by Irwin M. Fletcher
Since 1987, Life Direction, Inc., Project Homeless has claimed in mailers and solicitation phone calls to provide shelter, food, hot meals, referrals, counseling, medical treatment, clothing, transportation, and emergency assistance to the homeless of Cleveland. However, concerns have surfaced about the legitimacy of claims made in the fund raising efforts of Project Homeless.
Located at East 154th and St. Clair, Project Homeless’ mission statement is to, “assist alcoholics, drug addicts, and destitute people to retain sobriety, a drug free life, and ability to function as normal people.” In an informational report issued in 1992, Project Homeless sited a marketing survey that concluded that, “Project Homeless was near the top in credibility and recognition among the agencies providing direct services to the needy.”
Several persons within the realm of homeless services did not concur with this finding, however. Ruth Anne O’Leary, Grants Coordinator at the Cleveland / Cuyahoga County Office of Homeless Services stated, “I have had no formal contact with Project Homeless. I was not aware of them until late last year. They don’t participate in the network of providers that are involved with the Continuum of Care that the office is working with.”
Project Homeless is not listed in the database of the United Way’s First Call for Help either. Judy Miller of the United Way described the First Call for Help system as, “an information referral service designed to provide information and to direct people to services in Cuyahoga County.” When asked about Project Homeless, Miller responded, “in 1995 11,023 of 61,340 total calls were from local homeless persons. At present time, Project Homeless is not on our database.”
The pamphlets that Project Homeless mails out to Cuyahoga, Lake, Medina, and Lorain County residents, though promise possible donors that their monetary gifts will be used to support an organization that, “directly feeds, clothes, and shelters a substantial number of needy children and their families throughout the year. (Holiday Appeal Pamphlet, 1995)”
Questions about Project Homeless have also been raised by the Cleveland City Councilman from Ward 11, Michael Polensek. Polensek said, “I’ve heard statements that it’s a con; it would be a surprise to me if they had a shelter.”
Kenneth Moore, the executive director of Project Homeless, replied to Polensek’s statements by saying, “for many fucking years we’ve given away hundreds of thousands of pounds of fucking food. Now, do you think Mike Polensek would come here and say, `hey, you people are doing a good fucking job?` He don’t give a flying fuck. He has never come here, how in the fuck can he think that?”
“You think that he would come down here and say, `hey, thank you for feeding my ward.` Shame on him for not coming here. Many years ago I asked him to help us and he pushed us away. He don’t give a shit!”
When a phone call was made to Project Homeless to request an interview, Moore responded, “this is all fucking bullshit.” He stated that he believes that those who claim that his organization does not serve the homeless are liars. Also he would not respond to the question of where the alleged shelter is located.
“Our shelters are full, OK. We’re small. We have never said we didn’t have any shelter. That doesn’t make any sense. So, all I hear are blatant fucking lies, even from you people. Our shelters are filled up. I cannot put any more people in our shelters. OK, so if somebody comes here and we can’t help them . . . what am I supposed to do?”
Besides the service professionals that have their doubts about Project Homeless, members of the homeless community have complained that they did not receive the services that are advertised in the mailers. Jim, a formerly homeless man who visited Project Homeless in January said, “they don’t have any provisions for the homeless. I was prepared to spend the night but everyone there claimed ignorance about a shelter. The mailer is totally misleading.”
A homeless man named Richard, who visited Project Homeless in February was also told that there was no shelter. He received a large bag of food but complained that most of the food was useless to a homeless person who would not have access to a can opener or a stove. The only items that he found use for were three loaves of bread and two boxes of cereal.
The rest of the bag consisted of items that are useless to homeless persons like packages of uncooked macaroni, a bottle of barbecue sauce, and a can of chocolate syrup. The bag also included a frozen vegetable mix that was torn open and rotten. Richard was told he could come back once a month for food, but that he was looking at the wrong organization if he was in need of shelter, services, transportation, or referrals.
Two former colleagues at Project Homeless who did not wish to be identified also disagreed with Moore’s claims that shelter, hot meals, and emergency services are offered by the organization. A professional working with the homeless who has direct knowledge of Project Homeless commented, “they were evasive when I asked about the shelter. I never saw the shelters and never saw anyone helping people off the streets. They claim to serve hot meals, but I never saw any. I don’t understand how they call themselves a homeless organization, they’re not sheltering anybody.”
