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By dusk on a Wednesday in early April, a small and disparate crowd was starting to assemble at Our Turn, a self-help center for the homeless in Mount Pleasant. They were there for a support-group meeting for people with emotional problems, generally low-key affairs where a handful of longtime sufferers rally one another to keep grinding through life.
Before the meeting could begin, though, a Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) posse descended upon the building, busting through the door and ordering the bewildered attendees to place their hands above their heads.
Corie Settles, an Our Turn employee who was waiting for the meeting to start, says the police handcuffed him and started scavenging the place. “They were there looking for something, and whatever they was looking for, they didn’t find it,” he says.
The cops weren’t after the usual downtrodden and destitute who drift in and out of the center every day. They were there because of Our Turn’s director, Fleming Rice, who has run the place with city money for six years. A cop involved in the raid said they were tipped off that Rice was selling 8-ballswholesale portions of crack cocaine that can be broken down into 20 or more smaller bags. “We received information from a reliable source,” he says.
When the police busted into Our Turn, they knew just where to look. They unlocked the change box attached to the laundry machinesthe informal cash register for Rice’s deals, according to their source. Inside, the cop says, they found large zip-lock bags and some razor blades dusted with cocaine residue, but that’s all. Vincent Jacques, who was working at Our Turn at the time of the raid, says a relieved Rice told him the story days laterthat the police found the residue, but nothing else.
“There’s no doubt he was selling, it’s just a question of where he was keeping it and whether he was sold out,” the cop says. “If we wanted to, we could have arrested [Rice] for possession of drug paraphernalia,” he says. But the charges would never have stuck, he adds, so “it would have been a whole lot of paperwork for no good reason.”
MPD’s suspicions stemmed from a sting operation on Our Turn two weeks before the raid. They met with an informer, made sure he had no drugs and no cash on him, then outfitted him with marked police money and followed him to Our Turn, according to the officer. “He met with Fleming, and Fleming went inside, came back out, and gave the confidential source an 8-ball….That’s enough for us to obtain a warrant,” the officer says. Though the subsequent raid netted no arrests, it caught the neighborhood’s attention.
“There were about 17 officers,” says Veronica Hernandez, owner of a nearby clothing store. She smiles sweetly even as she says how few of the Mount Pleasant Street merchants were really surprised by the raid. The locals, she says, have always had their suspicions about what goes on at Our Turn. “Lots of people are always going in and out. People are always talking on phones in front [of Our Turn].”
Rice dismisses the raid as MPD’s mistake. And he takes offense at accusations of drug dealing. “Drugs and alcohol ruined my life,” Rice says. “Nobody at Our Turn has seen [me] sell, possess, or use any controlled substance. I hate that with a passion.” But the rumors about drugs, fraudulent records, and other shady dealings persist. Glaring at me through gold-framed glasses that dwarf his small, aging face, Rice says he’s dead tired of his past sneaking up on him.
But the trouble for Rice may be just beginning. Last Friday, Eileen Elias, the commissioner of mental health services for the District, ordered an investigation into Our Turn. According to Department of Human Services spokesperson Madelyn Andrews, the investigation was prompted by alleged “improprieties” reported to officials who monitor such organizations for the city. Andrews would not comment on the specifics of the complaints but said Elias expects the investigation to focus on “purchasing and personnel” policies. A final report is due on Sept. 5.
In the late 1980s, one of the lurking bulges on a sidewalk grate downtown by the Old Post Office was a middle-aged man named Fleming Rice. Born in D.C., he had been homeless here for about 20 years.
“I remember having a bottle of alcohol and some drugs, and I passed it to two other guys sleeping next to me,” Rice says, recalling his last night on the pavement. “Then I walked the streets for three days. I thought I could detox on my own.”
After he dropped to the ground, Rice was shuttled back and forth between hospitals, shelters, and halfway houses for years, winnowing down his various addictions day by day. “I’ve been to every hospital in D.C. except Columbia. And Columbia’s for women, so I couldn’t go there.”
Today Rice has his own home in Maryland, and he has a good job, running a sort of no-frills coffee house for the down and out in Mount Pleasant in addition to directing the Our Turn advocacy service located in Woodley Park.
Rice got the Our Turn gig because of his street credibility. The city sends about $15,000 a month to Our Turn as part of a contract specifically designed to have former consumers of mental health services help the mentally ill. On any given day, that feel-good theory appears to work at Our Turn. Most times you’ll find Rice at the Mount Pleasant Street center, bustling around, offering refreshments, deodorant, and washing machines to the homeless, the majority of whom seem more interested in watching TV.
“Let me explain something to you about Our Turn that a lot of people don’t understand,” he says, launching into a lecture. Where there are homeless people, he says, there are drugs: “I have found drugs in the bathroom, in the washing machines. The people that come to Our Turn are no saints.” But he has never knowingly allowed drug or alcohol use there, he says, and he has certainly never used the facility as a dealing spot.
But a number of incidents reported by the police, a former Our Turn employee, and a local food bank suggest that Rice’s old habits aren’t so far behind him.
A couple of summers ago, Rice made his usual trip to Brookland in Northeast for a shopping spree at the Capital Area Community Food Bank, a free-for-all grocery warehouse where close to 600 local organizations load up on millions of pounds of donated goods each year.
But at the food bank, the caveat is clear: Don’t sell the food. Give it away. “We are liable if anything’s sold….One strike and you’re out,” says food bank PR rep Coley Gallagher.
Around the time of Rice’s visit, food bank administrators had been fretting over some troubling rumors about Rice. Executive Director Lynn Brantley won’t discuss the hearsay, except to say, “We felt very uncomfortable with everything we had heard.”
