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.)