A one-time volunteer who worked for Project Homeless for several years also had doubts about the integrity of the program. This person claimed, “I asked a half dozen times to see the shelters but they said they were full every time. I never saw any direct assistance. They’re not serving any meals to the homeless.” When asked about Moore’s claim that social workers regularly worked with Project Homeless clients, this person responded, “I don’t know what social workers would do there.”
“They told me there were three shelters - I never saw any of them,” the former volunteer continued. “They did make big money from auctions and sports shows and volunteers made big bucks from telemarketing. I’ve never seen clothes passed out or medical or dental services.” This person’s overall impression of Project Homeless was, “they’re not doing what they’re supposed to be doing.”
Two days after the initial phone call was made to Moore, a homeless man, Bob Banks was sent to Project Homeless’ storefront to request services. When he asked to be admitted into the shelter program he was told that the shelter was full and that, in fact, there were already two people sleeping on the floor of the shelter and that there is a waiting list to get into the program.
Banks asked where the shelter is located, too. His question was met with another question, however: “why do you want to know that?” When Banks mentioned that he had no use for the bag of food because he is homeless, he was offered Cracker Jacks and cookies.
Moore defended his organization’s choice of food items by claiming that homeless persons received, “other provisions and stuff.” Another food pantry in the East Cleveland / Collinwood area claimed that they encountered very few homeless clients. Those that they serve, however, are provided with can openers and food with nutritional value, not snacks.
A visit by Grapevine reporters to the storefront office of Project Homeless was Kenneth Moore’s opportunity to directly answer the complaints registered against his organization. When asked to give his side of the story, Moore responded, “I don’t give a shit, I don’t care. I have nothing to say.”
He went on to add, “I rightly don’t care what people have to say. The people who would say I’m a con artist - it doesn’t make any sense. The first four years I started this I had no paycheck at all. For some fucking creep, some asshole to say something like that is not normal, it’s not nice, it’s crass, it’s pompous. It doesn’t make any sense, it pisses me off. So, why do I sit here and have to fucking defend myself?”
“We actually give out tons of food here. Now that, on any measure of any measuring device is phenomenal, that’s heavy duty, I mean that’s delightful. We’re probably the biggest independent agency for giving out food, not sheltering people, but food.”
His response to the validity of the mailers that claim to offer homeless people emergency shelter, hot meals, transportation, and referrals was, “we never said off the fucking street now, though, did we? So you’re reading into things that you really don’t understand what’s going on.” One local homeless activist questioned where a homeless person would be from but off the street.
The mailers which are, according to a former volunteer, “targeted at households with incomes over $50,000 a year,” fail to specify which homeless people are eligible for services. According to a mailer dated September 1, 1995, Project Homeless claims to have provided 3,565 days of stay in their shelter program between January 1 and August 31 of 1995 (an average of almost 15 people per night).
This mailer also claims that Project Homeless prepared and served 12,251 meals in the shelter program while assisting 8,816 individuals in the pantry program.
Moore also refused the Grapevine’s request to tour the shelter and speak with a shelter resident. His reply was, “all they have left is their privacy,” which is printed on a piece of paper hanging on a bulletin board in the Project Homeless office. Moore went on to add, “we don’t have too many people staying at the shelters because it’s against the fucking law. Everybody wants to build on something that’s not there.”
Moore, did however, introduce the Grapevine reporters to a man that he claims is formerly homeless and currently employed by Project Homeless as a result of the services he received as a client from the organization. A former Project Homeless volunteer, though told the Grapevine that he believes the man in question is simply Moore’s roommate and receives little or no compensation for his work in the pantry program.
Explaining his program’s services, Moore said, “what we do is when we shelter people we get into their psyche. We have a doctor on the board of directors, we have a dentist that does free stuff for them. You said that you had people come here and that they said that we didn’t have any places - my people said that - and that’s bullshit. That’s a lie. I don’t believe that.”
“We have referrals up the ying yang, we got social workers, we got hospital workers. You don’t know, you’re misinformed. I don’t have to prove anything to you.”
