Program for women to close tomorrow

Questions raised about fees, treatment of residents

November 29, 1999|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF

The Elan Vital Center, an Owings Mills job training program for homeless women that has been dogged by complaints about its treatment of residents and the fees it charges, is scheduled to close tomorrow, social services officials said.

While government officials are reviewing the taxpayer-funded program's financial dealings, they also are hoping that Elan Vital -- which provides 60 percent of Baltimore County's transitional housing beds -- could soon reopen.

"That's what we'd like to see," said James S. Kelly, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which has provided more than $2.6 million in grants to Elan Vital over the decade.

Kelly said HUD officials have not begun to consider whether grant agreements should be modified to allow the 20-bed facility to be taken over by any of the four nonprofit organizations that have expressed interest in doing so.

Although they say they are not conducting formal audits, officials from HUD and from Baltimore County are reviewing at least some of Elan Vital's financial records in response to questions about its "program fees." They have found no evidence of irregularities, officials said.

A fee of as much as $110 a month per resident, in addition to rent payments, "on its face appears unreasonable," said Dianne Pasternack, deputy director of the Homeless Persons Representation Project, which is providing legal counsel for several Elan Vital residents. The facility's administrators, she said, gave varying answers when asked what the fees were for.

Her organization has questioned whether some of the fees were charged for services that Elan Vital should have covered under government grant agreements.

Attorneys for the Homeless project charged last month that Elan Vital was being run "like a prison," with administrators using "fear and intimidation" to control program participants. Many in the program are mothers of young children and victims of domestic violence.

The lawyers complained that the program illegally evicted residents from their apartments, forced them to perform manual labor as punishment, and was overly restrictive in its visitors policy and in requiring residents to account for time spent away from the program's campus.

Elan Vital officials defended their program, saying that the discipline they instill in residents is beneficial, and pointed to the program's strong record of job placement.

Officials at the federal, state and county levels began to look into the complaints when Elan Vital administrators announced last month its intention to close. In announcing the closing, program officials referred to concerns raised by county officials about the center's policies for dismissing residents, and said challenges to its policies had spawned an "unruly and uncontrollable situation" in which residents defied rules.

Kathleen McDonald, president of Community Building Group Ltd., the nonprofit corporation that operates Elan Vital, originally set Oct. 29 as the center's closing date. She later agreed to keep the program open for a month to enable the 20 residents and their families to find housing.

Community Building Group continues to operate an emergency shelter in Reisterstown. Attempts to reach McDonald for comment last week were unsuccessful.

Elan Vital residents have found housing, said Maureen Robinson, a spokeswoman for the county Department of Social Services.

Federal, state and county officials have met to sort through their funding agreements with Elan Vital and to learn which policies are allowed under the agreements. Also at issue is a $1-a-year lease that Community Building Group holds on two state-owned buildings at Rosewood Center, a facility for the mentally retarded.

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