By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
NOW THAT THE holidays are over and the reporters and TV crews aren't hanging around anymore, things are back to normal at Central Arizona Shelter Services. But normal at CASS isn't exactly quiet.
Property owners near CASS, located at 1209 West Madison, have always complained about how the state's largest homeless shelter and its denizens have wrecked their neighborhood, midway between downtown and the State Capitol.
Not all of the agency's critics, however, are products of that part of the constant debate over what to do about the thousands of homeless people in Phoenix. One advocate for the homeless calls CASS an exclusive club" for those the agency deems to be the deserving poor," and contends that CASS executive director Mary Orton is more interested in empire-building than in getting people off the streets.
No one is accusing CASS or Orton of corruption, but administrators in other social-service agencies are critical of the nonprofit agency's $560,000 reserve fund. They contend that CASS, which runs mostly on government money and grants, has stockpiled money by deciding to serve fewer people. They claim that CASS is being run too much like a hardhearted business-down to doling out toilet paper by the square to residents.
Several of Orton's board members say she has done a good job, but several top managers have left CASS in the past two years. Some former employees say Orton's abrasive management style drove them away. Last week, a former employee filed a lawsuit against the agency, alleging that she was wrongfully discharged while on a leave of absence.
Mary Orton, whose background is politics rather than social work, says she expects complaints. After all, homeless shelters are never the most popular buildings on a block. She says her job requires the skills of a tightrope walker."
To critics who snipe that Orton cares more about the political limelight than about homeless people, she replies: I'd say they don't know me very well."
She adds, I think it's important to understand the different role of an advocate and a service provider. I don't have the luxury of only advocating for the homeless people. I have my staff, I have my board, I have my neighbors, I have the fund sources, I have the police and the fire departments."
Orton concedes that staff turnover has been damaging to the agency." I've been struggling to figure out how much was me and how much wasn't me," she says. I think we've acknowledged the problem and addressed it. But hiring is a crapshoot."
It's also true that CASS is serving fewer people than it was two years ago. Orton says that's because of the promises her agency has made to the City of Phoenix and to neighboring businesses and residents.
We are not going to go back to food service and mail [service] to all comers because I'd probably be tarred and feathered and run out of town on a rail," Orton says. I feel like our credibility is on the line, and I would feel very uncomfortable going back on our promise to neighbors."
One of those neighbors, Bonnie Towles, a loud critic of the shelter's location, attributes the complaints to jealousy among the social-service agencies. These groups help each other out when they want to, then when they don't, there's infighting," Towles says. There has always been disagreement."
Four CASS board members who were interviewed for this article say they support Orton, and they praise her for bringing financial solvency to the shelter.
She's extremely committed to the issue," says board member Francine Hardaway, a public relations executive. And she's very well-informed. Mary's more like a private-sector CEO than a nonprofit executive director."
That's exactly what some of her former employees complain about.
Mary came from a political background," says Tim Rayhel, who was a secretary at CASS until he quit last week. Mary doesn't use the political interest for her cause. Mary uses the political interest for Mary's cause. The programs are ignored."
Rayhel says spending money to raise money usually took precedence over more basic matters, like spending money to provide blankets and other necessities.
Wendy LeWin, a former case manager at CASS, recalls that the hallway outside the administrators' offices received new carpet before
shelter residents could obtain lockers.
IF MARY ORTON does display a political polish, she comes by it naturally. That's the arena in which she received her professional training.
She was just a baby," Orton says, when she started running the shelter six years ago. She was 30 years old and had no experience working at a social-service agency. Instead, her resume was filled with political jobs.
She had worked for the Texas Women's Political Caucus. In Arizona, she had worked as an aide to former Representative Morris Udall and on Democrat Bill Schulz's erstwhile gubernatorial campaign in the mid-Eighties. Orton, who grew up in Virginia, came to Phoenix 11 years ago to visit her sister-and stayed. Everything she owned was in her car. She was, she admits, a bit at loose ends at the time." She adds wryly, I tell people I know what the transient life was like."