Dim Bulb

For years the Salvation Army's Harbor Light homeless shelter has been plagued by inept management, insufficient security, and unspeakable acts. And Hennepin County taxpayers are footing the bill.

In early June of 1998, a 40-year-old homeless woman, identified in court documents as Jane Doe, found her way to the Salvation Army's Harbor Light Center in downtown Minneapolis. She was assigned to the Special Needs Unit on the six-story building's third floor, set aside for up to 80 adults with disabilities ranging from bronchitis to schizophrenia.

Right after checking into her cramped, rectangular room, where she was to bunk with seven others, Doe told staffers that the lock on her door was out of order. The small, slender woman--who'd been previously classified by local social-service providers as a "vulnerable adult," with a physical or mental disorder-- was told not to worry. Not only is the Special Needs Unit divided into separate sections for men and women, but it is monitored 24 hours a day. At the very least, Doe would be safer here than on Harbor Light's first two floors, home to much larger rooms and more than 150 beds.

Or so it seemed.

According to documents filed in Hennepin County District Court, Doe was taking an afternoon nap alone in her room on June 15, 1998, when Ronald E. Jones, a homeless man also staying on the Harbor Light's third floor, made his way upstairs, entered Doe's room, and closed the door behind him. Holding Doe down, he warned her in a whisper to "be quiet and not make any noise." Then he raped her. In all, the incident took three minutes. Six hours later the 43-year-old Jones was arrested; last spring he was sentenced to one year in prison and five years probation for third-degree criminal sexual conduct.

Jones, who is now a registered sex offender, has since been released. But the incident will haunt Doe--and the Salvation Army--for months, and perhaps years, to come. Last March Doe, who is living in another local homeless shelter, filed a civil lawsuit against the Salvation Army for damages in excess of $50,000, charging that the organization failed to provide adequate protection for residents staying at Harbor Light. A pretrial hearing is set for December 11 in Hennepin County District Court.

Joel Abrahamson, the Salvation Army's local attorney, disputes Doe's claims. Asked for specifics, he faxed City Pages a statement on June 9: "Please be advised that the Salvation Army still maintains that its employees acted reasonably on the date of the alleged assault," he writes, "and that the Salvation Army was in compliance with staffing level requirements established by Hennepin County on that day as well."

The "requirements" to which Abrahamson refers are spelled out in an emergency-shelter contract between Hennepin County and Harbor Light. For more than two decades, the Minneapolis shelter has been paid by the county to feed, house, and supervise some 300 homeless adults a day. This year's contract is worth nearly $1.2 million.

That they've been dragged into Doe's fray with Harbor Light comes as no surprise to Hennepin County officials. Since early 1998 the county has amassed a file that shows a social-service organization plagued by lax security and inefficient management. According to documents in that file, drug dealers roam the halls at Harbor Light. Staff turnover is constant, and neither residents nor workers feel safe. "The Salvation Army's structure is very insular, like that of the U.S. military," observes Marge Wherley, who supervises Hennepin County's Adult Services Division. "They are very closed and protective of their image, so they don't see bad things. They're blinded to them."

In January of last year, county administrators briefly considered terminating their relationship with Harbor Light, even though other facilities in the county equipped to handle the homeless were filled to capacity. "We'd been trying to get the Salvation Army to fix its own problems for months," Wherley recounts. "But things kept getting worse, until we finally started calling around to other agencies trying to find a place for people to go if we canceled our contracts over there. No one had enough room, but we believed at that point that people would be safer on the street than [at Harbor Light]."

For a time it seemed to Wherley and her colleagues that the Salvation Army was taking tangible steps to improve the situation. So rather than leaving 300 homeless people out on the city's streets, the county vowed to work with Harbor Light, scheduling a spate of organizational meetings and site visits in an attempt to get things back on track. The Salvation Army also sent representatives from its regional headquarters in Chicago, and a private firm was hired to improve security.

But by April of this year, Wherley was once again at the end of her rope. "You'd like things to be better," she told City Pages at that time. "But at what point do you really say, 'All right, this contract just can't be saved, and we're doing more harm than good'?"

On May 26 John Baron, who manages the contract with Harbor Light for the county, called the facility to say that the county had begun seeking a place to move about 100 of the most vulnerable residents at the center. Many of those clients, Baron says, are women--women like Jane Doe.

Just a week earlier the Salvation Army informed the county that it would soon be replacing the center's co-directors, Steven and Jennifer Woodard, and assured Baron that they'd launch a renewed effort to hire, train, and retain qualified staff.

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