Homeless teens confused by chaos of city policy

How do you get fired from a job you created? In Baltimore's homeless services system, it happens.

Last month City Paper ran a photo essay by J.M. Giordano chronicling the lives of homeless youth. Among them were two young people, Missy and Sugar (they did not want their last names published), who were slated to be evicted from a temporary group home they were living in. In the days after the story ran, Missy and Sugar got a reprieve and were told they could stay in their shelter, for the time being. But in the process, they also told a tangled tale of the labyrinthine system for housing the homeless in Baltimore—one that they struggled to make sense of, one that City Paper, too, struggled to make sense of.

In fact, City Paper is still trying to make sense of it. What we know now is only that Missy and Sugar—and the other 42 people swept from the streets in an ambitious city-funded pilot project—will not have to move out of their temporary homes right away.

We also know that the life of that pilot project, a $252,000 effort to move 40 people to permanent housing, is nearly as confusing and chaotic as the lives of the people it has sought to help.

Here is a behind-the-scenes look at Baltimore's homelessness management system through the lens of Missy, 18, and Sugar, 21.

Missy and Sugar say they were told on Nov. 10 they had to leave the temporary housing they'd gotten through the Real Care Providers Network, a homeless-services provider that began as a volunteer effort two years ago by Christina Flowers, owner of an assisted-living company.

Missy and Sugar say they had to be out of their temporary shelter by Nov. 15. But then, things changed.

Missy, Sugar, and five other homeless teens in the shelter will not be put out, the managers of the house they have been staying in say. But that is not to say they will be permanently housed, or that the program they were housed under will be extended when it runs out in March.

Behind the scenes the people housing Missy and Sugar have struggled to communicate effectively with one another, the city administration, and with the homeless people they serve. Confusion reigns.

On Nov. 16 Kim Trueheart, the longtime activist who says she created the pilot program, was fired by New Vision House of Hope, the company that administers the $252,000 grant.

Trueheart says she was fired after she complained of financial mismanagement.

"I think they were running short on cash," Trueheart says. "Some of the money that came for this program, I think they used on other programs." New Vision says that's nonsense—what happened is just the way government grants work—and if Trueheart were competent she would know that.

The story of how Sugar and Missy get to keep a roof over their heads—for now, at least—and how Trueheart got fired from a job that she herself created illustrates the complex nature of homeless policy.

Trueheart, a "semi-retired" federal worker who has become a fixture in City Hall and at protests, says she wrote an unsolicited grant proposal over the summer, seeking $239,000 for a four-month intensive program to take 50 people from the streets into stable housing.

Noting that many homeless people had been housed at far-flung motels for about $70 per night, Trueheart's proposal envisioned housing, feeding, and helping people access drug treatment, job placement and other services for $42 per day.

She partnered with Christina Flowers, who operates a nonprofit called Belvedere Assisted Living and, since 2013, has been asking City Hall to fund her volunteer effort to end homelessness. Flowers says she needed Trueheart's grant-writing skills in order to be taken seriously.

"We called it 'Completing the Journey,'" Flowers says, "since 'The Journey Home' [the city's 10-year-plan to end homelessness] is so busted up."

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake liked the idea in principle, but she could offer only $100,000. That sent Trueheart to the Abell Foundation looking for the other $139,000. She was unable to score.

Then the city reconsidered and funded a six-month program at $252,000. Trueheart, who says she has been living off her savings since leaving federal service, had written herself into the grant as a program manager at $30 per hour for 30 hours per week. There was also a licensed clinical social worker and what Trueheart calls a "navigator," to help people get and keep appointments with the many social service providers they need in order to establish an identification and apply for welfare benefits.

The city would not release the money to Flowers, however, but required a partner with more of a track record. Flowers says she helped get the assisted living program at New Vision House of Hope started 15 years ago, so New Vision, which has handled government contracts before, was brought on and the contract went to that nonprofit.

"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 says. "I have confidence in them getting people into stable housing."

With New Vision as paymaster, the program launched on Sept. 11. It was not funded until the Board of Estimates meeting on Nov. 4.

Trueheart says she asked for an $84,000 advance to get the program up and running while awaiting Board of Estimates approval. But by the week before Thanksgiving, the city had dispersed only $30,000 of the $252,000 grant—so they are shy on funds.

"There was one pay period when we did not get paid," Trueheart says, meaning herself and two others paid through the grant.

