Oct. 15 2014 11:40 AM

How two cases highlight issues in homeless services

VitaManyluk
Vita Manyluk says staff at Connections Housing misconstrued her assertiveness as bad behavior.
Photo by Kelly Davis

Vita Manyluk is sitting on a concrete bench outside the San Diego Public Library in East Village, dressed in a matching red top and pants, her hair neatly curled. It's impossible to tell that she slept outside last night, near the Santa Fe Depot, one of many locations where she beds down.

"For safety purposes, I sort of bounce around," she says.

The 56-year-old has been homeless for seven years. She's been diagnosed with severe depression, anxiety and post-traumatic-stress disorder that, she says, stems from an abusive 13-year marriage. Despite a litany of illnesses that would seem to make transient life difficult—degenerative-disc disease, neuropathy, diabetes, asthma and rheumatoid arthritis—she says the PTSD leaves her unable to tolerate the dysfunction of homeless shelters. She's applied for disability benefits, but right now her income is $200 a month in general relief and $189 in food stamps, not nearly enough to even consider a cheap hotel for a night.

In February, Manyluk entered Connections Housing, located Downtown. Open for a year-and-a-half, the building includes 134 "interim" beds in a shelter-type setting spread out between two floors. The goal is for case managers to work with clients to find suitable longer-term housing—and employment for those able to hold a job— within 90 to 120 days, says Amy Gonyeau, chief operating officer for the Alpha Project, which manages the interim program.

According to Manyluk's case file, obtained from Connections by an attorney who's assisting Manyluk and shared with CityBeat, Manyluk seemed to be doing fine in the program until mid-April, when she asked if her stay could be extended beyond 90 days. On her request form, she explained that her medical problems limited her job options, and she was waiting to hear whether she'd be accepted into another housing program. On April 21, her case manager— whose name we've omitted because she couldn't be reached for comment—told Manyluk in writing that her request was denied and she needed to be out by May 6. At that point, Manyluk sought help from Disability Rights California (DRC), a legal-advocacy organization. DRC attorney Rebecca Cervenak exchanged emails with Alpha Project Program Director Travis Larson, Cervenak requesting that Manyluk be granted the extension due to her history of mental illness.

"Discharging her on May 6," Cervenak wrote, "would cause her to become homeless again."

Larson responded immediately, apologized to Cervenak and explained that Manyluk's case manager was new to the job and Cervenak should "consider the extension granted." Yet, on May 5, the case manager told Manyluk she needed to be out the next morning by 8:30 a.m.

Manyluk's since filed a complaint with the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), explaining that disabling pain made it difficult for her to get out of bed some days, let alone pursue employment and housing, as the Connections program required. She claims she was singled out by her case manager and held to impossible standards. And, when she tried to speak up for herself, Manyluk wrote in the complaint, "it was construed as aggression or bad behavior."

"While at Connections, the symptoms of my disabilities made it difficult for me to meet all program requirements," the complaint says. "I asked for several accommodations, but my requests were met with skepticism and ridicule, and, at times, were denied entirely."

Larson told CityBeat that, in the end, he stands by the decision to exit Manyluk from the program, citing behavior issues.

"Please understand that we give our resident clients many chances and opportunities to succeed," he explained via email. "No doubt we could have done more, but there are instances where the client puts us in a position to make a difficult decision.

"Our goal is never to exit a client unwarranted," he added, "but we certainly make mistakes as a program, and as human beings. It should be noted that we have made many more right decisions and have had many amazing successes with individuals that otherwise would have fallen through the cracks of society."

What happened to Manyluk might be a case of she said / they said, but it nevertheless highlights a current problem in homeless services: an overall lack of resources amid a push to put an end to chronic homelessness. Though Manyluk meets the definition of being chronically homeless—someone who's experienced homelessness for at least a year—she's not a drain on public services. She takes her medication, sees a doctor regularly and stays out of trouble. But her age, physical limitations and years of unemployment make finding a job difficult. Her lack of income makes finding decent housing impossible. Her case file, for instance, includes a list of single-room-occupancy (SRO) hotels with "rejected" written in her case-manager's handwriting.

"How do you house her when she's got $200 a month in income?" asked Tom Theisen, president of the board of the Regional Task Force on the Homeless. "You're lucky to find an SRO you can rent for $600 a month."

The task force is currently involved in an effort called 25 Cities, through which more than 2,200 homeless people in downtown San Diego have been assessed via survey. Called the Vulnerability Index and Service Prioritization Decision Assistance Tool, or VI- SPDAT, it asks questions to determine a person's level of need. Of the 2,200 people surveyed, roughly 600 fell into the category of needing permanent-supportive housing—housing that comes with services necessary o keep a person housed.

