Anne Arundel's model shelter is under fire

December 27, 1992|By Deidre Nerreau McCabe | Deidre Nerreau McCabe,Staff Writer

Sarah's House, the Anne Arundel County homeless shelter hailed as a model program that "breaks the cycle of homelessness," may be breaking down itself, amid charges of mistreatment of its clients, personnel problems and unethical practices by some employees.

Former staff and clients paint a picture of a shelter that once stood far above the norm but has deteriorated in recent years under ineffective management. Numerous complaints made to supervisors both at Sarah's House and Associated Catholic Charities -- the Baltimore-based organization running the 64-bed shelter -- have been ignored, they said.

"They are a facade. They know how to talk a good game and they know how to present themselves," said Jacob Fraley, a former case worker, who said the shelter is plagued with personnel problems that administrators cover up.

"Sarah's House was at one time the best shelter in the area, maybe the state. But once management changed, they slowly but surely started moving everyone out -- everyone who cared. It's really a shame."

One current staff member, who asked not to be identified for fear of losing her job, said nearly 20 employees called an October meeting with Catholic Charities administrators to air their complaints, which ranged from sexual harassment of female employees to theft of donated items by supervisors.

"They basically told us to let it drop," said the staff member, who added that repeated efforts to have management address problems were unsuccessful. "We were told we'd be fired if we continued to discuss these things."

Sarah's House administrators said many of the problems described by former case workers, night monitors and clients were mostly a combination of exaggeration, misunderstanding and unsubstantiated rumor.

"That's not to say there have never been any problems at Sarah's House," said Father Thomas Bonderenko, the shelter's administrator until three weeks ago. But, he added, problems at the shelter, opened in 1988, are not unlike problems faced at homeless shelters elsewhere.

"You've got to remember that people come here with a variety of complex problems that led to their homelessness," he said. "Breaking the cycle is a very difficult and complicated process."

Edward R. Bloom is the director of the county's Department of Social Services, which contracts with Catholic Charities to run the shelter. He said he has never been made aware of the alleged problems. "People who I've spoken to there have had positive experiences," he said.

Still, the number of former staff members or clients who complain of problems at the shelter is formidable. Those problems include:

* Allegations of chronic theft by some employees, including supervisors, of new clothing, toiletry items and even food donated by businesses and individuals for guests. Goods often "disappeared" before staffers had a chance to distribute them, some former staff members said.

One staff member, who didn't want her name used, said she brought in new and slightly used shirts for male clients, only to see a supervisor wearing the shirts to work the next several days.

Nina Laboard, a former night monitor and aide, said: "The theft problem was talked about in staff meetings more than once. They definitely knew about it."

* Complaints that workers were forced to throw out boxes of used clothing, toys and other items donated for clients. Staff members, who reported dumping the clothing under administrators' orders, said management "did not want to bother" sorting and storing the donations, even though they could have been used for clients.

* Numerous complaints of favoritism by some staff members for individual clients, including allegations that clients who engaged sexual liaisons with staff members got special privileges, extra clothing and food and extensions on their stays at the shelter.

One former client, Linda Hall, said she went into the room of a favored client to find donations, "piled high, floor to ceiling . . . everything you can imagine," while other clients went without needed items.

* Accusations of racism, with former staff members, both black and white, saying black guests were asked to leave the shelter for violations often overlooked for white guests. Some former employees, who are black, complained they also received substandard treatment and said black workers were fired without cause.

"I was discriminated against and so were others," said Ms. Laboard, adding that during the two years she worked at Sarah's House, she saw many black employees forced out or fired for minor infractions, such as occasional tardiness. The same offenses were ignored for white employees, she said.

"Certain problems go along with working with the homeless, that's true. It's a unique population that has unique problems," said Mr. Fraley, who now works for Providence Center, a program in Severna Park for the mentally retarded. "But the problems at Sarah's House went well beyond what you'd expect."

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