A new program for the city's homeless leaves them struggling amid a chaotic system of care

One Baltimore housing miracle: collect public assistence from poor people and don't pay rent.

Christina Flowers holds forth from behind her cluttered desk on the second floor of 2526 N. Charles St. It's an early-December afternoon and, after a half hour of questions and answers, she's boiled down her mission, her business model, and her philosophy for housing Baltimore's homeless. "It's about making decisions," she says, "based on What Would Jesus Do?"

What Jesus would do, according to Flowers' gospel, is act as a middleman between landlords and the homeless. He would rent houses, sublease them to groups of homeless people, and manage the homeless people's money (federal and state benefits) for them, collecting their entitlements, paying the rent, buying food and affording the members of his flock a little allowance from what's left over.

Flowers is on a roll now. She runs on the way she speaks to her radio audience on WOLB's "Real Talk Baltimore," a call-in show she produces and pays for using some of the $500,000 or more her charity for the homeless raises each year.

"I've got people with no money, they came today. I can put them in these two beds I have empty, and they have to start paying January 1," Flowers says. She runs through a list. It takes some careful parsing but eventually the scaffolding behind her homeless venture becomes clear. Flowers operates one building with 12 apartment units, another with four apartment units, plus three houses which each have three bedrooms and a finished basement. In these homes—or other constantly evolving constellations—Flowers says she has housed more than 400 homeless people and families over the past three years.

It sounds like a low income housing version of the Loaves and Fishes story. But it's really about redistributing the meager cash flow of desperately poor people. As she explains, she rambles, scattering details about her doctrine mixed with minutiae about the money flow. "It's about managing a lot with a little," she says. "I get people in my buildings who pay $100 a month, because they only get $185 [from the government]. I got people paying $400 because they get $500, [or] because they get $733. This was my creative solution. This is not a profit-making organization. We live month to month, so I'm always vulnerable. We deal with people on SSI and SSDI"—that's Supplemental Security Income, a maximum $733 monthly stipend for single people who are judged disabled but who haven't paid into the Social Security system in the last 10 years; and Social Security Disability Insurance, an $1,100-or-so payment for the disabled who have a documented work history.

It's a business model that could revolutionize the care of homeless people, she says, particularly those who are not ready to live on their own, but have not been ruled legally incompetent. It's also labor-intensive, risky, and filled with the chaos of homeless people's daily lives.

To hear Flowers tell it, her work is Biblical. "Do you believe in miracles?" she asks. "Do you? Ms. Flowers is a miracle."

 

Ever since Flowers and some allies picked up more than a dozen people living under the Jones Falls Expressway downtown three years ago, her "miracles" have proved problematic—for the city that partially funds her projects and the clients who use them.

Facing a genuine crisis—Baltimore's homeless population is approximately 3,000 on any given night with some estimates suggesting 30,000 people a year experience homelessness here—the city has constructed a patchwork of more than 60 homeless service providers that it oversees, creating a privately-contracted homeless services ecosystem that is chaotic, ill-managed, poorly monitored, and badly integrated with state and federal agencies. Filled with suspicion and back-stabbing, the constellation of private non-profits funded by private grants and about $40 million in public funds is nominally overseen by the Mayor's Office of Human Services, with varying results. Throw in state and federal grants—along with their laboriously detailed and specific tracking rules—and City Hall is subsumed with accounting standards and justifying the spending. Homeless services providers complain that this leaves little time for street ministry, and little sympathy for vendors who can't—or won't—follow those rules. And what are the rules? Teasing out which agency or organization is responsible for what (or whom), how clients are supposed to navigate services, and whether adequate oversight exists is a labyrinthine process; it eludes most of those the system is designed to serve, the homeless.

When a group of homeless teens approached City Paper about having found shelter in one of Flowers's homes this fall, only to be told, in short order, that they were being evicted, the paper decided to follow their stories. The teens, Missy and Sugar (who wanted their last names withheld), were confused about why they were being evicted, what was happening to their food stamps, whether they were entitled to housing, and even who owned the home they were they were living in.

