Workers say CAPSLO charges needy for donated items, doesn’t track cash

March 1, 2013
Dee Torres

Dee Torres

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.”

Elizabeth Steinberg

Elizabeth ‘Biz’ Steinberg

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

Keeping Them Homeless, the series.


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r0y

What I found interesting is when I was referring to all of these CAPSLO investigative reports to my dental hygienist (who has volunteered at Prado), she did not seem at all surprised – claiming there always seemed to be something fishy going on. We wrote it off to “it takes a special someone to deal with homeless” – it is not an easy job most of the time; we give them that.


However, the dentist him/herself came in and immediately claimed that “Dave is blowing this out of proportion” – wow, I did not expect that. I wonder if s/he got one of those “e-mails from Adam” or something. I did not press it, but I did pass along CCN’s website info to the folks in the office. They can make up their own minds.


danika

Even if this story turned out to be completely out of context ( and I serioiusly doubt that is possible ) the salaries of these people are OUTRAGEOUS and that alone should be enough to cause review of CAPSLO.


This is blatant preying off the vulnerable and needy.


SLOBIRD

I had lunch with 4 people today and handed out today’s story. I then told then to go to the web site and read the other stories. All of these people are connected to volunteering and donations. They were so sick after discussion they couldn’t enjoy their lunch. This is so sad considering how much this community does for homeless through our churches and volunteering. SHAME on Biz for not doing her job properly and there is no decent word for scum like Dee Torres. Biz needs to go immediately. Nice will no longer work for her model of management.


danika

I keep coming back and re-reading this story out of sheer outrage.


WHO ARE all of these people making these bloated salaries/benefits off of the very needy in this county? There are no words…


Wow…


danika

Not one, not three, but FIVE ( 5 ) accountants and THEY can’t keep track of the cash???


OnTheOtherHand

They have a finance dept. with probably 20+ people working in it. Their efforts are almost totally into keeping detailed books for the Head Start programs that are overseen by state and federal auditors. Since this is the vast majority of CAPSLO’s activities and budget, this is understandable. The Homeless Program is one of the “poor sisters” of the organization. I would guess that it is less than 10% of their total budget — possibly 5%. (Does anyone know the specific budget for the Homeless Program?)


I suspect that Dee Torres was given too much authority with too little oversight because her superiors didn’t want to have to deal with this relatively insignificant and problematic program. Whether she did what she apparently did to secure her reputation as a financially capable manager who could be trusted with running her program without noticeable supervision or whether something else was in play I don’t know. But there are obviously problems with the program that should have been detected and corrected earlier.


I will be interested in finding out more about what has been happening to the funds homeless people deposit with Family Ties via CAPSLO — the scale of that situation has the potential to dwarf the “secret” sales of donated merchandise. Does anyone know when more information about that will be forthcoming?


Paso_citizen

It seems to me that it would behoove Ms. Torres and Ms. Steinberg to have better pictures taken – maybe get rid of those sh*t- eating grins that show they know they are ripping off the homeless and are ripping off the county.

Is it no wonder that the homeless issue will never be solved when you have this many people with these kind of salaries and benefits. Just one more example of the people getting what they deserve, since they vote for those who have the power to really make changes. Happens at all levels of government and will always happen, until and unless people demand a change.


OnTheOtherHand

I don’t think they get to pick which of the many public pictures taken of them are used by CCN. I am certain they didn’t pose for these pictures with the idea that they would be used in a story about this situation. Criticize them for justifiable reasons not personal interpretations of their appearance. What picture of yourself would you want published with an article accusing you of incompetence or corruption? (Yea, I know, you would never be accused of that — but what about an accusation of,say, abuse or theft by an angry relative?)


danika

You’d think for $169,188.12 plus benefits, the proper response to CCN’s request for comment from “Biz” would be one that includes an immediate audit of all CAPSLO fund accounts, not the crap inidcated in her email to CCN.


Nancy

““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.”


“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 -”


So while Torres is out to dinner with her boyfriend enjoying surf & turf with champagne, there are homeless men being made to STARVE in the street because they forgot about one of this POWER FREAKS excessive rules. This is just infuriating. It’s enough to make me want to grab her by the back of her hair while she’s out to dinner and rub her face in her place.


Nancy

Sorry, I meant “rub her face in her PLATE”. That woman should not be receiving her salary off the public dole. I don’t want her working for us anymore. I want her FIRED, FIRED, FIRED. She is mean and cruel to helpless people and that isn’t what we pay her for.


givemeabreak

I meant Will all o this go anywhere?


JQ Public

I’ve been thinking about this today and wondering if it isn’t already beyond the capacity of Ms. Biz Steinberg to control.


We will know more about whether or not CAPSLO is going to get it under control by a couple of important factors:

1. If Ms Dee Torres is still at work on Monday and hasn’t been put on administrative leave until the investigation is over, then it is not likely to happen. It would make reasonable people think that Ms. Steinberg is going back to her first response in this case: It’s all lies.