“Somebody came in for two fucking hours. I was showing him the shelters - he was from the Plain Dealer. I was showing him the shelters, and the pantry. Two hours I wasted and guess what the person said, . . . `we don’t write nice stories.`”
Jim Lawless, the Plain Dealer reporter who had visited Project Homeless refuted Moore’s statements. “I didn’t say that and I did not see a shelter,” said Lawless.
Not only has Project Homeless avoided questions about the alleged shelter, but they have also been unwilling to show their tax returns to the Homeless Grapevine. When the Grapevine asked to see them during it’s original visit to Project Homeless, Moore responded, “I don’t have them here.” The 990 tax form, which is filed by all non-profit agencies is, according to the form itself, “open to public inspection.”
Scott Merriman, President of the Project Homeless Board of Trustees rejected this statement claiming in a letter that, “I am unsure exactly what your rights are. But, I can assure you that our organization has rights and I am very familiar with those rights.” Merriman claimed that Project Homeless was not obligated to show the 990’s to the Grapevine and refused to comment on the allegations made against his organization.
The Grapevine did, however obtain Project Homeless’ 990 tax forms from the Attorney General’s office for the years 1991, 1992, and 1993 and financial statements for 1994 and 1995. Discrepancies between the IRS 990 tax forms and Project Homeless internal financial statements were found in the areas of revenue, expense, and money left over at the end of the year.
On the 1993 IRS tax forms, Project Homeless claimed to have brought in $209,788 in revenue and support. However, in their internal financial statement, they list their 1993 total revenue as $290,711. The expenses on the 990 form for 1993 are listed as $129,617, while Project Homeless claims to have spent $227,024 on the internal financial statement. Also, according to the IRS form, $80,171 was carried over from 1993 to 1994. The Project Homeless statement, however, claims that $111,546 was in excess at the end of 1993.
Other items of interest on the 990 tax forms were the amounts of money spent on salaries and insurance. Moore’s salary is listed as $16,110 a year for 75 hours of work per week ($4.13 per hour) and a secretary’s salary is listed as $3,332 a year for 50 hours of work per week ($1.28 per hour). In 1993, Project Homeless claimed to spend $1,949 on insurance, while a shelter in Cleveland that is of similar size to the one that Project Homeless claims to operate spent $3,505 on insurance.
With the Project Homeless financial statement claiming that $407,519 was raised in 1994, the question surfaces of how much it actually costs to run a food pantry. Project Homeless can purchase food and household goods from the Cleveland Food Bank for 14 cents per pound. According to the September mailer, Project Homeless gave away 28,032 pounds of household goods and 320,511 pounds of food in fiscal 1994.
Assuming that all food and household goods were bought from the food bank and not received as donations, Project Homeless spent $48,796 on food and supplies for the pantry program. This would leave Project Homeless almost $360,000 per year to operate the alleged shelter and pay for any other costs associated with providing meals, transportation, shelter, and medical services to the indigent.
Project Homeless claims that some of this money is placed into a building fund. In a letter dated May 12, 1992, Project Homeless thanks a donor and informs him that their goal is to, “purchase a facility that can house a minimum of 24 clients . . . we desire to purchase an existing, functioning motel.” The letter goes on to reassure donors to the building fund that, “if we could not find a facility for our intended purpose by January 31, 1993, then all funds would be returned to you.” The Homeless Grapevine has been unable to locate a building owned by Project Homeless that is large enough to shelter two dozen people and finds no evidence in the 990’s of money being returned to donors.
The Ohio Attorney General’s Office, which conducted an investigation of Project Homeless in 1991, has resumed an inquiry into this organization. However, because of policy, the Attorney General cannot comment on any continuing investigation and has no knowledge of the outcome of the last investigation.
Despite all the questions about the organization’s legitimacy, the leadership of Project Homeless stands firm to their claims that they offer shelter, meals, and emergency services to the homeless of Cleveland. They shun coordination of their services with other organizations and disregard public education about homelessness as a failed effort. Kenneth Moore, instead emphasizes fund raising, “do you have funds for us? We need money.”
Irwin M. Fletcher is a contributing writer from time to time; Fletcher is exceptionally talented as an investigative reporter. Fletcher is currently on assignment in Katmandu, Nepal covering a story on off-track betting in the Himalayas.
Copyright NEOCH and the Homeless Grapevine published June 1996-July 1996 Issue 16