the dispatcher to other staff looking after the victim and simultaneously keeping the alleged perpetrator under watch.
“He’s sitting, like, about four feet away from us, so if he tries to run out the door, we’ll be on him,” the staffer said. “We’ll jump over this desk and tackle his ass.”
Giggling, the dispatcher replied: “I’m not sure I can encourage that, but I totally can relate to that feeling.”
After the dispatcher gathered information from staff on the alleged perpetrator, the staffer muttered. “Oh my god, these people.” Right before the dispatcher transferred the call, the staff said to the dispatcher. “Thank you, it’s getting a little out of control right now.”
The sexual assault was just one of the several 9-1-1 calls that night and morning. Three more came in between the hours of 4 a.m. and 8 a.m., all from residents themselves. A woman sobbing because she felt that staff made her expose herself during a search. A man considering harming himself. A woman saying she was being threatened by a fellow shelter guest.
There are only six Salvation Army employees on the overnight shift at the shelter — which often exceeds 300 guests — according to a staff member who spoke to RANGE on the condition of anonymity as they look for another job but still rely on their income from working at the shelter. Salvation Army did not grant RANGE’s interview request for this story.
The small staff size, large open environment of the converted warehouse and the array of substance abuse and mental health challenges experienced by people at the shelter have made some staff express concerns for their safety. “It’s like a huge trap house,” the staff member said. “All I know is that it is not a safe place at any moment for anyone.”
The problems extend beyond violence to matters of basic nutrition, food preservation and hygiene. Staff has told RANGE that they feel there’s been food poisoning cases over the weekends, because all food for the weekend is delivered on Fridays and not adequately stored.
These concerns are not new, or isolated. RANGE has reported on previous complaints from staff about unsafe conditions at the shelter. City Council President Breean Beggs said that he has fielded concerns from shelter staff about worker safety, training and staffing levels at the facility. RANGE has also reviewed emails from Revive Counseling leadership, which provides housing and peer support services at the TRAC facility, criticizing Salvation Army, which operates the shelter.
In an email to city staff on March 14, Revive’s owner/executive director Layne Pavey responded to a request to sign a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between Revive and Salvation Army, saying in part, “Revive is not going to be forced to enter into an MOU with an organization who is abusing their power with guests, kicking them out into the streets in 7 degree weather for raising their voices, strip searching guests … I am not going to be forced into a relationship with an organization who has shown zero commitment to work with us in a collaborative way or demonstrated shared values in the way they treat people.”
Pavey has softened her stance over the last month, saying in a statement that: “While [Salvation Army] had a rocky start, attempting to jump into a situation and manage 350 beds quickly, everything we and the City have asked them to change has been addressed.”
Jenn Cerecedes, the head of Spokane’s Community, Housing and Human Services Department (CHHS), said issues like guests being assaulted, drug use and staff complaints aren’t limited to TRAC or Salvation Army. “When you look across the landscape, I know there’s a lot of focus on TRAC, but many shelters in Spokane have similar challenging issues,” Cerecedes said.
That admission brings into focus a deeper issue with the system: if many shelters are struggling, how does oversight work for the shelter system? And, is the current oversight sufficient to ensure guest and staff safety?
The answers to those questions illustrate that, beyond a shelter system on the brink of financial collapse, there are systemic challenges to guaranteeing healthy conditions at Spokane shelters. Further, there are no clear protections or processes for workers or guests experiencing those conditions to make their concerns heard.
While state agencies and the federal government provide some funding for shelter operations in Spokane, they aren’t directly involved in oversight of shelter operations. That responsibility falls mainly on the city of Spokane’s CHHS Department and, to a lesser extent, the Spokane Regional Health District (SRHD).
“There is an expectation and requirement in our contracts for funding that grantees (in this case the City of Spokane) comply with all applicable local legal and public health codes and requirements, and we rely on local authorities with the expertise and authority for monitoring and enforcement of any violations,” said Penny Thomas, a public information officer for the state Commerce Department, which has invested $2 million in TRAC. “If such conditions/violations exist, Commerce would seek curative action but can also terminate contracts [with the city] for cause or convenience and potentially take further action.”
At the state level, staff can make workplace safety complaints to the state department of Labor and Industries at this link (which also handles wage discrepancies). Complaints to L&I are protected under whistleblower laws at the state level, but those same protections do not apply for whistleblowers who take their complaints to city staff, creating the possibility of retribution for speaking out.
Locally, SRHD conducts site visits to recommend health measures and oversees food service at shelters that offer regular meals.
“We [SRHD] provide guidance to help mitigate the spread of communicable disease by offering vaccinations, testing, and by convening partners to help make healthcare more accessible,” said Kelli Hawkins, the public information and government affairs director for SRHD, in an email to RANGE. “We also provide guidance in regards to hand washing, air ventilation, and isolation space, which also helps prevent the spread of disease. We do the same for other populations where there are health disparities.”
