GALVESTON — Women arrive at Beacon Place fleeing domestic violence. They come from shelters all over Texas and sometimes as far away as Louisiana. They always arrive with children and often with little else.
They arrive expecting a safe, clean, stable place to settle in for awhile, get their bearings, jobs and an education. They arrive needing and expecting a high level of support.
Beacon Place claims to be that safe, clean, stable environment and to offer that high level of support. Its website states it provides “case management counseling, child care assistance, rental assistance, parenting skills management, nutrition and medical intervention, job skills improvement and advocacy.”
But a majority of the women residing there said they have come to expect none of those things from Beacon Place. They claim life there is itself a form of abuse and they have, in effect, been held hostage with threats against the rental assistance vouchers that stand between their families and homelessness.
Taxpayers also have some expectations of Beacon Place.
They have since 2001 subsidized its operations with rental assistance vouchers issued by Galveston Housing Authority. Those vouchers generate on average about $97,000 a year in revenue for Beacon Place, based on payments made in 2010, 2011 and 2012.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has over the past five years awarded Woman Inc., a Houston-based nonprofit that owns Beacon Place, about $500,000 in grants meant to combat homelessness, according to IRS documents. Woman Inc. also operates transitional living facilities in Pasadena and Beaumont, so the federal grants may not have been exclusively for Beacon Place.
And Beacon Place might not exist at all had the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services not in the late 1990s conveyed the land and buildings to Woman Inc. with the stipulation the property be used for affordable housing for 30 years.
A good program
Officials of Beacon Place and Woman Inc. said they have met and often exceeded any reasonable expectations by operating safe, affordable housing and a high-quality support program, the only one of its kind in Galveston, which has helped about 500 women and children from five counties transition from emergency shelters to self-sufficiency.
They say they have a reputation for excellence among social services agencies in the area, especially those that refer women to the program.
“We are doing the best we can with what we have,” Program Manager Ruby Jones said.
But six women — 60 percent of the adult clients — interviewed over two weeks told a very different story about life in Beacon Place’s 10 duplex apartments.
They described being lured from distant places with promises of tangible assistance to a collection of dingy, dilapidated, moldy, vermin-infested apartments with tattered, broken-down, soiled furniture.
The women claim Beacon Place’s programs exist only on paper and its clients are on their own to sink or swim from the day they arrive. They said any assistance they received came from other community organizations.
The women, at least three of whom intend to leave when their leases expire at the end of this month, said they and their children meant only one thing to Beacon Place — steady rental income from the housing authority.
Beacon Place charges the women $1,117 a month for 1,600-square-foot, three-bedroom units with all bills paid. Many of the women contribute as little as $25 a month; the taxpayers pick up the rest.
If everything was fine
“I make $900 a month; I have four kids,” said Laura McDonald, 24, one of three woman who agreed to be named in this article. “I’m going to have to get a second job to take care of them. Do you really believe I’d leave an all-bills-paid apartment if everything was just fine?”
McDonald’s story is similar in important details to those told by the others.
She said she knew she’d made a mistake as soon as the van from a Houston women’s shelter dropped her and her children, ages 8, 7, 6 and 4 years old, off at Beacon Place about a year ago.
McDonald said she was stunned by the generally shabby appearance of the place. Things got worse inside the unit, she said. The place was filthy, the furniture stained, smelly and broken down, she said. The mattresses on which her children were supposed to sleep were tattered, stained and reeked of urine, she said.
“I sat down on the curb out in front of this place and just cried,” McDonald said.
McDonald said her first thought was to leave. But she already had put down a $1,000 deposit. That was all the money she had, she said. She didn’t know anyone here, didn’t know where anything was and couldn’t go back to the Houston shelter.
“I just felt trapped,” she said.
She complained to Jones about the apartment, she said.
“She said I was ungrateful, and maybe I wasn’t cut out for this kind of program,” McDonald said. “I wasn’t ungrateful; I just didn’t want my children to have to sleep on pee-stained mattresses.”
McDonald said she has found a hotel job and enrolled in Galveston College, but she did so without any assistance from Beacon Place. The other women claimed to have had the same experiences.
They claim to have asked for help with money for transportation, work uniforms, health care and other basic needs but never got anything from Beacon Place.
McDonald said the Galveston school district provided child care for her older children through the Boys and Girls Club and she relied on other women at the facility to watch her younger children.