And no wonder. Homeless services in the city are confusing. In order to try and make sense of Missy and Sugar's story, and by extension the obstacles Baltimore's homeless citizens face, City Paper examined one recently funded program, Christina Flowers' "Completing the Journey."

 

After more than a decade in the homeless business, Flowers' relationship with the city is tight—but fraught. In November, the Board of Estimates approved a $252,000 grant, under which Flowers was supposed to take 40 people from homelessness to permanent housing in 180 days beginning September 11. Dubbed "Completing the Journey," by Flowers and her grant-writer, the grant was technically awarded to another non-profit, "New Vision House of Hope," which was directed to work with Flowers' organization. "It's a pilot program and New Vision knows how to do all the fiduciary things that Flowers doesn't know how to do," City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young said in November. "I have confidence in them getting people into stable housing."

Flowers says she applied for the grant to try and solve a perennial problem. The same faces are homeless for years, she says, despite the application of millions of taxpayers' dollars administered through a sclerotic and uncaring bureaucracy. Flowers says that she alone can get people housed and fed, because of her dedication and a unique sliding rent scale. She asks her homeless clients to contribute a portion of their social security or disability benefits to help cover the costs of shelter, food, and transportation.

This is legal, if properly executed, but under the rules of Flowers' grant proposal to the city, she is not supposed to charge clients rent. Still, Flowers insists it works for many of the homeless she has helped over the years and it solves many problems for the homeless.

"We have like 10 success stories, people who came out of a tent," Flowers says. "People say 'I just need affordable housing.' Well, what's your income? $733 a month? Here's a room at $350." She says her arrangement is a bargain for occupants who can pool their resources. "Think about renting a house for $900 a month. The front room has two people, one pays $350, one is $150. Someone in the back might pay $500. Someone else might pay $500 more. So that's $1,500 in a $900 house."

She sees it as an obvious solution. "But for some reason, the city doesn't see it as a solution," she says. "They say it's not up to someone's standards."

Her program has been plagued with problems. Within weeks of getting the $252,000 grant from the city, New Vision fired Kim Trueheart, a well-known activist (and now candidate for City Council President) who wrote the original grant proposal. Meanwhile the homeless clients—44 in all—were in some cases moved from house to house, while city officials complained that Flowers had swept up people that the administration had not directed her to collect. The city had given Flowers a list of homeless people to pick up, along with their likely locations. Flowers went to those places and picked up everyone there, upsetting the triage system of neediest-clients-first that the administration had constructed. Meetings between Flowers and city officials sometimes dissolved in rancor, and Flowers' practices began to come into question.

The Real Care Providers Network, LLC, the corporate name Flowers uses, isn't a corporation according to records at the State Department of Assessments and Taxation, despite Flowers' insistence that she filed the charter in January. She's at least two years behind on her income tax filings for Belvedere Assisted Living—the decade-old non-profit she also operates. Multiple landlords have won judgments against her for nonpayment of rent, and others say they're owed more but have been unwilling to sue a high-profile charity leader that broadcasts every week on AM radio. Several volunteers who have worked with Flowers over the years say they stepped away after feeling uneasy about the way Flowers' business was operating. A former employee questioned where the money was going.

Clients, present and former, also report problems with overcrowding, poor house-management, lack of food and, always, pressure to pay more money to Flowers for their share of expenses. Many have ended up homeless again. Last summer, one died from a drug overdose while under Flowers' care. One man, Charles Armstrong, who says Flowers picked him up more than a year ago, is still bitter about the experience.

 

Charles Armstrong has a lean-to, a small tent, some Sharpies, corrugated plastic boards, and diabetes. He is camped on Boston Street. You may have seen his mermaid drawings, displayed on his makeshift shelter, priced at $40.