Though plans for adding plumbing and basic facilities at TRAC have been submitted, the shelter still operates with portapotties, portable hand-washing stations and other temporary measures.
In addition to providing guidance and resources for general public health in shelters, the health district has regulatory authority over food service — albeit with a different standard than would be required at a restaurant or school cafeteria.
“If a shelter is preparing and serving food to the public that requires temperature control for safety, they may fall under the Washington State Food Code (WAC 246-215) that applies to donated food distributing organizations (DFDO). They are typically exempt from the food permit requirement, however they are still required to handle and prepare food safely,” Hawkins explained. “SRHD’s food safety team reviews applications for recognition as DFDOs and provides guidance on processes and procedures based on the equipment available in their food preparation facility.”
A recent site visit, which is different from an inspection in that it is education not enforcement focused, found several areas where the shelter needed to make changes. That included making sure that workers all have food handler cards, ensuring that there is a stocked and sanitary handwashing station in the food service area and requiring thermometers be available to ensure the proper internal temperature of food being served at the shelter.
How city monitoring works
The city’s oversight process for shelter operators is modeled off of the oversight that the city receives from program funders, such as the federal department of Housing and Urban Development and the state’s Commerce Department, Cerecedes said. This process doesn’t involve surprise audits or continuous site visits for quality control, but is more collaborative, structured and happens during a set period of time.
The process starts with a 30-day notice that an audit will occur. Then after 30 days, the organizations — be it federal auditors and the city, or the city and local service providers — have a conference where they discuss the oversight process. That initial meeting lays out expectations for what information will be required in the audit and sets a schedule for how monitoring will occur.
For city audits of operators, there is then a series of meetings and in some cases, site visits, covering topics like financial practices and operations. After this back and forth, the city will issue a letter that either concludes the process or sets out additional requirements for the organization, be they a shelter operator like Salvation Army or a service provider like Revive Counseling. If there’s additional monitoring required, the process is extended until the concerns have been addressed, Cerecedes said.
This process mainly requires feedback, data and documentation from people in leadership roles and doesn’t necessarily include communicating with rank and file workers.
Council President Beggs said he would prefer shelter oversight “to be more robust and a little more unannounced.”
“I’ve been saying for a while that we need somebody in CHHS that part of their job — it might not be their full job, but part of their job — is to just go do quality control. Just go check,” Beggs said. “I’m not saying that’s Jenn’s [Cerecedes] fault. We would have to give her staff to do that.”
Making random inspections could help sort out and reveal ongoing issues that aren’t being surfaced through the current oversight process. “Go make unannounced visits at each of the shelters each week and talk to people who live there,” Beggs said. “I don’t think they talk to residents. No one’s doing that. It’s a complaint-based thing and it doesn’t seem very effective.”
To illustrate how fractured the communication can be and how that can lead to unsanitary and unsafe conditions in the shelter, Beggs recalled a December visit to TRAC. On that day, with overnight temperatures plunging below zero, the council president went to the shelter because he had some time to kill and wanted to track down a rumor that people were being turned away despite the dangerously cold weather.
What he found was a staff team with no clear understanding of either the admittance policy — no one was to be turned away despite the commotion from switching out old beds — or even the conditions in the shelter itself.
That day, none of the 10 handwashing sinks were working, Beggs said. “They just weren’t being serviced.”
“I asked the second in command, ‘hey, the sinks aren’t working.’ And, she says, ‘oh, they totally work,’” he said. “Then her assistant says ‘no they don’t, they haven’t been serviced in two weeks.’
“She didn’t know that and she’s on-site.”
Beggs said he doesn’t want to make it about any individual or organization, but from a big picture perspective, something’s got to give. “It doesn’t have to be an us versus them, or somebody’s always the enemy or the bad guy,” he said. “It’s just that this isn’t working correctly — this needs to change. I would like the city to be more proactive.”
During her time as an employee of Revive Counseling at TRAC, Breia Gorder said she experienced and witnessed things that she felt were unethical at the shelter. That included staff doing aggressive repeated searches of guests at the shelter and taking away guest’s medication.
Gorder also alleges that Revive was misrepresenting people who did not have a connection to Camp Hope as former residents in order to offer them the services made available through the state right-of-way initiative, which includes the Catalyst supportive housing project. As a staffer, Gorder said she tried to raise concerns about what was going on at the shelter with city officials, including council members and City Administrator Johnnie Perkins.
“At the beginning it felt like they were listening, then Johnnie stopped taking my phone calls,” Gorder said. Perkins did not respond to a request for comment.