“There was a point where I didn’t even have toilet paper or soap to wash my children,” she said.
Aside from one parenting class, the women said they had received none of the program support Beacon Place promised.
The women claim also to have seen loads of food, clothing, appliances, Christmas gifts and the like donated by the community delivered to Beacon Place but have never received any of it.
“My children got a garbage bag full of old, worn, smelly clothes for Christmas,” Ronetta Price said.
Beacon Place and Woman Inc. officials disputed those claims. The women are troublemakers who have damaged their dwellings and other facilities, refused to participate in programs, broken program rules and vowed to “take Beacon Place down,” Michaelle Wormly, executive director of Woman Inc., said.
But a Galveston Housing Authority review of Beacon Place corroborates the claims, at least in part. The authority, which since 2001 had given women referred by Beacon Place priority access to housing vouchers, ended that relationship in May.
The authority, in a letter signed by Stanley Lowe, executive director at the time, said it would continue to pay vouchers already being used at Beacon Place but would no longer accept referrals “due to numerous complaints and documented program violations.”
A July 14, 2011, letter to Wormly said the authority had reviewed files of all Beacon Place residents and found “several files containing untrustworthy or questionable documentation,” specifically “multiple leases and other forms with questionable signatures.”
Jones said Thursday that two housing authority case managers have been trying since 2010 to close the facility because they don’t like Wormly.
As part of its review, the housing authority in a May 18 letter asked Beacon Place to provide it with a copy of the contract between itself and the authority, a list of people who had participated in its programs since 2001, a list of services provided by Beacon Place and names of people providing the services, the program’s success rate, policies and procedures and any complaints from past or present clients.
Beacon Place responded in a May 21 letter that most of it records, including the contract, had been destroyed during Hurricane Ike, but that it would supply what records it had.
Housing authority officials said in an interview Tuesday that they never received any proof that Beacon Place was providing any organized support programs for the women or their children.
Beacon Place told the housing authority it had received no written complaints from residents about anything at the facility. The authority, in response to a public information request, gave The Daily News 108 pages of written complaints from residents of Beacon Place.
Claims about the level of service and the authority’s claims about whether Beacon Place provided information were untrue, Wormly said.
“No client has ever asked for child care and been turned down,” Wormly said. “No one has asked recently.”
On Friday, Jones gave The Daily News an invoice from Nolan Child Center on 32nd Street in Galveston stating Woman Inc. had paid it $10,100 between 2008 and 2011 to provide 21 months of child care for four residents. The invoice shows a decline in that service — 12 months paid in 2008, five in 2009, three in 2010, one in 2011 and none in 2012.
Owner Tonya Nolan confirmed the invoice was correct.
Wormly said Wednesday that Beacon Place provided child care as a last resort when families didn’t qualify for assistance from other government or nonprofit providers. She said Beacon Place recently had to scale back its child care support to pay for other program expenses.
Late last week, Jones gave The Daily News a list of local agencies providing support services to Beacon Place residents. The list includes Gulf Coast MHMR, Bay Area Council on Drug Abuse, Galveston County’s 4-Cs Clinic, St. Vincent’s House, Galveston County Family Services Center, Galveston College, Gleanings from the Harvest and others.
Jones was listed as the provider of Beacon Place’s services.
$10,000 a year
Beacon Place budgets $10,000 a year for all program services, including child care and any financial assistance for things such as food, clothing and medication, Wormly said.
The organization, which has no mortgage and is tax exempt, spends the rest of its annual revenue on staff salaries, maintenance and upkeep, insurance and a management agreement with Zapp Reality.
Repair expenses had been very high recently because the complaining women had been vandalizing the property, Wormly said.
Mike Jensen of Zapp Reality could provide a detailed list of recent repairs, Wormly said. He didn’t respond to a telephone call seeking that information.
The women denied ever having vandalized or damaged their apartments beyond normal wear and tear. They said Beacon Place seldom performed repairs or routine maintenance.
Off the books
Security deposits are a main source of complaint among all the women. While their leases set the security deposit at $250, at least three — McDonald, Price and Kellee Irving — said they were required to sign a separate document called a “Move-in Sheet,” which set the deposit at much higher amount — $1,000 for McDonald and Irving, $900 for Price.