He hasn't always been homeless. In the fall of 2014, Christina Flowers picked him up from the street and put him in a group home, with plumbing and windows and a door. But that didn't last.

"Christina Flowers, she's alright, right? She has a heart," Armstrong says on a crisp November afternoon. "It's those people she has in front of her!" He complains about those who work with Flowers, including one who he says "treats me like shit." As he speaks, he becomes more animated, rocking on the bucket he sits on and smacking the mermaid he's drawing with the thick aquamarine marker in his right hand.

Armstrong says that when he was housed by Flowers's organization it was too hot and he wanted to sleep outside anyway, so he left. "Then, she kept my EBT card," he continues, speaking of the Electronic Benefits Transfer card the federal food stamp program issues to recipients. "I asked to get my EBT card back. She said 'naw you ain't paid me.'"

Armstrong says Flowers' organization—or her assistant, at least—still has that card a year later, as far as he knows. He has not tried to get a new one for himself. "They probably taking the food stamps out of it right now," Armstrong says.

Others tell similar stories about being made to give up their food stamps—now more commonly called "SNAP," for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program—or being pressured to sign up for the program so Flowers can collect it. Flowers acknowledges that's her model, but when asked whether she retains SNAP cards once her clients are gone, says, "I doubt if that's possible."

"In the building we have a main kitchen and one in each apartment," Flowers adds, "so we put half [of the food] in the main kitchen." To her, this is common-sense communal living. "What they're looking to find is something wrong with the model."

But a former employee says this very model left him with questions—about the price of food, shelter, and crowded quarters. "I just think the city needs to really look into how she's treating people," says Darrin Spivey, who Flowers fired last fall after eight months on the job. "You charge them $600 for bed? How do you pay $600 for bed? I've never heard of that. And there's like four people in a room. They're supposed to be getting them so they can get out on their own. How they gonna do that if you're charging them $600 for a bed? So these people are never gonna get on their feet because they're always paying her. They can't save anything. And she also takes their food card...So where does the rest of the money go? Where are these food stamps going?"

Tenants have complained to City Paper that they were not getting regular meals, despite the provision for two meals each day in the pilot program grant proposal and, in some cases, turning over their SNAP cards. Yet, the practice of collecting or using someone else's SNAP card is legal as long as the person okays it. According a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the food stamp program, a SNAP recipient can authorize anyone to use their card just by handing over the card and sharing their personal identification number—or PIN. "While some clients may formally designate authorized representatives, others may ask a neighbor or friend to shop for them in emergency situations such as a broken leg or other accident that doesn't allow the client to visit a store to purchase food," the spokesperson writes.

He said clients who, like Armstrong, "suspect that their benefits are being misused" can contact the local SNAP office "to have their card and PIN shut down and replaced," adding that the USDA is committed to rooting out waste and fraud. He urged SNAP participants and others to report suspected abuse to the Maryland State Ombudsman's Office. The Ombudsman referred City Paper to a spokeswoman, who emailed a boilerplate response that said, in part, "The Department aggressively pursues opportunities to assist people in economic need, provide preventive services, and protect vulnerable children and adults in each of Maryland's 23 counties and Baltimore City." (The Inspector General for the Maryland Department of Human Resources, which oversees the state's role in the food stamp program, did not respond to City Paper's request for comment).

Armstrong, who is without a phone, has never pursued the matter. Few, living on the streets, would have the wherewithal or documentation to prove fraud.

And the USDA seems similarly disinclined to aggressively pursue potential fraud. Maryland had 788,000 food stamp recipients in fiscal 2014, according to the USDA. That year, Maryland investigated only 437 beneficiaries. Massachusetts, by comparison, did 11,000 fraud investigations and Virginia did nearly 13,000. Maryland investigations found about a half million dollars worth of fraud—about 1/13th the amount found in Massachusetts and Virginia.

