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The Great TP War

Diana Watters

When Greg Scott moved into Catholic Charities' Exodus home, he thought he'd just about hit bottom. His life as a retail manager in Pensacola, Florida, had begun to fall apart when his mother died in 1991; to pull himself out of a spiral of drinking and family arguments he'd finally moved in with his father in Bloomington. But the arguments continued, and during a particularly severe bout with depression, Scott landed at the Crisis Intervention Center, Hennepin County's mental-health emergency room. After a stint in the psychiatric ward he was released to the Salvation Army's Harbor Lights Center. But his diagnosis of depression meant he could qualify to live in a special facility for people with mental disabilities or chemical dependency--a so-called Residential Structured Housing Program. Scott secured a spot at Exodus, one of 12 such facilities in Hennepin County, and moved in March 4.

Scott is a soft-spoken, articulate man with the tenacity of a pit bull, and he soon sunk his teeth into Exodus's policies and procedures. For five months he questioned and challenged the home's practices on a variety of issues--until, on July 27, the staff got sick of being bit by the hand it was feeding and kicked him out. But true to form, Scott is not going quietly. He's fought his lockout in housing court, and the Minneapolis Legal Aid Society has expressed interest in helping him sue Catholic Charities for violating the Vulnerable Adults Act--a state law that protects people with mental or physical infirmities. At press time, Legal Aid representatives confirmed that they had spoken with Scott, but wouldn't comment on the case further.

At first glance, the Exodus Hotel looks like a cross between a dormitory and a hospital. Behind its brownstone facade at the corner of Second Avenue and Eighth Street South is an institutional, glass-fronted lobby from which long, freshly painted corridors run in several directions. Single and double sleeping rooms line those corridors, and there are shared bathrooms on each floor.

It was in those bathrooms that Scott's complaints began. "There was never any paper towels, hand soap or toilet paper," he maintains. "And while it may not sound like a big deal, when you don't have toilet paper when you need it, it becomes a big deal." Hoping to bolster his arguments with procedural detail, Scott demanded to see a copy of the facility's rules; when he received it after three months, he discovered that residents were entitled to clean linens and towels every Friday. But that, too, was an empty promise, he claims. "I haven't had clean sheets in months, and some of the guys have gone even longer than that."

Which is their own fault, rebuts Exodus director Kristine Ornberg. "We have a surplus of clean sheets, but it's up to the residents to change their own bedding." Ornberg also rejects Scott's charge that the staff opens residents' mail. "A certain government agency, which shall remain nameless, tapes all of their envelopes, and he's convinced some [residents] that means their mail has been opened." She acknowledges that the facility has staffers without a background in health care dispense residents' medication; that, she says, became necessary in response to recent state legislation requiring homes like Exodus to store all meds in a central location. She adds that Exodus plans to hire a health professional soon.

But it wasn't the fine points of Exodus's administration, Scott insists, that compelled him to keep pushing: What really irked him was that no one seemed to be watching over the facility. The state pays Catholic Charities $1,188 per resident per month, he notes. "This is all taxpayer money, and I've paid into this system my entire life. We have a right to know if the state is getting what it's paying for."

Until recently, that was a difficult question to answer. Homes like Exodus fall into the regulatory netherworld between medical facilities and simple rooming houses, serving clients who are neither ill enough to be hospitalized nor well enough to survive on their own. State rules set out minimum standards for space and number of staff, but do not address the quality of care; neither does the city of Minneapolis, which issues licenses for the homes. That, says Hennepin County Adult Housing supervisor Marge Wherley, leaves the county to do whatever monitoring is required. "I know that everyone is on track, and that they aren't violating any standards," she says, then pauses before adding, "because there aren't any standards."

That's true, adds Pamela Koens, a placement coordinator in Wherley's unit, but it doesn't mean RSH programs can do whatever they please. "I visit each facility at least once every three months to look at the condition of the building, the quality of the food service, etc.," she says. And because Exodus is currently undergoing a $3 million rehab, Koens says she's been there six times in recent months, and has yet to substantiate any of Scott's charges. "[Exodus] has a clean bill of health," she concludes, adding that residents who aren't satisfied with the county's oversight can take their complaints to the state's Adult Protection Services or the Mental Health Ombudsman.

Representatives of the latter office would not discuss details of Scott's case until clearing their comments with him. But Ombudsman Roberta Opheim admits to being puzzled. "If he wasn't happy there, would he not have his own choice to leave? Why are they deciding his options for him?"

Thom Campbell, social services program consultant with the Minnesota Department of Human Services' adult-protection division, is similarly nonplussed. "Who's responsible? It's a good question," he mused. "I read the statute that covers [board and lodging homes], and it's pretty loose. It's kind of strange--[the ombudsman's office] has had complaints from residents, but there is nothing to protect either the staff or the people who live there. There needs to be some clarity about how these facilities are run and some standardization of procedures."

Greg Scott's most recent complaint has been the lack of a place to sleep. When he asked for his Exodus room key shortly before 11 p.m. on July 27, the front-desk staffer told him to speak to a case manager, who in turn handed him an envelope containing a letter from Catholic Charities associate administrator Allison Boisvert. "Mr. Scott, it appears that you continue to not be happy with your residency here," it read. "I am therefore asking you to vacate the premises." Boisvert wrote that she'd reserved a private room for Scott at the Drake Hotel, a privately run, low-cost downtown hotel, and that Catholic Charities was prepared to pay for his stay there until July 31.

Exodus had to ask Scott to leave, says director Ornberg, because his campaign of complaints has negatively affected both staff and residents. "I have 20 written complaints from residents saying that Greg was harassing them into making complaints," she charges. Scott says that's preposterous. "I never tried to enlist anyone," he insists. "What's at work here is the attitude that as a homeless person you should keep your mouth shut and be grateful for whatever you get.

"They act as if [residents] have no rights. I haven't broken any of the rules or procedures, I haven't done anything immoral or illegal, but if you complain about the staff like I have, they can throw you out."

Scott never took Boisvert up on her offer of a room at the Drake: Fearing, he says, for his mental well-being, he spent his nights last week in the Crisis Center waiting room, and his days making the rounds of social-service agencies. A Lutheran Social Services advocate advised him to contest Catholic Charities' action in housing court, and on July 29 he faced Boisvert in Referee Thomas Haeg's courtroom. Within less than an hour, Haeg ruled that since Scott occupied a "temporary sleeping room" and didn't pay rent, the arrangement was not protected by tenant-landlord rules. In the eyes of the law, Haeg said, Scott was simply a "hotel guest."

Luckily, says Scott, he'd already made arrangements to move to another assisted facility in Minneapolis; the housing-court action was intended merely to prove a point. And on that score, he's not letting go: His concern now, Scott says, is that others could lose their last chance at living quarters merely by speaking their minds. "I don't want to close the program down," he declared shortly before hauling his belongings out of Exodus on July 31. "I just want there to be some accountability.


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