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."
CASS board members knew Orton wasn't trained as a social worker when they hired her. In fact, they weren't looking for that, says Julian Blum, who was a developer when he sat on the original CASS board. Now he heads New Day Educational Center, another nonprofit agency.
She had no qualifications for the job, but neither did I, and now I'm executive director of a major agency," Blum says. She had good life experience and she knew how to raise money."
That's a skill the job demanded.
Orton says when she took over CASS, back in 1985, she found out the shelter only had enough money to stay open for two weeks.
For two years, the agency scraped for money constantly. I didn't leave politics when I came to work here," says Orton, whose annual salary is $52,000. I'm a professional beggar."
Now the agency not only has a $1.9 million operating budget-made up of government funding and private donations-but it has $560,000 in the bank.
Homeless advocates like Louisa Stark, an anthropologist and former professor at Arizona State University, criticize CASS for stockpiling money by cutting services.
Bill Mabee, homeless-project coordinator for the City of Phoenix, says city officials are aware that CASS is cutting programs while maintaining a reserve fund. But Mabee says the city, which contributes about $300,000 a year to CASS, is not interested in telling the agency what to do.
I think the city wants them to provide a good shelter service and leaves that up to their judgment," says Mabee. To this point, the shelter has not been questioned substantially by the city. There does not seem to be a particular reason to do so."
Mary Orton calls the $560,000 reserve, which is enough to keep the shelter operating for 90 days, a security blanket."
Shortly after taking the job at CASS, Orton recalls, she visited a financial planner. She was worrying about her own future after talking to shelter residents who had earned multiple college degrees, yet were unemployed. Orton herself had dropped out of college.
The financial planner told Orton she needed to save a financial cushion equal to three months' salary. She says she's followed that advice in building the half-million-dollar reserve for CASS.
As someone who has had to deal with the burden of not having money to pay my employees, I'm damn glad to have it," says Orton. Right now I'm really glad to have it because fund-raising is down 20 percent. The board and the staff of CASS are going to do everything we can to stay open. It hasn't been too long since we were scrambling for money."
But people in the social-service field say that scramble is a fact of life.
I guess I have a moral and an ethical problem with any nonprofit agency building a reserve without a clear goal of what it's to be used for," says a former CASS employee. The employee asked not to be named, because she now works for another Phoenix agency that provides services to low-income children and families.
I've seen time after time when there hasn't been any towels, hasn't been any sheets at the shelter," says another woman who works with the homeless at another agency. And yet they have all this money in the bank?"
The woman asked not to be quoted by name, because her agency competes with CASS for government contracts. They are considered the be-all and do-all for homeless people," the woman says of CASS. They're the ones who get listened to and get the lion's share of new funds, as well."
Stark and others point out that CASS is the only agency serving the homeless that receives money from Phoenix's general fund. (The city acts simply as a conduit for federal and state money for the other agencies.)
The city really has this attitude: `We gave at the office. We gave to CASS,'" says Stark, who heads the Community Housing Partnership, an agency that provides housing for low-income people. The rest of the agencies have been stepchildren to CASS."
In 1982, Stark founded the Consortium to End Homelessness, a loosely-knit group of religious, governmental and social-service-agency officials.
Stark sat on the board that created CASS, but resigned four years ago. Stark turned in her resignation, she says, when the agency started checking shelter residents for outstanding police warrants. She blasts that policy as inhumane" and says it shows CASS' attitude toward homeless people. (Orton says CASS started that policy because police asked the agency to do so.)
Stark and other advocates have estimated that there are anywhere from 2,500 to 6,000 homeless people in Maricopa County, most of them in Phoenix. When there are so many homeless people, Stark says, CASS should spend money to help them, rather than keep it in the bank. We run from payroll to payroll," says Stark of her own agency. I think that's the way most agencies are."
That's true, according to the United Way. Only about 25 percent of the nonprofit agencies in the Phoenix area have socked away any financial cushion, says Joseph Haggerty, president of the Valley of the Sun chapter of United Way.
Haggerty says United Way recommends that agencies have a three-month cash surplus on hand. But don't look for that amount in his own budget. We don't have that yet," he says, but we're working on it."
IT'S THE WAY THAT CASS built its financial nest egg that irks Louisa Stark and others. They point out that the agency's reserve has increased while the number of people served has decreased.
In 1989, according to the agency's annual report, nearly 13,000 people stayed at the shelter. In 1991, 5,600 people stayed at the shelter.
One reason for the difference, Orton says, is that CASS shut down its outdoor shelter in 1990.
A HOUSE DIVIDED A WINTER OF DISCONTENT ... v1-15-92