Eventually, Gorder was terminated by Revive, in part for her unauthorized communications with city and Salvation Army staff.
In Gorder’s termination letter from Revive, her communication with city employees is cited as one of the reasons she lost her job. “You continue to talk to representatives at the City of Spokane about the inner workings of the shelter and Revive business,” the letter signed by Pavey reads. “This is willful disregard of your employers’ interests, as the information you are sharing with the City could have negative impacts on Revive’s reputation and contract to provide services to the TRAC shelter.”
While the termination letter appears to be based in part on Gorder sharing information with city officials, Pavey pushed back on the idea that Gorder was fired simply for raising concerns about shelter conditions. “[Gorder’s] termination was not due to her talking to the City or [Salvation Army] about ‘complaints about shelter conditions’ or ‘practices’ of Revive,” Pavery wrote in an email. “However, I cannot make further comments on what Breia was discussing with City representatives.”
Regardless of the actual reason for termination, Gorder said she feels like she’s been blackballed for speaking out. While job hunting, she said an employee at another agency asked her if she would “keep her mouth shut now” if she got another job in the field.
For Gorder, who was previously homeless and worries she could end up losing housing again, the message from agency leadership is clear. “As a person with lived experience, they’re setting the standard of ‘don’t open your mouth,’” she said. Gorder believes that people like her, and former colleague Timothy Morgan, who was also formerly homeless and lost his job with Revive after signing a pair of affidavits used in the Camp Hope trial, are having their voices taken away unless they serve a purpose to people in power.
“We’re being weaponized,” Gorder said. “No one cares if we end up back on the street.”
Protections for workers
Part of being more proactive and ensuring that standards of care are met in shelters is empowering workers to have their voices heard by city staff, and protecting them when they speak up. Currently, the city doesn’t have any standard guidance that they give to shelter workers about how to raise concerns about workplace safety and treatment of guests.
The city does have weekly meetings with agency leadership where issues are raised and addressed. Pavey said those meetings have helped improve operations. “I can assure you that every time Revive staff has had issues with how [Salvation Army] staff have conducted themselves with shelter guests, we have brought that information directly to the City and [Salvation Army].”
“The City set up a weekly meeting for us to work through these issues to ensure guests of the shelter are treated with dignity and worth,” Pavey said. “We collaboratively set up a process to escalate any grievances our staff have about shelter conditions or the treatment of guests. Everyone on Revive’s team knows how to send grievances directly to [Salvation Army’s] Program Manager or to the City.”
But, the process for having complaints heard isn’t clear to everyone working at the shelter. That’s led staff to reach out to Beggs in some cases to air their concerns. And, while he said he’s happy to hear people out, that process doesn’t make sense. “It shouldn’t depend on [if] you know the right council member that will be sympathetic,” in order to have your complaints heard, Beggs said. “That shouldn’t be the need. There should be a more formalized or organized way of dealing with [complaints].”
Beggs said he hadn’t considered trying to codify whistleblower protections, but that he wouldn’t rule out council action to protect whistleblowers. “I’m open to considering it,” he said. “It wouldn’t be typical, but these are extraordinary times, so they might take extraordinary measures.”
Short of council action to institute a formal complaint process and protect people who blow the whistle on workplace conditions, Cerecedes said that the city has workplace grievance policies for funded organizations and that she wants to hear directly from people with concerns about shelter operations.
“Every individual organization is responsible for their workplace policies and procedures, and they all vary from place to place,” Cerecedes said. “We do require that they have a grievance procedure.”
“We do not have a policy that says here is how you would blow the whistle on your own organization, that’s typically organization specific,” Cerecedes said. “But, certainly if somebody had concerns that they were uncomfortable voicing to their organization they could reach out to us directly at any time. I would love for people to share that information with us.”
Cerecedes said she often hears about potential violations second- or third-hand, which isn’t enough to start an investigation. “For me to take any sort of action as an administrator,” she said, “I need to have some sort of documentation that says: I am the person. I witnessed this. I’m able to speak to you about it.”
While Cerecedes wants to hear directly from people who have work safety complaints, she wasn’t clear on if staff would be able to protect people from having their identity revealed through public records requests if they email complaints. “After conferring with our city legal department it was determined that it is outside the scope of my role to comment on the applicability or non-applicability of the Public Records Act,” Cerecedes said.
So, she recommended that they either write to her from an email account that is not traceable to them personally or call her directly. “Please know that I am glad to accept anonymous phone calls should someone wish to report something to me,” Cerecedes said.
If you are writing an email, consider creating a new account that is not obviously traceable to your name in order to avoid potential discovery of your correspondence in public records requests and potentially face workplace retaliation. The city does not have any clear policies protecting whistleblowers.