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Trouble continues to roil The Horizon, a Ward 7 homeless shelter that opened just last fall. The Department of Human Services discovered that the social services nonprofit tapped to run the shelter’s day-to-day operations appeared to falsify critical employee information.
A DHS official told City Paper last week that an internal audit of Life Deeds, the Ward 7-based nonprofit that manages the shelter, indicates that the company may have falsified personnel files, including background checks, TB tests, and drug screenings. Life Deeds’ executive director Allieu Kamara denies these allegations.
The agency’s investigation is ongoing, a spokesperson says, and will also extend to a separate contract Life Deeds holds with the city to run a transitional housing program for youth who have been in contact with D.C.’s court system. Together, Life Deeds has won city contracts in recent years that total close to $5 million.
On Jan. 28, DHS says, it began sending its own staff to the shelter to either replace or support Life Deeds employees. The agency completely replaced Life Deeds’ security and monitoring teams as well as some of its case managers, adding case managers from the agency’s Family Services Administration. “Proper background documentation is crucial to ensuring that the staff members who serve our families at The Horizon are qualified to do so,” a spokesperson for DHS tells City Paper in a written statement.
Last week, Kamara said that his organization has a “good” relationship with DHS, and that the agency has not dismissed any of his staff members from The Horizon. He blamed “disgruntled” ex-employees for fabricating the allegations against his organization, which he denies. Kamara did not answer City Paper’s subsequent calls for this article, and his office’s voice mailbox was full.
One longtime D.C. social services provider, who is familiar with the contract solicitation and procurement process for District-run shelter sites, tells City Paper that, generally speaking, DHS does not receive extensive personnel information—including the kinds of documents Life Deeds allegedly falsified—upfront. Instead, they’re typically files kept onsite that the organization would have to produce for an audit.
Information that an organization must submit to the city when responding to a solicitation includes the group’s mission statement, projected budget, a staff list with job descriptions (“the contract requires certain credentialing for some positions, and that should be reflected in job description,” the social services provider says), and information about any previous contracts with the city. There is also an item that asks applicants to list any pending corrective actions.
The Office of Contracting and Procurement’s bidder-offeror certification form asks applicants to self-report any pending or closed investigations. One question asks whether the bidder has, in the last five years, “been charged with a misdemeanor or felony, indicted, granted immunity, convicted of a crime, or subject to a judgment or plea bargain for: (a) any business-related activity; or (b) any crime the underlying conduct of which was related to truthfulness?”
City Paper found D.C. Superior Court records that show Kamara and Life Deeds have been subject to civil judgments for business-related activity. In 2014, a Life Deeds employee sued Kamara in small claims court for $1,532 in unpaid wages. “I have made repeated attempts to contact the Defendant but have yet to receive the monies owed,” the plaintiff wrote. (City Paper reached out to the plaintiff but did not receive a reply.) Court records show that Kamara agreed in mediation to pay the plaintiff the owed funds.
The same year, another former Life Deeds employee sued Life Deeds for $200,000. The plaintiff in that case, Amanda Hayes, alleged that a senior-level Life Deeds employee encouraged her to relocate from North Carolina to D.C. so that Hayes could accept a position at Life Deeds. The senior-level employee “stated her belief that Plaintiff, given her skills and experience, was uniquely qualified for a position with Life Deeds [and] stated to Plaintiff that if she was willing to relocate to the D.C. Metropolitan area, the Defendant would offer her an employment position,” Hayes alleged in the complaint.
Hayes left her job at a human services organization in North Carolina to accept a job at Life Deeds with a $49,000 annual salary. It further alleges that Life Deeds sent Hayes an offer letter dated Aug. 19, 2013 stating that her first day would be Sept. 9. But Life Deeds “engaged in an ongoing pattern of delaying the start date” for Hayes, she alleged. By November, she still had not started her job there. Hayes further alleges that after meeting with Kamara in the Life Deeds office that November, Life Deeds “ceased all communications with Plaintiff, despite numerous phone calls and emails” to Kamara, who “completely ignored Plaintiff.”
A judge eventually ordered the organization to pay Hayes $36,895—about $27,000 in lost wages, $9,200 for rental payments, and $600 for compensatory damages.
DHS either did not know about these lawsuits or did not consider them serious enough indicators of the company’s performance to impede its ability to serve the shelter. When asked whether Kamara disclosed Life Deeds’ legal history on OCP’s bidder-offeror certification form, a DHS spokesperson said that the agency “did ask about—in the last five years, has the organization had any judgment against it? We did that check and didn’t receive information” that would prompt the agency to continue investigating. The spokesperson declined to comment further.
The longtime social services provider says that hearing about Life Deeds’ alleged actions has prompted concern in the service community about how the agency could better preemptively monitor prospective contractors. DHS already requires extensive paperwork from applicants, the provider says, which can prove burdensome for smaller organizations that continue to grapple with higher caseloads and smaller contract awards.
“Maybe the burden of more documentation wouldn’t be so bad, but we already fill out a lot of paperwork for every contract … and often have to resubmit when something doesn’t get uploaded right,” the provider says. “So it isn’t nothing, and that’s just on our end. It is worth some consideration, especially if this kind of [alleged behavior] is extremely rare and if DHS’ auditing procedures and timing are solid. [We] should certainly have very high safety standards for services for children and vulnerable populations, but we could never prevent every problem.”