Housing authority officials said use of that document apart from the official signed leases was among the things that ended the relationship.
Beacon Place had been giving the authority leases stating the security deposit was $250, but didn’t disclose sheets setting the deposit at $900 or more, Hernita Johnson, Housing Choice Voucher Program supervisor, said.
Wormly and Jones said the organization had been forced to increase security deposits because the women were doing so much damage to their apartments. They referred questions about why that adjustment wouldn’t require a new lease to Jensen, who didn’t return a telephone call seeking comment.
The central dispute between Beacon Place, the six residents and the authority is whether the vouchers used there are project-based or tenant-based. The former are issued to the property and stay with it as tenants come and go. The latter, known as Housing Choice Vouchers, are issued to tenants, who, with some restrictions, can use them wherever they choose to live.
Wormly and Jones claim Beacon Place has since 2001 had claim to 10 project-based vouchers. Friday, they provided part of a 2001 housing authority document agreeing to launch a project-based program at Beacon Place, along with emails from as recently as 2010 in which authority staff members referred to project-based vouchers at Beacon Place.
Wormly said Woman Inc. had retained an attorney and was attempting to get the authority to resume accepting referrals from Beacon Place.
The attorney was hired to mediate rather than litigate, she said. “But this dispute it not over. It’s far from over,” she said.
Only a plan
There’s no disputing the authority in 2001 considered having project-based vouchers at Beacon Place, interim Executive Director Mona Purgason said. A past board of directors may even have approved a resolution to that effect, she said.
There also was no disputing, however, that the authority never applied to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for such vouchers, she said.
She conceded that authority staff members in the past had sometimes incorrectly referred to the vouchers at Beacon Place as project-based, but the authority always had treated those vouchers as Housing Choice Vouchers, she said.
“The vouchers have always been linked to the tenant, not the project,” she said.
The distinction is more than a bureaucratic detail. If the vouchers are project-based, the rental income stays with Beacon Place. If they are housing choice vouchers, the rental income leaves if and when the tenant does.
The rental income may be about all the income Beacon Place has. The IRS Form 990s filed by Woman Inc., which runs two other transitional housing facilities, shows only $28,318 raised in contributions in 2011, $21,000 in 2010.
Beacon Place residents said they had been led to believe the vouchers paying their rent belonged to Beacon Place until they “completed the program,” which the organization’s documents say is anywhere from a year to two years.
“They held the vouchers over our heads,” Price said. “That’s just the way it worked. If you complained, they threatened to put you out of the program and you’d lose the voucher.”
The vouchers pay a central role in another Beacon Place drama. McDonald, Price and a third woman, who asked not to be named, said that when they learned the vouchers were theirs, they filed notice they intended to leave when their leases expired.
Beacon Place responded with letters saying the women had been terminated from the program for various rule violations, they said. The implication was that Beacon Place was trying to pre-empt their voluntary departures with terminations and perhaps keep the vouchers, the women said.
These are the same women Wormly and Jones blame for the general dilapidated state of the property and the units, some of which apparently have failed repeated housing authority inspections.
Yet Beacon Place last week sent letters to the three women who plan to leave saying they could stay if they wanted to.
Asked why she would want such “troublemakers” to stay, Wormly said: “Out of concern for their children.”
‘Trapped, stuck, lied to’
That does not explain Kellee Irving, however.
She and her children, ages 3, 8, 12 and 13, had lived in a Houston shelter for two years before moving into Beacon Place about June 1. That was about two weeks after the housing authority stopped accepting referrals.
For about eight months, Irving asked who was paying her rent, but said she never got a good answer. As it turned out, she never got a housing voucher either, she said.
But last week she got a letter saying she must vacate Beacon Place by Feb. 27. She never got a letter inviting her to stay, like McDonald and Price did.
The only obvious difference between Irving and the women who were invited to stay is that they have vouchers, and she does not.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” she said. “I didn’t have a backup plan; didn’t know I was going to need one. I thought this was going be stable at least for a year.
“All I know is that I can’t go back to Houston. I feel trapped; I feel stuck; I feel lied too.”
Editor’s note: The Daily News published the names of three woman living in Beacon Place, a housing project for the victims of domestic violence, with their permission, which was stated and restated to the reporter. The newspaper chose not to publish photographs of the women’s faces, however, and not to print the address of Beacon Place.