Homeless director accused of pocketing donations
March 18, 2013
KEEPING THEM HOMELESS
By KAREN VELIE, JOSH FRIEDMAN and DANIEL BLACKBURN
(Editor’s note: This is part of an ongoing series about San Luis Obispo County Homeless Services and the nonprofits managing the program.)
Homeless Services Coordinator Dee Torres routinely took gift cards intended for the needy and homeless for her own use, a number of former homeless service employees and ex-boyfriends say.
Torres kept the gift cards in her purse to use for family outings, gas, restaurants and Christmas presents for her friends, Ralph Almirol, the father of Torres’ middle child, said. Almirol said they especially enjoyed gift cards from Tom’s Toys on Higuera Street.
“We would give them to the kids,” Almirol said. “She used them like they were hers.”
Torres’ Homeless Services program comes under the umbrella of Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo (CAPSLO). Employees of both the Prado Day Center and the Maxine Lewis Shelter say that every Christmas, the homeless are remembered by the public with thousands of dollars in gift cards being donated for gas, groceries, restaurants and retail stores. All such donations are to be given to the homeless.
Almirol asked Torres about the cards and the homeless who were supposed to receive them, he said.
“People would give a lot of gift cards,” Almirol said. “I asked her once if she could get in trouble, she said there was no accounting for what is given, and most of them don’t deserve it.”
Other former boyfriends confirmed the allegations, though they wanted to remain unnamed because they are afraid that Torres or government officials will retaliate. Torres is engaged to San Luis Obispo County Supervisor Adam Hill. At least one of Torres’ former husbands relied on his marriage to her to obtain legal resident status, CAPSLO staffers and Almirol said.
Friends of Prado President Roy Rawlings and Torres did not respond to comment requests.
Workers at the homeless shelters said that apart from the rare occasion when a client would do chores such as painting an office, the cards were not provided to the homeless.
“We never saw the gift cards given out,” said Kathy Marti, a former three-year employee of CAPSLO. “Once the gift cards came in she would take them.”
Marti said she quit in 2010 after battling for better treatment of the homeless.
“I was so disillusioned because I never saw any progress,” Marti said. “When I first started working there I loved it, I felt I could move heaven and earth.”
More than a dozen former and current employees of CAPSLO said that Torres refused to give donated goods to the homeless unless they would do chores for her.
“There was so much stuff coming in,” said Carina Salazar, a former CAPSLO employee. “There was all kinds of stuff donated. A lot of stuff got tossed. We went over to the (CAPSLO) main office to complain, but no one would listen.”
Almirol said Torres would divvy up the best donations for family and friends.
“We would go through the donations and pick out the best toys for our kids,” Almirol said. “She would give other stuff to her friends.”
Employees and clients also question CAPSLO’s rule that homeless individuals must provide 50 to 70 percent of their income to CAPSLO in order to guarantee a bed at the shelter.
Richard Walker and his family turned to CAPSLO after they became homeless. CAPSLO required the Walkers, who were on welfare, to pay about $500 a month in cash to the family’s case manager, Walker said.
Despite paying CAPSLO approximately $500 a month, the Walkers still struggled to get necessities, such as baby diapers, from Torres, he said.
“We had to fight with them to buy things for our baby like diapers or rash cream,” Walker said. “We told Dee (Torres) we needed diapers. She told us to get diapers through them, but she would only give us three at a time and then she would get angry when we asked for more.”
After spending about a year and a half in the shelter on case management, the family decided to cancel so they would have enough money to purchase diapers and other necessities, Walker said. But Walker said his family did not receive all of the money they had signed over to case management.
“She gave us most of our money back in a check. She kept the $25 a month they charged us for holding on to it,” he said.
By opting out of case management, the family chose to take their chances on getting beds each night at the Maxine Lewis Homeless Shelter.
CAPSLO requires clients at the Maxine Lewis Homeless Shelter to be waiting outside by 5 p.m. though they may not enter the shelter until 6 p.m. Homeless clients not on case management draw a ticket out of a bucket for a chance to stay the night.
One night, the Walkers drew the right number, but CAPSLO staff told them they still could not stay at the shelter because their eight-month-old had pink eye, Walker said. They asked Torres to provide them a motel voucher. But Torres told the family they could not stay in a motel because they had a car in which to sleep.
“She said ‘no hotel, you have a car,’” Walker said. “Then she gave a hotel room to a man who had just had Lasik surgery.”
Joette Sunshine, a four-year employee of CAPSLO who has left her job, said she was working that night and witnessed the events. Sunshine said she was distressed that a family of four with a sick child was not provided a hotel room, while a man who could afford an expensive eye procedure was.
“Part of the deal not to be able to get a hotel room was if you had a vehicle and a certain income,” Sunshine said. “This man had more than $1,200 a month in income and a van. The motel money was there for people who needed it, yet the Walkers were denied a hotel room.”
Several years ago, the Walkers got into housing on their own, though they said that CAPSLO lists them as one of their housing “success” stories.