The food bank’s director of agency relations, Marian Peele, subsequently launched her own investigation. After Rice finished shopping, she got in her car and followed him from the food bank to Our Turn. Back at Our Turn, Peele watched as all the food was dutifully unloaded from the truck. “From that I was satisfied that the food got to Our Turn,” Peele remembers.
But Peele then followed up on another tip she had receivedthat food bank goods were being sold across town at RFK Stadium. She drove into the stadium parking lot and saw the same truck next to a table on which her food was nicely arrayed for public purchase. “Fleming Rice was not there, so there was nothing concrete to attach him to what happened,” Peele notes. “But we felt the circumstantial evidence was strong enough for us to ban him.”
Rice denies that he ever sold any food. The culprits were volunteers who worked for him, he says, getting visibly agitated. When I visit him on another day at the center, I watch as a woman pays 35 cents for a soda, which Our Turn gets for free from the food bankvia a different shopper. There is a sign on the wall that says “donations,” Rice points out. Donations are OK, Peele says, albeit warily. “[Agencies] cannot request donations. They can have a sign as far away as possible from the food.”
Jacques is one of the people who believed in Rice. For a year and a half, he worked closely with him as a coordinator for Our Turn. He took care of the detailsthe paperwork and administrative chores Rice disdained. Jacques is a soft-spoken man who says he considers himself a friend of Rice’s, but he says he left Our Turn this spring because he began to believe the rumors that swirled around Rice.
“I have never seen any drugs sold there,” Jacques repeats again and again. “But I have seen drugs there, and weapons,” he adds. “I have seen guys giving Fleming large sums of money and him driving away with them….I have heard him speaking in code, arranging transactions.”
One day, Rice showed him a semiautomatic weapon he was keeping at Our Turn for a friend, Jacques says. After he saw the gun, Jacques began to question his presence at the facility: “Suppose cops came in here and found guns and drugs, and I’m sitting there on parole?” He says he talked about his concerns with his parole officer, who agreed he should leave. When Rice refused to fire him, he quit in March and is therefore unable to get unemployment benefits, Jacques says.
Jacques’ concerns went beyond the gun he says he saw. He claims Rice requested at least 30 times that he write letters confirming that various individualspeople who needed to have real or promised jobs to get out of halfway houses or jailworked at Our Turn. But most of those people never worked a day at Our Turn, according to Jacques.
“[Jacques] is full of shit,” Rice says, denying any knowledge of the letters. He says Jacques was the only one involved in chores like correspondence. “I don’t know nothing about computers. I don’t even know how to turn it on.” He refused to provide any documentation identifying the organization’s actual employees.
The police officer involved in the raid at Our Turn says other officers have told him that Rice regularly bails out street crooks arrested for minor offenses. “He wants them out because they work for him on the streets,” the cop claims.
Currently, Our Turn operates under an umbrella organization called Woodley House, a restored Victorian home turned halfway house in Woodley Park. Woodley House’s director, Edith Maeda, oversees Rice and the money he gets from the city. However, Our Turn recently applied for 501(c)3 status as a nonprofit organization, which would render the organization independent of Woodley House. That means that Rice, Maeda says, would have more control over the agency.
A petite, graying woman, Maeda looks earnest and book-wise. She takes a seat on a couch as far away from me as possible in the Woodley House living room. Rice comes in and sits down beside her.
Maeda, who has a background in therapy, begins our talk with a foray into historical treatment modalities for at-risk populations. In the mid-’80s, (when Rice was still homeless on 12th Street), mental health and drug treatment advocates began embracing a school of thought that could be called “client knows best.” Under certain conditions, “consumers” of services can be highly valuable in helping to provide the services they once received.
Rice was just the consumer Woodley House was looking for. In 1990, he was living in Christ House, a homeless shelter on Columbia Road, and trying to get his life back. It was hard going, with a liquor store parked across the street. His caseworker told him about Woodley House and suggested he consider living there to aid the transition into independence. “I didn’t want to walk across the [Ellington] bridge,” Rice remembers, smiling. He had a fear of crowded buses and bridges. So the caseworker took Rice’s arm and they walked, together, to Woodley House. The next year, Rice got the job running Our Turn.
He tells his story in the automatic voice of someone who has shared his sorrows with rooms full of people many times before, while Maeda nods encouragingly. She smiles at the bridge story and repeats any lines she finds particularly meaningful. She prompts him when necessary.
She says she is not worried about relinquishing authority over Our Turn, because she has had no problems with Rice. “He’s been very successful because he has experienced [homelessness]….He can deal with an alcoholic person. They would take it from him, but not from me,” Maeda says, nodding still. “He’s very respected in Mount Pleasant.”
Jacques agrees that Rice is in touch with the population he serves. “[Rice] is well liked because they think he’s one of them. Which he is,” Jacques says.
But according to Jacques, Rice is too close to his clients. “People tried to close their eyes to certain things because Fleming is doing his job. [Maeda] has heard rumors about drugs over and over again. But Fleming is her bread and butter. He’s the golden boy. Without Fleming, there is no Our Turn.”
Jacques says that Rice has managed to put the street behind him in other ways. “Anyone that you talk to will tell you that Fleming is proud of the lifestyle in which he lives. He brags quite often about how much money he has. He’s married, has a nice car…he’s respectable,” Jacques says.
For his part, Rice says drugs and alcohol almost killed him. He resents the accusations. “I’m tired of [explaining]. But I guess I have to defend myself,” he says.
“Join the ranks,” intones Maeda. “I do it all the time.”CP