Steller: Homelessness lets dubious Tucson charity go on

2013-12-29T00:00:00Z 2013-12-30T10:39:36Z Steller: Homelessness lets dubious Tucson charity go onTim Steller Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

In an ideal Tucson, Libby Wright would not be a factor.

In that Tucson, the mainline charities for the homeless — the Primavera Foundation, Our Family Services, the Salvation Army, Gospel Rescue Mission — would have the capacity to house all our homeless and help them get on their feet and out on their own.

But this is the real Tucson, in the real Arizona, in the real United States of America, version 2013.

In this Tucson, Wright, founder of the defunct charity The Giving Tree, has reappeared this year as the power behind the scenes of a revived homeless shelter, called Grace Home, and a new thrift store, Shop-4-A-Cause, at 5140 E. Speedway.

Star reporters Emily Bregel and Becky Pallack revealed Dec. 15 that the shelter and store are using some of the same controversial practices that got The Giving Tree in trouble in the first place — requiring shelter residents to work at the store essentially in exchange for rent, and asking residents to use their food stamps to feed the shelter’s residents.

This wouldn’t happen, except people like Ashley Estrella often don’t have another place to turn for help. In October, Estrella told me Monday, she was homeless and went looking for a bed, but the big Tucson shelters were full, which is true much of the time.

At the Gospel Rescue Mission, they recommended she try Grace Home, and Estrella found a bed there. Now she and other people connected to Wright’s charities are angry at the Star for our recent and ongoing coverage of what they think is a great charitable effort.

“I think Libby is a very good person, and if it weren’t for her, I wouldn’t have a roof over my head,” Estrella told me.

Estrella has a job and is planning to move out on her own in January, she said.

You can’t deny that The Giving Tree and its new versions have helped people — that was never the issue, and shouldn’t be in question for a charity like this. The issue has long been the irregular practices that Wright, her husband, Carlo Giovingo, and employees used in running the charities.

Not too many years ago, Wright was making regular appearances on Tucson television news, appealing for emergency donations of goods for the needy. Behind the scenes, many people who have long served the poor in Tucson rolled their eyes at her.

Then in November 2009, a Star investigation concluded that Wright hoarded many donations, and in some cases gave out Christmas gifts to children only to take them back later.

The investigation also uncovered financial irregularities: In 2007, the charity took in $1.4 million in revenue but reported paying just over $12,000 in salaries, an amount experts considered impossible. Residents of one shelter said they were charged $200 or more per month in rent to share a house with up to 28 other people. And four residents said employees asked them to falsify applications for state aid in order to get more money for The Giving Tree.

The image that formed was of a money tree for the operators of The Giving Tree. After the stories ran, the charity formed a new board of directors to straighten out its finances, but that board resigned six months later, in 2010, after concluding The Giving Tree couldn’t run correctly with Wright at the helm. Wright announced her retirement in 2011, and last year the charity folded.

That might have been the end of the story if there were enough beds and enough money for services to help the homeless get their lives straightened out. Groups such as Our Family Services, which serves homeless families, are designed for that, and they are financially accountable to donors and the community at large.

“We require people to engage in creating a plan that will allow themselves and their families to become self-sufficient and minimize their time in emergency shelter,” Executive Director Patti Caldwell said. “Their plan is built around either improving or securing employment.”

And no, Our Family doesn’t operate a thrift store staffed with unpaid clients.

That’s what Grace Home does, with clients reporting that shelter residents must pay $50 per week in rent or work 20 hours per week at the store. It wasn’t that requirement that bothered resident Christina Brown — although advocates for the homeless say it can prevent people from seeking paid employment, thus keeping them down. What irked her was the rule that Grace Home residents must spend $100 per month of their own food stamps on food for the shelter.

“I was there a month or so ago, and they basically kicked me out because I wasn’t going to give them $100 worth of food stamps,” Brown told me.

It wasn’t that she wouldn’t spend any of her food-stamp money on groceries for the shelter, but she wouldn’t spend the full $100, Brown said.

Such arrangements are borderline but not necessarily illegal, Southern Arizona Legal Aid attorney Wendy Ascher told me.

If the food stamps pay for the recipients’ food, that’s OK, she said, but paying for other people’s food with the state aid money may not be.

In any case, the Grace Home requirements don’t put off people like Ashley Estrella.

“We work to have a roof over our heads,” she said. “I think it’s fair.”

For me, it isn’t the idea of a charity requiring work that’s problematic. It’s the fact that putting in time at a thrift store doesn’t necessarily help get clients on their feet, and that it’s unclear where the money goes that the clients help raise.

Barring some action from authorities, who have been mysteriously absent despite the revelations about Wright’s charities, her unorthodox methods of helping the homeless will go on.

The only thing that would put her out of business would be if there were enough beds and services available for all our homeless at Tucson’s mainstream shelters.

Contact columnist Tim Steller at tsteller@azstarnet.com or 807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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