Though more money than Trueheart originally proposed, the grant itself paid less per day, because it was extended to six months from four. "What I wanted was $42 per day per person," Trueheart says. "We're funded at $35 per day. That extra $7 per day, which I'm not getting, could mean I get a bus pass for everybody."

But Flowers, Trueheart, and the other two people on the grant hit the ground running, and by early November they had gotten 44 people off the street.

This caused consternation in City Hall, where people from the Mayor's Office of Human Services had been led to believe that they would be referring specific people to Flowers et al. The homeless services people at City Hall have been trying to keep track of the neediest cases, and they did not want the pilot project to take in just anyone they came across in a tent.

"That is how this initially became a challenge," says Terrence Woody, a construction executive who says his friend, Deputy Mayor Dawn Kirstaetter, asked him to mediate the dispute between Trueheart and New Vision. "One party says, 'we were told to pick up people at this location.' The other says, 'here is a list of people at these locations, pick them up.' Perhaps they picked up some people who were not on the original list . . . then there is still the question of what became of the people on the original list, who you haven't accounted for.

"It's a situation where passion overwhelmed process," Woody says. "They picked up people, which is to be commended. But from a process standpoint that makes it a little difficult."

Charles Culver, president and executive director of New Vision House of Hope, agrees. "The biggest issue right now is we have too many clients," he says. "I been doing this too long; I know that 40 clients is too much for a pilot."

The contract Culver signed says the program will house 40 people, transport them where they need to go, and feed them two meals each day for a total of $35 per day, and document everything done with every person. "$35 per day," Culver says, "is not enough to do case management."

It's not clear why Culver signed the contract if he believed he couldn't do it.

Two months after signing the contract, Culver says he fired Trueheart because she "couldn't cut the mustard" and was unprofessional in her dealings with the city and New Vision's director, Caryl Ralph.

"You can't go down there and knock on the door and scream I want my money," Culver says.

But Trueheart accuses New Vision of mismanaging the finances, including delays in simple things like paychecks.

Culver denies that anyone missed a paycheck, saying maybe they were delayed by "a couple of days." He says that is the nature of government contracting, where the federal budget year may not coincide with a contract's proposed start date, or money may be delayed by congressional shenanigans—or just normal bureaucracy. "So my staff has to be prepared," he says. "They might not get their first paycheck until the third week of October."

Flowers says the paychecks were delayed by five days or so. "If I didn't have a little cushion, I'd have been in shock," she says.

Money issues notwithstanding, the people housed will remain so. Culver says no one is ever "put out" of a New Vision house "unless they put their selves out." But he says there is "no such thing as youth transitional housing" (the thing Missy and Sugar thought they had), and confirms the merry-go-round of moves that homeless people sometimes experience.

Homeless people usually don't know much about the grant or program that funds a particular time in shelter. But professional administrators like Culver do, and they know that if the paperwork is not perfect, or if the services don't match the parameters of a particular grant, then payment will not be forthcoming.

Having an underfunded pilot program oversubscribed already means New Vision has had to reallocate some funds.

"But the contract is written up," Culver says. "We will try to get you, from 30 to 90 days, into permanent housing. Some [recent clients] were eligible to be moved into permanent housing. They had a job. But no one—on my word—is being put out. We can move them into other housing. Better housing.

"Or," Culver says, when asked what happens if the client is not ready for permanent housing when the grant money runs out, "we move them into a category called 'shelter.' So they're not on the street."

Back to the Code Blue shelter, or maybe taxpayer-funded motels, in other words.

Shanae Davis says that's where she was not long before Flowers found her homeless on the Fallsway. "Reggie [Scriber, Baltimore Housing's deputy commissioner for community services] was paying $2,400 a month to keep me in a hotel," she says. She now has a home that is ready to move into—though she still needs furniture and a job. Davis, who says she's illiterate but a quick study and "good with computers," worked as a house manager for New Vision back in 2013 for $75 a week. "When you work for them you still have nothing," she says.

Flowers says she's addressing Trueheart's recent firing by writing out a memorandum of understanding to prevent New Vision employees from firing people she regards as her employees in the future. She supports Trueheart but says she is reluctant to criticize New Vision. "I'm not in a position to pull the plug on something that's gonna risk the 44 people we have in this program," Flowers says.

Though unemployed, Trueheart is still trying to arrange for food and furniture for her former charges. "My phone is jumping because whatever my relationship with this organization, the people trust me," she says. "Am I supposed to stop?"

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