Further complicating matters for people like Armstrong, who suspect their SNAP card is being misused, is that they are faulted for the fraud. The USDA sees the food stamp recipient, not the person who got their EBT card, as the violator.

And food stamps are not the only bureaucratic obstacle for the homeless to keep track of. Navigating federal, state and city programs can be tricky and the government relies on contractors like Flowers to manage the streams of money and the paperwork attending each homeless client. But in Flowers's operation, and the pilot program that funds it, it is difficult to keep track of which clients or tenants are in which houses or apartments and under what program they are being housed.

 

Missy and Sugar are homeless youth that City Paper has been following for the past five months, since they first appeared as part of a photo essay in the paper this fall. Flowers picked the young women up as part of "Completing the Journey" in September. Since then the pair has been moved three times and were facing a third eviction in mid-February. They have suffered without food, heat, and in early February, they say, the water was turned off in the house where they lived. Missy and Sugar illustrate the chaotic and confusing nature of the homeless services system in Baltimore.

In early November, the young women were told that they were going to have to leave a group home that had been provided to them by Flowers. They were given a reprieve after City Paper inquired about that, and on Dec. 2 they were moved again to a home on Fairview Avenue operated by Organization of Hope, LLC, an assisted living company owned by Patrecia Williams. Sugar says Williams, who she and Missy call "PW," gave them a month's free rent but said they would have to pay $600 per month after that for a single room in a shared house.

Williams, who also owns the house on Norfolk Avenue where Missy, Sugar and at least two other young women were living as of early December, said that her organization had dropped out of the "Completing the Journey" pilot program and posted letters in November warning the residents that they had to move. "The two letters were on my bulletin board [at the Norfolk house]," Williams says. "But everything was removed."

According to the city contract the clients weren't required to pay rent. Each client was to have a private bedroom—but these parameters, clients say, were routinely ignored.

Things came to a head for the young women on Dec. 6, when they were locked out of the house they were staying in. They went to another house, where their friends were staying, and crashed there. The next day they were facing a city police officer. "They took our stuff on Saturday night, put it in the shed and refused to give it to us," Sugar said then. "We called the police and the police said they can't do anything without a legal eviction." The pair moved back in.

City officials were not happy with the drama.

"The City's Homeless Services Program (HSP) was made aware of the situation involving Ms. Williams and the youth residing in her home on Sunday and immediately contacted New Vision House of Hope to discuss these concerns," Jacquelyn Duval-Harvey, director of the Mayor's Office of Human Services, which administers the $252,000 grant, wrote in a mid-December email. "A meeting was held with New Vision House of Hope within less than 24 hours of HSP becoming aware the situation. It was made clear to New Vision and Ms. Williams that the actions taken were inappropriate and inconsistent with the existing contract. As a result, the expectation of HSP was that New Vision would immediately identify alternative housing for the youth, and that staff responsible for case management and the supportive services would develop an appropriate follow up plan of care for the youth."

What transpired next appears anything but planned.

New Vision House of Hope President Charles Culver did not return City Paper's calls. Sugar contacted Ingrid Lofgren, a lawyer with the Homeless Persons Representation Project for legal representation. Flowers says she was called the third week of January and told to find the women housing. "Last month [Culver] told me don't be involved, so I stepped back, and now he's saying get them housing," Flowers says. "He says 'don't treat them no different from anyone else in the program.' Everything is busted up in the house," Flowers says. "The heat don't work. PW came and took out the cable box, the TV—".

By this time, Flowers says, Missy and Sugar and several other young people were living together in PW's house and not taking care of it, treating it like some of the abandoned buildings the girls used to live in. Case monitoring and mentoring had broken down.

Missy and Sugar, who were still struggling to make sense of their housing situation and trying to get back on their feet—Sugar had a job in a shop at the Harbor; Missy was job-hunting—complained they didn't understand what was going on during these complicated battles between agencies, the city, and various providers.