Six hundred people, but only 50 beds, Theisen pointed out.

"So far, we have only been able to identify less than 30 [additional] permanent-supportive-housing beds, which will be available to our team over the next 100 days," he said. "We are working to find more."

During her interview with CityBeat, Alpha Project's Gonyeau spent 20 minutes trying to figure out if there was a program that would help Manyluk secure permanent housing.

"Come back in if that's what you want to do, and we'll work with you again," Gonyeau said. "We'll give everybody a second, third, 10 chances."

She acknowledged that cases like Manyluk's pose a challenge.

"Some of the [housing] voucher programs, you have to have a history of being arrested. So what do you do? Go out and get arrested to qualify for a program?" Gonyeau said. "It's not [the program's] fault; it's just contract requirements. It's weird how the resources aren't what you'd want them to be, and that's what's tough about this business."

While Manyluk was talking to CityBeat outside the library, a woman walked by; she and Manyluk briefly acknowledged each other. They used to be friends, Manyluk said. The woman, who's schizophrenic, is now in a studio apartment.

"She's been arrested a few times," Manyluk said. "She's been in and out of mental institutions…. So that qualified her for [housing]."

****

Folks working to end homelessness might say a case like Manyluk's highlights the shortcomings of transitional housing, where structured programs aren't the best fit for some clients.  Preferable is "housing first," a model that says people are best able to tackle whatever caused their homelessness if they're provided housing with no obligation to participate in services.

Around the same time DRC was trying to help Manyluk with Connections Housing, the organization was finalizing a lawsuit settlement with the San Diego Rescue Mission, another transitional-housing provider. In October 2009, Jessica Franks, then 25, pregnant and with a 1-year-old son, entered the Rescue Mission to get away from an abusive husband. Franks, who was raised Mormon, said she was told that the Rescue Mission's program was religious-based, but she didn't think that would be a problem.

"I told them I don't mind other people's religious beliefs, but I wasn't going to change my personal beliefs," she said. "They didn't tell me it was going to be a bombardment."

Franks' pregnancy was difficult. According to court documents, staff denied her bed rest; at one point, Franks testified in a deposition, she was told the complications must be "because you're having intercourse." On a note from Franks' physician, obtained by her attorney, Ann Menasche, a staff member had written, "This is a ridiculous doctor's note. I'm not going to listen to it."

Menasche said there seemed to be an attitude among Rescue Mission staff that people were homeless because of their sins.

"There may be some compassion, but it's so tempered by the judging of people as sinners," she said. "They think that because you're poor and on the street, you must be bad."

Franks said she was told by staff that she couldn't lie down without permission. She was asked to leave, she said, because she wasn't able to attend enough of the daily classes that are required of the program. This was just before Christmas. There had been a Christmas-card-making contest, and her design won, meaning it would be the Rescue Mission's official holiday card. Her prize, she said, was some stamps.

"We're going to send your Christmas card… but we're not going to let them know we kicked you out?" Franks said. "I invested a lot of heart and soul into thinking that program was going to fix things."

Franks said she tried to find a bed elsewhere, but everything had a waiting list. A friend gave her some money to briefly stay in a hotel, but, ultimately, Franks felt she had no choice but to move back in with her husband.

Under the settlement agreement, the Rescue Mission doesn't have to admit it did anything wrong in asking Franks to leave. But, it will have to update its policies to make it clear that clients with a disabling condition can ask to be relieved of program requirements. The settlement also obligates the Rescue Mission to carve out beds for clients who won't be required to participate in religious activities—24 beds for women with children, 20 beds for single women and 28 beds for men.

Rescue Mission CEO Herb Johnson took issue with how Menasche characterized his organization's services.

"We're a Christian mission," he said. "There is no assumption of sin; [it's] absolutely not part of anything we preach, nor is it in any of our disciplines."

Because public dollars can't be used to fund religious activity, another settlement provision requires the Rescue Mission to pay back grant money it received from HUD and the San Diego Redevelopment Agency to purchase its Bankers Hill building in 2002. Johnson emphasized that the Rescue Mission relies on no government funding for its programs.

Franks was eventually able to separate from her husband and secure affordable housing in El Cajon—she and both of her children qualify for disability benefits. She's currently going to school, studying to be a nurse.

"Jessica has good housing now, but for a lot of people, that's not really possible because they don't have the economic possibility of doing that," Menasche said. "Solving mental-health problems, even substance-abuse problems, will be facilitated by being stable in good permanent housing.

"The cause of homelessness is not people's mental-health problems," she added, "or people's disabilities, or even people's addictions. The main cause of homelessness is the cost of housing versus the size of an SSI check."


Email kellyd@sdcitybeat.com or follow her on Twitter at @citybeatkelly.

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