2. If the people who do know ANYTHING write the letters and send them, then by this time next week we might find out if CAPSLO is going to take a serious look at this and respond. If members of the public know anything about CAPSLO selling donations, they should write in too, not just employees or former employees. If CAPSLO gets a lot of information and does nothing; then only an outside agency is going to be able to do anything at all about this.


JQ Public

It is never appropriate to use hunger as a punishment for any conduct. Not for children and not for vulnerable adults. Not for anybody.


JQ Public

The concept of a 30 day ban from homeless services is also far beyond reasonable. These services are funded with taxpayer dollars and no taxpayer funded agency, like County Social Services or Social Security would be able to do this without subjecting themselves to administrative complaints and actions. Such a ban can be life threatening.


JQ Public

It really bothers me that a person can be barred from services without first being offered a hearing and having that decision made by somebody who is not directly responsible for delivering those services. In other words, such power should not reside with Ms Dee Torres.


Daniel Blackburn

JQ — I think you have touched here on the nubs of this story. Email me please, blackburn.danielj@gmail.com. Thanks


JQ Public

I did e-mail Mr. Blackburn.


Truth

Steal, manipulate and withhold services from these poor people while they are down and out…nice! Shame on everyone of the corrupt criminals and those complicit with them. An immediate investigation needs to be conducted and the guilty thrown in jail…or better yet…a “homeless shelter!”


JQ Public

Situations like this present a Gordian knot; it is nearly intractable because disentangling it is difficult. Where do you find the loose end to begin the disentangling? Those who allowed themselves to be named and did so in numbers presented the first real opportunity.


After Ms. Biz Steinberg’s delegation to Mr. Famalette and her previous responses, I doubt any past or present employee or anyone else with knowledge would be willing or comfortable to go talk to Ms Biz Steinberg, Mr. Famalette or anyone else in the CAPSLO organization. That’s why it needs to be done in writing and with additional numbers to support the people who put themselves out front. That is one of the problems Ms. Steinberg will not have to deal with; the fact that her previous response has probably alienated the very witnesses she needs to work with to conduct a thorough investigation.


This is exactly why big organizations like the federal government have the Inspector General’s Office, whistleblower statutes and phone numbers where people can report fraud, waste and abuse. This is why in matters of discrimination and bias, the Human Resources Departments have independent obligations to investigate as part of their job.


The practical truth of it is no one can absolutely guarantee there will not be retaliation or discrimination. Even making something illegal or criminal doesn’t mean somebody won’t do it. This is a heightened risk if Ms. Dee Tores has the power to fire people under her supervision! Perhaps Ms. Torres should be on administrative leave?


For those still employed, there is the California Fair Employment and Housing Department to turn to in such situations.


JQ Public

Correction: This is one of the problems Ms. Steinberg will have to deal with, alienation of those potential witnesses who have knowledge of the situation.


Maybe the CAPSLO governing board will need to hire an outside investigation and get a report back directly to them. If so, it needs to be someone with the skill to do such an investigation. Perhaps they need to hire a law firm; one with an impeccable reputation. Pick somebody who has no connection to any of the players or any stake in the outcome.


taxpayer

If CAPSLO hires an outside investigator then there would be a direct connection. There does need to be an outside, independent investigation but with all the elected officials on the Board of Directors that makes it very difficult. It does need to be done though because without it donations will go away and CAPSLO will cease to exist.


karma2come

Due to numerous complaints from staff, CAPSLO did hire an outside agency to try to improve the program and rebuild staff moral after Dee Torres was made Director. The outside person who was contracted and supposed to help resolve issues held a confidential meeting with staff members, Management was not allowed to attend. Half way through the meeting the facilitator was brought to tears just hearing all the staff complaints regarding mistreatment of clients and staff . He felt the unhealthy and psychologically damaging environment Dee was forcing management to place on staff.

CAPSLO then hired Grace to oversee the program and fix issues but Dee Torres had her convinced within days the problem was certain employees. Grace became an immediate supporter of DeeTorres, so speaking out about issues, wrong doings, and problems, did nothing but get people raised to the top of a hit list! Needless to say, all staff who really cared and spoke out initially in the “confidential” meeting are no longer employees of CAPSLO.


OnTheOtherHand

One quick note: Mr. Famalette is pretty new to the job — less than a year I believe. This is not to say that he doesn’t share some responsibility but it may be limited by unfamiliarity with the situation.


karma2come

When Dee Torres was made program director it also gave her the power to terminate those employees who spoke out against her wrong doings.


myword

TO JQ: Thank you for galvanizing others to come forward [past/present employees?]. If you haven’t read JQ comment below please do so [ JQ 3/1/2013 at 11:07am].


Thank you again Dave [KVEC] for sticking your neck out and spotlighting CCN’s investigative series on on your radio show. TRIBUNE/KSBY TAKE NOTE.


Get the community engage. Since my parents are not real computer savvy, I made them several copies of CCN series. They in turn have made several more and shared it with their friends who prefer the written page. Please do your part.


The storm is coming Ms. Steinburg please get in FRONT of it and start a full investigation with you in the thick of it. Accept no platitudes – just dig.


Be brave – be courageous – be truthful.


givemeabreak

Brave and courageous do not go hand and hand with KSBY and The Tribune.