For her part, Flowers says Williams took over care of Missy and Sugar under New Vision's direction, and since then it's been nothing but trouble and confusion—exacerbated by the lawyer, Ingrid Lofgren.

"Ingrid is awful," Flowers says in a late January interview, insisting Lofgren has over-promised. "She also told them they would all get their own houses, they would all get [subsidized housing] vouchers."

For all the frustration, she promises, "These kids will not be homeless on Ms. Flowers' watch."

In mid-January, Sugar said that Williams went on to cut the sewage drain pipes in her own house to get them to leave. (Williams says her tenants did $30,000 damage to the house). At that point, Flowers moved her, Missy and another young homeless woman into separate, temporary emergency housing, putting them in other group homes, including one where Flowers' own mother lives. Demanding permanent housing, which they say they were promised, the women then planted themselves in New Vision's tiled reception area, refusing to leave before meeting with program manager Caryl Ralph. A police officer responded, but left without incident. They complained to two social workers there while their lawyer met with the program manager.

"I don't want to live in Ms Flowers' house," Missy told the social workers, complaining about the other people there. "I'm pregnant. I don't want to live with her mother, and that dog and a bunch of saggy old men!"

The social workers, lawyer, and Flowers exchanged phone calls trying to figure out where to put the girls. As they talked, Sugar, wearing a crop top and a blue extension in her hair, sat down heavily in one of the plastic chairs and sobbed into her hands.

"I'm tired of people making decisions for me," Missy declared. She did not want to be separated from the other young, formerly homeless people she had been living with. "If they move out of Flowers house, I'm moving out of the house."

The standoff continued, eating up hours of time as Flowers called in and made her case to her partner agency. Caring for and housing people who had been living on the street or in abandoned houses is a huge challenge. Homeless people often have mental illnesses, substance use disorders and other behavioral issues that can make them difficult clients—whether in a group setting or by themselves. For that reason, Flowers and other service providers promise social services to help treat the clients, in addition to the warm bed and two meals they're given. They provide mentors and establish house rules to maintain order.

That's where Missy and Sugar got into trouble. The young women did not do all the things their mentor asked them to do. Sugar lost her job downtown—"I don't have a bus pass," she says—and her mentor, Jamie Frierson, says she took a step back after feeding everyone in the house out of her own pocket on Thanksgiving.

"I told them, if you want to be adults, you have to be able to step up and be more self sufficient," says Frierson, who is a candidate for City Council in the ninth district. "The one thing I'm not going to do is continue to help individuals who do not want to help themselves."

But Missy and Sugar say they are trying to help themselves. They complain they are missing personal items after their last forced eviction, and that they believe that New Vision House of Hope, the Real Care Providers Network, and Williams are all trying to make money on them.

Frierson says she got the same feeling. "The name of your program and mission statement are saying one thing, but your actions are saying something totally different," she says, referring to Flowers' Real Care Providers Network. "Things that were being promised to them, or were going to happen, they would not happen."

"There are no wrap-around services whatsoever," says Richard White, who helped the women deflect the police on Dec. 6 and runs a mentoring program called "I'm Worth It." He says he got a bad feeling about the way the program was being run. "I really didn't want to be connected to this New Visions and Belvedere Assisted Living, so I stepped back," White says.

The young women remain in housing limbo.

 

Chuck Gross says he was glad a decade ago when Christina Flowers found his homeless brother, Peter Lowman, and put him in a group home. "I got the feeling that she was just out there looking for people," he says, sitting in his tidy, black and white kitchen. "At the time I thought that was a good thing."

He changed his mind on July 3, 2015.

"I got a phone call," says Gross, who is thin and greying. "I think it was from [Flowers' aid] Liza Edwards, and she said there's an incident going on." Gross asked her what it was, and she said she would call him back: "Ten minutes later she calls back and says you better get down here because Pete's dead."

