Exclusive: Did a Los Angeles nonprofit try to leave a disabled homeless woman in a parking lot?

Property owner captured video of St. Joseph Center staff dropping the woman and her belongings

On Monday afternoon the owner of The Wood Restaurant in Culver City filmed two staffers from the nonprofit St. Joseph Center appearing to drop off a wheelchair bound homeless woman and her belongings in his parking lot.

The lot is big enough for about 20 cars. It’s private property and the restaurant is closed temporarily due to the coronavirus economic shutdown, so no one else was around when owner Demetrios Mavromichalis happened to stop by (disclosure: Mr. Mavromichalis is a personal friend). As he started filming, one of the staffers called their manager, who offered to speak with him. He refused, not wanting to share a phone with a stranger in the coronavirus pandemic. He said that they remained in the parking lot for about an hour, mostly on their phones, then loaded the woman and her possessions back into the van and left.

Ironically, the parking lot is where Mr. Mavromichalis hosts food giveaways by Nourish L.A., a youth-driven grassroots organization that provides families in need with healthy, restaurant quality food. Every Sunday lines of cars stretch many blocks down Washington Boulevard. According to the program’s director they feed more than 1,000 people every week. The organization’s efforts recently were the subject of a New York Times feature.

On the video, when Mr. Mavromichalis asked the St. Joseph Center staffers why they were leaving the woman on his property, the female staffer can be heard saying, “We have offered shelter and everything to her but she declined it at the last minute. We tried to take her somewhere else and she’s just like ‘leave me here.’ She had a shelter to go to and she turned that all down. She literally declined it. Everything was set up [for her].”

The telephone number for the manager to whom the employees referred Mr. Mavromichalis has gone straight to voicemail for the last 48 hours, and she has not returned messages. However, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit provided the following statement:

[A]t no time was this client going to be left or just dropped off. I spoke to our outreach team Director, and the situation was that the client had been in a motel for over two months, and we needed to move her, but she refused to go to the new location at the last minute. It was communicated to her that we couldn’t continue to pay for that motel, but we could take her to a shelter. The woman became irate and asked to get out of the car. To deescalate the situation, our outreach team stopped the car and let her out as she requested. Since she was in a wheelchair, it was better to let her out somewhere safer than along the street or curb until she calmed down. When she refused to go along with the team, they called their manager to ask what they should do. They were told to bring her back to the motel, and the manager would try to work something out for her to stay longer. Our staff was able to secure another motel, and that is where she is now. We are continuing to work with her and hope to find her permanent housing with her voucher.

Dierdre Robinson, VP of Marketing & Communications, St. Joseph Center

On the video the woman did appear to be in emotional distress, though she claimed she didn’t turn down shelter. She said a motel voucher was available and the room was “wide open.” When Mr. Mavromichalis told her the staffer said she had turned down shelter she said “bulls**t.” Eventually she said she wanted to “get away from” them because they “weren’t doing the right thing.”

The situation, and the competing stories, raise more questions than they answer. Most obviously, if the St. Joseph’s staff were trying to deescalate things why did they also unload the woman’s belongings, including two bags they placed next to a dumpster? Why did they park the van – which did not have St. Joseph logos or other identifying markings – at the back of the large parking lot, and in the position they did?

In a subsequent email Ms. Robinson explained that St. Joseph Center has “limited funding for motels due to the cost so clients are only able to stay in motels a relatively short period of time.”

The nonprofit is funded by tens of millions from city and county sources, as well as foundations and high net worth individuals. Are they still stretched thin? How often are St. Joseph’s clients downgraded from motels to homeless shelters or the streets? And if staff were able to secure another motel on such short notice that same afternoon, why didn’t that happen in the first place?

A St. Joseph Center staffer consults her phone in the parking lot. From a video by Demetrios Mavromichalis

The situation raises another issue: Starting about five years ago videos of ambulances dropping homeless patients on sidewalks and in camps prompted outrage throughout L.A. In 2018 Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation prohibiting hospitals from releasing homeless patients onto the streets. No such law applies to nonprofits.

To be sure, one of the central challenges of L.A.’s and California’s homeless crisis is that in all too many cases individuals are unwilling (or unable) to accept shelter. That’s a big part of the reason so many shelter beds go unused every night. A significant portion of the homeless population suffer from mental illness that makes it all but impossible for them to exercise sound judgment, or even free will. Many more are addicted to drugs or alcohol and are unable or unwilling to abide by rules inside. And some simply prefer life outside and have no interest in shelter or services.

A May 2018 investigation by KPCC radio determined, “Reviews conducted at 60 shelters funded by [Los Angeles County] last year found more than half — 33 — were not filling all of their beds. Overall, LAHSA-funded shelters had a 78 percent utilization rate, well below the 90 percent required in their contracts. Monitors also found that 25 of those facilities were failing to meet the minimum standards required by their contracts to get people off the streets for good.” The report added that in many cases the conditions of the shelters themselves are deterrents, citing “Rats, roaches, bedbugs, and mold.”

Still, it has long been clear that the city’s network of nonprofits is falling short despite generous funding from public entities, private foundations, and high net worth individuals. Their budgets balloon while the crisis gets ever worse.

Indeed, public records reveal that St. Joseph Center is swimming in cash. According to IRS Form 990 filings the organization received more than $130,000,000 in funding between 2010 and 2018. In that span its annual receipts increased from $7 million to more than $25 million and the CEO’s salary almost doubled, from $126,250 to $240,570. In comparison middle and lower class Americans saw their salaries increase by barely 13%, representing a net decrease when factored for inflation.

Its funding sources are diverse. In 2017 St. Joseph Center received more than $11.3 million in public funds from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) through Measure H. In 2018 it received nearly $10 million. Since 2005 St. Joseph Center also has received millions in funding from Culver City, often in the form of no-bid contracts. Last year the nonprofit received a $5 million grant from Jeff Bezos’s Day One Fund for its eleemosynary work.

These numbers are difficult to square with the spokeswoman’s statement that St. Joseph Center could no longer pay for the homeless woman’s motel room.

The nonprofit seems less generous with its rank and file: According to Glassdoor, case managers and regional coordinators make just $39,000 a year. About half the employee reviews are negative, referring to mismanagement, lack of transparency, and misappropriation of funds. An anonymous current employee wrote, “Employees are taken advantage of for their good nature and asked to work in unacceptable working conditions at offsite locations with no air conditioning, no break space, 1 toilet for all staff, and no parking.” Even many of the positive reviews complain of low pay, high case loads, and lack of support from management.

According to public records the public funds St. Joseph Center has received were for programs including “Homeless Prevention for Single Adults” and “Partnering with Cities to Expand Rapid Re-Housing.” The nonprofit has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the City of Los Angeles for efforts including “efforts to find permanent housing for homeless city residents.”

Yesterday, at least, it appeared St. Joseph Center did not meet those obligations.

Note: We contacted the woman, Shawna, and she gave permission for us to use her pictures. This story is developing. Check back for updates. If you have information related to the homeless woman and/or St. Joseph Center, please contact allaspectreport@gmail.com

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