HUD wants details on how R.I. Housing and Urban League disbursed $1.25 million to Pawtucket homeless shelter [The Providence Journal, R.I. :: ]
(Providence Journal (RI) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Aug. 16--The regional office of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development in Boston is seeking a detailed accounting of how Rhode Island Housing and Urban League of Rhode Island dispensed $1.25 million over three years to Safe Haven, a homeless shelter in Pawtucket that cared for fewer than 20 residents at any one time with serious drug, alcohol and mental health issues.
The money, $431,839 in 2010, $431,839 in 2011 and $401,479 in 2012, was disbursed through HUD's Continuum of Care program, which provides about $5 million annually to approximately 40 homeless programs across Rhode Island.
"HUD is very concerned about the expenditure of Continuum of Care funds at the Safe Haven Shelter," said Rhonda M. Siciliano, spokeswoman for the HUD office. "We are awaiting additional information and documentation from Rhode Island Housing related to the Urban League funding which we expect to have in the next couple of weeks. We will be looking into all facets of the expenditure of these funds." The Urban League operated the shelter.
Siciliano said if it turns out the funds were not properly spent, Rhode Island Housing will have to repay HUD "with non-federal funds."
The state Bureau of Audits in July released the results of a review of Rhode Island Housing that was critical of the agency for failing to provide proper oversight and on-site monitoring of homeless programs for which it receives the federal funding.
The audit made a number of recommendations for the housing agency to improve the tracking of the federal money sent to the programs. Richard H. Godfrey Jr., Rhode Island Housing's executive director, endorsed the recommendations.
As part of the HUD inquiry into the money designated for Safe Haven, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has contacted acting Urban League director Belinda Francis, who replaced Dennis Langley after he abruptly resigned as director in February, citing health issues.
The City of Providence paid for an audit of the troubled agency, which has been deemed "insolvent."
The audit, conducted in February in connection with a real estate matter unconnected to the Safe Haven shelter, found that more than $437,000 was owed to 45 former and current employees in unpaid wages and unused vacation time. On Aug. 1, Robert D. Shumeyko, director of HUD's Boston regional office, met with Governor Chafee and Nancy Smith Greer, HUD's Rhode Island Field Office director. Siciliano declined to provide specifics of the meeting other than to say that "a number of issues discussed at the meeting related to housing."
Said Chafee: "We discussed a multitude of issues related to housing."
Federal assistance for programs dealing with the homeless flows through Rhode Island Housing to the organizations that operate the programs. All told, the housing agency provided money for services for 811 homeless people last year.
Michael V. Milito, deputy assistant director at Rhode Island Housing, said that the Safe Haven program, which is ending at the Pawtucket site, costs more to run than your typical homeless program and requires staff 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
"It's important to bear in mind that the Safe Haven model is a resource-intensive, supportive housing program designed to meet the needs of the most hard-to-reach homeless persons who have been unwilling or unable to participate in less-intensive housing or supportive services," Milito wrote in response to questions from The Journal.
He said that Rhode Island Housing "shares HUD's interest in ensuring that funds provided to Safe Haven under the Continuum of Care program were used for their intended purposes. We have provided close oversight of Safe Haven since December 2013 and are confident that all expenditures made since then were appropriate."
Milito said Rhode Island Housing has been working with the Urban League to relocate Safe Haven residents "into stable and supportive residential programs that meet their particular service needs." He said that the relocation is almost finished and Rhode Island Housing expects to provide HUD by the end of August with the results of a review of "prior expenditures" at the shelter.
The controversy surrounding payments to Safe Haven surfaced on Dec. 6 after Gayle A. Corrigan, Rhode Island Housing's deputy director, toured the facility and discovered a host of problems. Employees at the shelter told her that they had not been paid for months and that there was no heat or hot water. The building, formerly a convent, also had a leaky roof.
Corrigan reported the issues to Godfrey. She urged him to contact the authorities -- federal and state -- for a possible criminal investigation.
On the same day Corrigan visited Safe Haven, Godfrey wrote a two-page letter to the Urban League and sent a copy to HUD. The Journal made a Freedom of Information Act request to HUD and was provided with a copy of the letter, in which Godfrey told the Urban League that Rhode Island Housing "will assume direct administration of supportive housing operations" at Safe Haven.
Godfrey cited the problems that Corrigan discovered at the shelter and he wrote that they "present an immediate threat to the health and safety of residents."
"We understand that Urban League has permitted these conditions to persist for more than a year, which is unacceptable," he wrote. Godfrey also pointed out that staff at the shelter "have not been regularly paid for 10 months," but that the Urban League had repeatedly submitted requisitions to Rhode Island Housing and received disbursements from HUD's Continuum of Care fund "to cover the salaries and benefits of these employees."
He added that certain Urban League officials allegedly "directed staff to modify their timekeeping procedures in such a way as to call into question the integrity of the information provided to Rhode Island Housing."
But on Dec. 10, Rhode Island Housing said, after meeting with Urban League representatives, that the Urban League would continue to operate the shelter, with "oversight" by the housing agency.
Several days later, Godfrey fired Corrigan. She said on Dec. 19 that she lost her job because she had pushed for a criminal investigation into possible financial irregularities involving federal funds at the Urban League. Godfrey refused comment.
Corrigan sued Godfrey and Rhode Island Housing in federal court. In May, a settlement was reached and Corrigan returned to her post.
Earlier this year, a group of employees at Safe Haven and another shelter run by the Urban League sued the organization in state court seeking double wages for failing to get paid for their work for extended periods of time. That lawsuit is pending.
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