Gross says Flowers' people wanted to ship Lowman's body straight off to the funeral home but Gross wanted an autopsy. "That sort of took them aback," he says.

Flowers says it was her idea.

Both agree that Lowman was an addict and schizophrenic who often sold his possessions in order to buy heroin. But Flowers remembers smooth sailing with Lowman's family, while Gross and his sister say Flowers was evasive and callous.

Gross says no one from Flowers' outfit came to his brother's funeral. They did not even send flowers. It took the family months to get Lowman's wallet returned.

"I had it right in my desk the whole time," Flowers counters. "They would not come down and get it."

Lowman's life changed in 2014, after his mother died and left $20,000 for his care. Gross was the executor. He says after he told his brother about his inheritance, Flowers raised the rent by $300 per month and "upgraded" his accommodations to a private room. Gross demanded invoices for the new charges, which he says caused friction with the Flowers organization.

He excuses himself from the kitchen table and returns with a final bill, dated May 2015. It lists "Housing Upgrade," "Meals Prepared," "Med monitoring," "Laundry Services," "Supervision," and "One-on-One case management" for a total of $300. "I thought he was getting all of that with SSI," Gross says—the $1100 per month his brother was turning over to Flowers on his own.

Lowman's upgraded accomodations did not improve his life, Flowers admits. "When he was in a private room, he sold his TV, he sold his radio, he sold his bike. He stole my bike and sold that." Flowers laughs. "He sold his clothes." Flowers says she had just given Lowman his "allowance" before he overdosed.

Gross thinks Flowers did not want to go too hard on his brother, lest he leave her, taking his $1,400 a month with him. He worries about whether anyone was really monitoring his brother, or Flowers. The drug treatment seemed pro-forma: "He'd show me the paper where someone signed in that he had been there," Gross says, "but I don't know."

There was no state investigation into Lowman's death, Flowers says.

Gross says that on their weekly shopping trips to Walmart or Kmart, his brother would by turns rail against Flowers and then calm down. "That was just Pete," he says.

At the end, Peter Lowman told his brother he wanted to leave Belvedere—but as with many in the deeply troubled homeless population, it was hard to tease out fact from fiction, and those with the power to monitor or oversee their plight appeared disinclined to do so. That troubles Lowman to this day. His brother was simply unable to oversee his own affairs.

"He said he was getting ready to live on his own," Gross says. But everyone else knew it would never happen.

 

The formerly homeless clients are not the only ones unhappy with service providers; several of the landlords who rent their houses out to the program are also displeased. Some of them, whose properties underpin Belvedere Assisted Living and the Real Care Providers Network, say Flowers wheedled the keys from them but didn't pay the rent. One property owner, Francenia White, swore out a criminal complaint for theft in 2014. That case was dropped last year. Another landlord, Indru Jashnani, says Flowers stiffed him twice. "She rented a place and she failed to pay the rent," says Jashnani, who says Flowers housed people there for three months. "She put the people in before she got the license," he says. "So that created a problem."

Two problems, actually: "She rented one more place from me and she didn't pay the rent," Jashnani says. "She said she was in an emergency hurry so I gave her the keys. So there was nothing I could do about that."

J.B. Kenney, another landlord in Baltimore (who, like Frierson, is running for the ninth district city council seat), tells a similar story: he gave Flowers the keys before they had a lease drawn up and, four months later, Flowers had not paid any rent even though she moved several people into the house, who he says trashed it. He showed a reporter a high-drama series of text messages to and from Flowers. He had not yet sued as of late February, but said he'd hired a lawyer.

The pattern goes back years. ABC Management got a $13,000 judgment against Flowers in 2013.

ABC is Stanley Rochkind, who Baltimoreans might remember as an often-sued owner of many lead-poisoned properties: "He came to me to help me house homeless people," Flowers says, and leased her an apartment complex. "We sat down and talked about the plan. One of the things, he thought I would get a grant immediately. He gave me 10 apartments to use."

