Funding irregularity by local homeless group is the target of a federal probe

by Jordan Green

A special agent with the US Department of Housing and Urban Development is investigating the Homelessness Prevention Coalition of Guilford County for possible fraud and waste, YES! Weekly has learned.

Karen Bridges, chairwoman of the coalition’s executive committee and High Point office director of Youth Focus, confirmed in a May 31 interview that the coalition submitted inaccurate data in its 2005 Continuum of Care Grant application, which funds a variety of municipal and non-profit agencies set up to address homelessness.

“We’ve honestly admitted that it’s an error,” she said. “We’ve tried to be very transparent.”

The inaccuracies occurred because a grant writer hired by the city of Greensboro, whose name is Nancy Hunter, filled out a section of the application on meeting attendance and agency participation using data from the previous year. The information is used by HUD in a points system that helps determine the coalition’s funding allocation. Bridges said after the inaccuracies came to light Hunter presented a detailed plan for ensuring the problems won’t be repeated, and as a further safeguard the coalition has established a committee to review future grants applications.

Following the submission of the inaccurate grant proposal, the coalition received about $1.6 million in federal funding, Bridges said.

Bridges provided a list of about 10 agencies that received the funds, including her own organization, Youth Focus. Others included the Greensboro Housing Authority in partnerships with Grace Community Church and Triad Health Project, Greensboro Urban Ministries, Family Services of the Piedmont, the Servant Center, Salvation Army of High Point, Open Door Ministry, Mary’s House, Christian Counseling and Wellness Group and Alcohol Drug Services.

Mike Weaver, the coalition’s incoming vice-chairman, said the substituted numbers were probably higher than the true numbers, with the result that the coalition may have received more money than it was entitled. He said the discovery might affect funding for one of the participating agencies.

“If it made no impact, I don’t think anyone would be talking about it,” he said. “If it reduced our funding, I know we’d be talking about it.”

The inaccurate data was discovered by Cara Michele Forrest, a coalition member well known for her efforts to help the homeless in Greensboro.

“There was no nefarious intent by anybody to hide anything,” Weaver said. “We’re glad Michele found it. It was an honest error. I know Nancy Hunter extremely well. I would stake my life on anything she said or did.”

Forrest said she ran across the inaccurate data while perusing an action plan posted on the website of the city of Greensboro’s Housing and Community Development Department.

“When I saw the section about the attendance figures, I had recorded them so I knew that they were wrong,” said Forrest, who was a member of the executive committee in 2005. “I went back right away and checked them against the numbers that I had. The numbers were not right, and there were agencies listed that were not involved.”

Active in both the coalition and the task force, Forrest designed a website for the coalition and successfully lobbied the Greensboro City Council to endorse the 10-Year Plan in early 2006. Forrest has been active with Night Watch, a group that distributes food, blankets and other amenities to homeless people after dark.

Forrest’s blog writing suggests that her efforts to bring the funding problems to light led to strain in her relationship with fellow coalition members.

“When you uncover a problem, you apparently become the problem,” Forrest wrote on May 30. “And when somebody in authority finds out about the problem you uncovered, well then, all hell breaks loose and you become the enemy.”

In an earlier post on May 7, Forrest had written that she has “learned to beware of people in organizations that are involved in helping homeless people” who “are willing to break rules in order to get funding while insisting that homeless people obey all rules in order to be served.”

Forrest’s scathing itemization also decried professional advocates who “don’t know any homeless people… only wear suits and work in offices and never go where homeless people are… assume that they know more than homeless people do about homelessness and what’s best for homeless people… [and] participate in gossip, innuendo, lies, or any form of denigration of others in an attempt to secure or enhance their personal or organizational position.”

Coalition members expressed concern that the investigation would overshadow a visit on Monday by Philip Mangano, a Bush administration official who heads the US Interagency Council on Homelessness. Mangano was to be on hand at GTCC’s Jamestown campus for the presentation of the 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness by the Guilford County Task Force to End Homelessness, whose membership includes prominent lawyers, philanthropic leaders, executives with area hospitals and representatives of the United Way in Greensboro and High Point.

The funding irregularity is unrelated to the 10-Year Plan.

“Guilford County is going to be the recipient of some really good things,” Bridges said. “There have been just some wonderful civic leaders who have donated enormous brainpower to try to end chronic homelessness. I don’t want any of this conflict to overshadow the good work that has been done.”

Gail Haworth, executive director of the Servant Center in Greensboro, said she was upset that Forrest took her concerns about the grant application outside of the coalition. Haworth accused Forrest of notifying HUD about the irregularities in an interview with YES! Weekly.

Forrest unequivocally denied contacting HUD.

“Cyndi Blue’s name was the contact for the grant application,” Forrest said. “I knew Cyndi and Cyndi is part of our coalition. Cyndi said to talk to Nancy Hunter. I handled it directly.”

Blue said the city was contacted by HUD about the inaccuracies because the grant application lists the city as the primary contact for the coalition, which lacks a permanent address. The city paid Hunter to complete the application.

“We don’t know who got in touch with HUD, but we did get contacted by HUD,” Blue said. “We quickly realized that it wasn’t the city; it needed to be [addressed by] the coalition.”

In her comments Haworth alluded to the Project Homestead scandal, in which Executive Director Michael King committed suicide after investigators

uncovered extensive financial fraud.

“The problem is that Michele Forrest did not follow policy,” Haworth said. “Going to HUD was not proper procedure. We have policies in place. If you have a problem you should bring it to the executive committee. We’ve had too much of that with Project Homestead. You don’t just go to a HUD investigator. I was just really upset that this stuff is coming up at a critical time.”

Further comment underscored the sensitivity of the revelations and Haworth’s sense that the matter is receiving undue attention.

“There’s an investigation going on and it may just blow up in a lot of people’s faces,” she said. “It wasn’t meant to be malicious and lying. It’s very insignificant and should not have been brought up. And it’s not being covered up.”

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