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On Jan. 3, staff at the Federal City Shelter picked up a collapsed Marvelyn Stalins and put her in a wheelchair, rolled her up to her bed, and left her there for the night. They assumed she was drunk.
Linda Stephens, whose bed was nearby, saw Stalins slumped over and moaning and realized she was going through something more serious than a bender. She called 911 and went downstairs after a few minutes to meet the ambulance. But shelter security had turned the ambulance away, so she called again and this time waited outside for the medics.
The second time, they came inside and found that Stalins was having trouble breathing, then took her to Washington Hospital Center. Stalins says she was treated for diabetic shock.
The staffers who left Stalins at her bedside had little accountability, not even the accountability that comes with collecting a paycheck: The Community for Creative Non-Violence (CCNV)—responsible for over 700 homeless adults at the Judiciary Square shelter—is staffed entirely by volunteers and homeless residents.
“They’re not educated enough to run this shelter,” Stephens said at a Jan. 31 D.C. Council hearing on the city’s 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness. Stalins and fellow resident Linda Fett complained about the physical conditions of the building, abuse from staffers, and the absence of professional social workers at the shelter.
And since late last year, CCNV has had much less oversight from nonresidents than it’s supposed to. In October, CCNV treasurer Anthony Norman, an attorney who worked pro bono, resigned. “There’s no services being provided to the homeless, there’s no intake, and then there’s professional homeless people who’ve been there for years,” says Norman. He says the group’s executive director, Skip Watkins, refused to let him check the books or review bank statements, making it impossible to do his job.
Like other former board members, Norman still believes that the CCNV model—a shelter for the homeless by the homeless—is a good one. But without more controls, he says, the system is too vulnerable to corruption by some resident staff. “It’s their fiefdom, it’s their hustle, and that’s the sad thing about it,” he says.
Spurred by Norman’s departure, board members Peter Garvin and Susan Frazier followed him out the door a month later, leaving only three nonresidents on the 11-member board. (CCNV bylaws state that nonresidents should compose 49 percent of the board.) Garvin and Frazier issued a letter of resignation that cited an inability to control the organization. “Management and control by resident staff has led to favoritism, abuse of position and internal power struggles that seem to drain all the creative energy and talent of the organization,” the letter read.
It went on to say that the homeless would be better served if the shelter were managed by professionals. “There’s a real problem there with lack of accountability,” Garvin says.
The organization has long been criticized for unprofessionalism (“Helter Shelter,” 2/25/2000). The shelter opened in 1984, thanks to the efforts of activist Mitch Snyder, whose vision of homeless people empowering themselves still charms today. But flaws in Snyder’s concept were exposed during the ’90s tenure of Executive Director Gregory Keith Mitchell, who embezzled hundreds of thousands of dollars in shelter funds and spent it on such items as Armani suits and strip-club outings.
Watkins says Stephens’ account of the evening is overblown—Stalins was indeed having a serious medical problem, he says, but the hospital, where she is regularly admitted, should have alerted shelter staff to her condition, and he also denies keeping financial records from Norman. Watkins says the residents complaining at hearings don’t represent the vast majority served by the shelter. And he insists that his organization is doing a fine job: “We have been successful for 36 years,” he says. “We have taken care of more homeless people than anyone in this nation. We know what we’re doing.”
You just wouldn’t know it from talking to former board members or even some former residents.
Says Stalins: “CCNV is the worst place I have ever lived in my entire 53 years. The people that call themselves management is the worst human beings the Lord ever did create.”
“They really need outside management,” Fett said at the hearing.
The shelter’s DIY philosophy is particularly ill-equipped to deal with its social-services system. As it is, CCNV has six case managers for its more than 700 residents. One of them, Keith Webster, estimates that he currently has 80 cases—sometimes many more. New arrivals are ideally instructed to meet with a case manager within 24 hours to set up a “service plan”—a combination of job-assistance, health-care, and counseling referrals tailored to a particular client’s problems. For any given case, Webster says he will try to refer a resident to as many as 10 different organizations right away—often to nonprofits in the building such as Jobs Have Priority, Unity Healthcare, and Clean and Sober Streets but most of the time to organizations outside the building.
“I don’t know how you could work with 80 people,” says Mary Ann Luby, an outreach worker for the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless with 20 years of experience in case management. Luby says she’s been impressed with some of the work she’s seen from CCNV resident case managers, but she says a professional social worker should have between 25 and 30 cases maximum in order to establish productive relationships with his clients. With tough cases involving mental illness—of which CCNV has many—a social worker might take on fewer than 10.
If a social worker manages 25 cases, at least 28 would be required to fully staff Federal City Shelter. At $33,000 per year per social worker, that would cost CCNV almost a million dollars—and that sort of funding isn’t coming its way anytime soon. The organization currently operates on private donations and revenue from its soda machines and pay phones; it receives nothing from the government. According to CCNV’s tax return for fiscal 2004, the group had yearly revenues just over $200,000. Watkins estimates that the operating budget for 2005 was around $150,000.
There is $400,000 per year available for professional case management at the shelter, but since 2002, most of it has been kept out of CCNV’s hands. The Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness, an umbrella organization for D.C. homeless-service providers, is responsible for distributing the funds from the city’s Department of Human Services. The Partnership has long wanted professionals at the shelter and has tried for the last several years to get CCNV to set up a case-management program with licensed social workers in order to receive the allotted $400,000. After the recent oversight breakdown, the Partnership opened the money to bidding on Dec. 7, calling for applications for a contract to set up a professional case-management program at Federal City. The Jan. 27 deadline passed with only one bidder: CCNV. It was denied.
In a letter to the CCNV explaining its decision, the Partnership said it had “received correspondence…and heard testimony at public hearings to the effect that the CCNV management of the Federal City Shelter is deficient to the point that a case management program cannot be effective.”
Other service providers in the building that might have bid on the contract, including D.C. Central Kitchen and Clean and Sober Streets, balked. “It’s a dollar-bill problem, and they’re throwing nickels at it,” says Robert Egger, director of D.C. Central Kitchen. A Jan. 24 letter written by Egger and supported by heads of four other nonprofits operating at Federal City stated that the level of funding in the contract wasn’t nearly enough to provide professional case management for more than 700 people.
CCNV honchos, including Watkins and former board member Garvin, say there’s another story behind the contract denial: The Community Partnership doesn’t want CCNV working in Federal City, period.
Indeed, the Mayor’s 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness, which the Partnership is charged with carrying out, floats a plan to sell Federal City in order to fund other shelters and homeless services. Sue Marshall, executive director of the Community Partnership, would not comment on Watkins’ and Garvin’s allegations.
The turmoil at CCNV has attracted the attention of Ward 4 Councilmember Adrian Fenty, who chairs the D.C. Council’s Human Services Committee, which oversees homeless shelters throughout the city. The committee is currently holding hearings on a potential city grant of $6 million for improvements to the Federal City building, and Fenty has recently started asking questions regarding the $400,000 earmarked for the shelter’s operating expenses.
Fenty believes there is still value in Mitch Snyder’s model for empowering homeless people but that there should be some accountability, especially when spending public funds.
“There’s a lot of finger-pointing,” Fenty says. “The disappointing thing is that no one on the government side of this problem has come up with any solutions.” Fenty has so far put forward no proposal of his own.CP