Workers say CAPSLO charges needy for donated items, doesn’t track cash
March 1, 2013
Keeping them homeless
By KAREN VELIE, JOSH FRIEDMAN and DANIEL BLACKBURN
(Editor’s note: This is the sixth in a series about San Luis Obispo County Homeless Services and the nonprofits managing the program. See CAPSLO’s top salary makers at the bottom of this story.)
Four women who worked for Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo (CAPSLO) have come forward to say that the organization sells donated toiletries and other goods to the needy and homeless but keeps no records of where the cash goes.
The women, who have a combined six decades of employment at CAPSLO, and a half-dozen other former and current staff members say that Homeless Services Coordinator Dee Torres required workers to charge homeless people seeking services to pay for the items that had been donated by businesses.
Only cash was accepted. And, current and former employees said at the end of each day, an envelope with cash from sales, cash donations and gift cards would go into a box for Torres. No one interviewed for this story knows where the money went.
The sales brought in a lot of cash, said Corina Salazar, who worked for CAPSLO for eight years.
“We charged the clients right and left. There was so much money and stuff going through there,” Salazar said.
Torres pressured workers to charge for the toiletries, 30-year CAPSLO employee Estela Bonds said.
“Dee made us sell razors and other things and if we didn’t she would get mad at us,” Bonds said.
CAPSLO CEO, Elizabeth “Biz” Steinberg, denied that there was proof of the practice.
“There is no evidence of this ever occurring,” Steinberg wrote this week in an email to CalCoastNews.
Torres did not return emails from CalCoastNews seeking comment.
Wal-Mart and other companies donate toothbrushes, razors, toothbrushes, socks and clothing to help the homeless.
The items, given for free, are then sold – disposable razors for 25 cents, socks for 50 cents.
Current and former employees said they were not permitted to simply give donated items to the homeless clients for free. Workers weren’t allowed to purchase necessities for the homeless.
Torres fired Bonds after she used her own money to purchase formula for a client’s baby, Bonds said. She had previously been written up for giving a woman diapers.
When CAPSLO can’t fit any more donations in its storage shed, Torres has ordered subordinates to dispose of older items in the trash rather than provide them to the homeless at no cost, said Joette Sunshine, a four-year employee of the nonprofit.
“[Torres] would throw things away before she would give it away for free,” Sunshine said.
Some donations are in the form of gift cards, including some from McDonald’s, Sunshine said. Those cards rarely wind up in the hands of the homeless, she added.
“Typically, the only time gift cards would go to the clients is when they would do chores for Dee,” Sunshine said. “She provided a couple of five-dollar McDonald’s gift cards to clients who helped her count the homeless.”
Steinberg criticized CalCoastNews for its reporting.
“It is unfortunate you even mention things like this behind the cloak of ‘sources,'” she wrote in her email to CalCoastNews reporters. “If any of your anonymous sources would like to state their specific claims, [Jim] Famalette (CAPSLO’s COO) will meet or talk to them, and review their claim.”
Peggy Fowler, who worked for CAPSLO for 20 years, says that Steinberg was well aware that Torres had, at times, charged homeless people at the Maxine Lewis Homeless Shelter for items such as plastic ware.
“Biz said she wanted them to stop selling plastic ware and it stopped for a while,” Fowler said.
Employees also voiced concerns over the number of homeless people being tossed out of the shelter for breaking rules such as entering the Prado Day Center on foot through the driveway, raising their voices or having unruly children.
“One man showed up a few minutes early and was suspended for another 30 days,” Fowler said. “Suspended clients would be refused food and services. This just exacerbates the issues. Those on parole who cannot leave do not get a meal increasing the likelihood they will get into trouble.”
Several employees said they informed Steinberg of Torres’ alleged mistreatment of the homeless. Those complaints generally resulted in problems for the person making the complaint.
“People have gone to Biz but they just get in trouble,” Bonds said. “I put a complaint in writing to Biz about Dee’s unprofessionalism. She kicked a woman out [of the shelter] who had two babies. Biz is a nice person; she just doesn’t have time, and she just looks the other way.”
Employees also contend clients on case management regularly complain that monies given to their CAPSLO case managers are not returned in full. These clients are required to provide CAPSLO between 50-70 percent of their non-Social Security income to be held in order to secure a bed in the shelter or an overnight parking space.
“Clients complained all the time that they could not get their money back from CAPSLO,” Bonds said. “There were people who were crying about not getting their money back. Dee would say the clients are liars, and we were not to believe them.”
CAPSLO accepts cash or money orders from clients on general assistance or who have a job.
About 40 percent of adult homeless work at least 20 hours per week.
While numerous clients have claimed that they are asked to leave the money order payee line blank, Steinberg says that is not the case.
“Family Ties is used by some clients and some save self-named money orders with CAPSLO,” Steinberg said in her email. “All are given receipts, and the funds are verified. Clients are encouraged to save funds in order to eventually secure housing.”
CAPSLO top salaries