Flowers moved people in, but the grant did not materialize, she says, so the rent was not paid. "He sued me," Flowers says, "then we moved into the building we're in today." She says she's paying Rochkind's company off slowly, adding, "I didn't know who he was back then." Rochkind did not return City Paper's calls.

"Mr. Melvin helped me too," Flowers adds without prompting, speaking of "Little" Melvin Williams, perhaps the city's most celebrated drug lord, in December. "He gave me two of his [buildings] on North Avenue. He was just a great person."

Diane Gardner, another landlord, has a $7,000 judgment pending against Flowers. "I'm on a payment plan for her, every month," Flowers says.

Gardner says Flowers missed her $300 December payment, and told her she was going to file for bankruptcy after cutting the last check. (No bankruptcy case had appeared by February 15).

"First of all, I didn't know she was running a business in my house," Gardner says in a phone interview from her home in Laurel. "The lease said it was for her…but what she was doing—she put people in my house that I didn't know about."

Gardner says she rented the house at 1818 Belvedere Avenue to Flowers in 2008 after trying unsuccessfully to sell it. After they signed a lease, "I told her she couldn't run a business out of my house because I would have to tell my insurance company."

Two years later, Gardner says she visited her house. "I opened the door and a woman came up from the basement," she recalls. "I said 'who are you?' She said 'I'm a homeless person and Ms. Flowers put me here to stay for a couple months.'"

Gardner says she ended up with $10,000 damage to her property and a $1,700 water bill. "Why does she rent these apartments and places like this and don't pay the rent?" she asks, insisting Flowers had money to pay her that she had collected from clients. "What do you do with the money?"

"Everybody's asking how I do it," Flowers laughs in her office, which is cluttered with files stacked on desks, the table and the floor near an open closet door. "I met with [Baltimore City Comptroller] Joan Pratt and she looked at some of the judgments, some of the issues." She is working on it, she insists. "I've got to see a 501c3 lawyer to resolve some of the issues."

Flowers suggests that her legal problems stem from the greed and impatience of her erstwhile landlords. "People could be on your team for a minute," she says, "but if they don't feel like they being rewarded rapidly enough, they're off."

Notwithstanding the issues, Flowers' operation has grown since December: along with the 16 apartments, she says she now has five houses (up from three) "and many more in waiting when we need it. People who want to work with the homeless."

She and Trueheart fall silent when asked how much money Belvedere Assisted Living raises each year. They eventually acknowledge that $500,000 would be in the ballpark.

Asked for a look at the latest IRS Form 990, the tax return every charity must make available to anyone on request, Flowers balks. "I need to go through that pile," she says, pointing towards a closet with folders and papers stacked in front of it. She says the 2013 "audited" return is available, but she does not produce it.

Belvedere Assisted Living, the nonprofit that oversees Flowers' grant from the city, does have tax statements available for 2010-2012 990s through Guidestar, a charity watchdog. The tax forms tell a confusing story. Money spent increased steadily between 2010 and 2012, from $303,000 to $469,000 (money raised also increased from 306,000 to 472,000), although Flowers' reported salary actually decreased, from $24,000 to $20,000. That is less than half the typical CEO salary for an operation this size, studies show.

Flowers says she lives very modestly. "My needs ain't great," she says, explaining that she lives with her homeless clients in the apartment building she rents for them.

What Flowers paid for rents tripled from a reported $55,000 in 2010 to a claimed $153,000 in 2012. Advertising increased from $0 to more than $12,000, no doubt reflecting Belvedere Assisted Living's exclusive sponsorship of Real Talk Baltimore, Flowers' twice-weekly radio program.

Other line items are vague but in 2012 management expenses totaled $149,000—nearly 32 percent of the $469,000 spent by the charity, and nearly double the $86,000 spent in 2011.

For her part, Flowers insists it is a daily struggle just to make ends meet and she tries to stay focused on her mission: What would Jesus do?

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