Shelter for homeless women, children under investigation

Aug. 10, 2014 @ 08:26 AM

A Lenoir shelter for homeless women and children must show state officials that financial and procedural problems as well as lapses in basic maintenance found in April have been corrected or it could lose its grant funding.

The director of the Kwanzaa Family Inn, which is on Old North Road, said in an interview Friday that all of the issues cited in the inspection report have been corrected. But some people who have stayed at the shelter say the inspection didn’t begin to address the problems there.

Kwanzaa residents are allowed up to 90 days to stay at the shelter while they look for permanent housing. Dulatown Outreach Center, which runs the Kwanzaa Family Inn, received a $17,778 federal grant administered by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services for the shelter service in fiscal 2013-14. The grant runs out September 30 but may be renewed.

An inspection of the Kwanzaa Family Inn conducted April 9 found exposed light sockets, broken floor tiles, exposed heating vents, no carbon monoxide detectors, and inadequate lighting, according to documents from the state Housing and Homeless Unit. More seriously, inspectors found:

--Some clients were being charged a lodging fee while others were not.

--The shelter did not properly document its clients’ eligibility for housing.

--The shelter had an appeals process in place but did not allow a verbal appeal from a client.

--No evidence that required intake forms were being used and no data had been entered into the Carolina Homeless Information Network system since December 2013, a violation of the U.S. Housing and Urban Development grant guidelines.

--The shelter did not have written financial procedures and policies to, for instance, track payments and provide internal controls.

The review made 14 recommendations for improvement. A letter dated Aug. 6 asks for documentation that problems have been corrected.

Elijah B. Freeman of High Point, director of the outreach center, said Kwanzaa was looking for a new director last fall, so some things got overlooked but were fixed within 30 days after the April 9 review. He said he already sent DHHS documentation showing the issues were corrected.

"We weren't waiting until September to correct these issues," Freeman said. "I don't understand why they sent out a letter months later with that information."

DHHS spokesman Kevin Howell said the Aug. 6 letter sent Aug. 6 was an official procedure.

"As is usually the case, items were discussed verbally during the onsite review, and there have been other communications since April," Howell said in an e-mail.

Some people who have stayed at Kwanzaa have complained about health and safety issues beyond what the state inspectors found, however.

Jeri Duckworth, 45, said Kwanzaa was her only chance for a new start after she was kicked out of a rental house in Morganton in June with no job and nowhere else to live. But instead of a new start, she said, the 26 days she was at Kwanzaa were "a living nightmare."

"I want that place to be shut down," she said. "The way they treated us is wrong. You shouldn't have to live like that, nobody should. It's ridiculous."

She said she had to remove snakes from inside a hallway and a bedroom, and the place was rundown. She also said Kwanzaa management would change its residency rules arbitrarily. After first being allowed to stay there for free, she was told to start paying rent though she still hadn’t found work. She now lives in a tiny apartment off Nuway Circle.

"The place is supposed to be lifting me up, not shoving my face in the dirt," Duckworth said.

Another former resident, Crystal Gullett, also said she left after only two weeks because of the snakes.

Sharon Poarch, director of the Shelter Home of Caldwell County, and Sharon Osborne, director of Caldwell County Yokefellow, said they have heard stories of problems with the management and upkeep at Kwanzaa. Poarch said the letter from DHHS speaks for itself.

"The reports about undesirable conditions at Kwanzaa have been very concerning," Poarch said. "As a member of the Foothills Homeless Coalition, I work with other local agencies and community members who are concerned for our homeless population."

Osborne said Kwanzaa doesn't do enough to get its clients back on track with their lives as the program exists.

"The key to successfully serving this special population is providing effective case management, which involves evaluating and identifying the crisis in their lives, linking the individuals to those services, consistent follow-up, short-term guidance and long-term monitoring," Osborne said. "It's simply not always possible to take a person in directly from homelessness and change their path in 90 days."

Freeman said that Kwanzaa and Dulatown Outreach are being unfairly targeted. He said the shelter fills a void in the community, which currently has no other year-round shelter services, though Yokefellow and the City of Lenoir are developing a shelter on West Avenue that is expected to open this fall.

"People are always going to complain about what we do," he said. "No program was addressing the issue of homeless women and minor children when the economy went south. We are doing a job that even the county and city did not recognize. No one gave a darn about these people."