Two months ago, the Good Neighbor Center was the Lowcountry’s biggest transitional housing shelter for homeless veterans, operating with the mission of helping down-on-their-luck servicemen get back on their feet.
Now its manager is marketing the North Charleston complex as a cheap motel.
The nonprofit facility — which steadily has taken local, state and federal tax dollars over the last two decades — is in financial, legal and operational turmoil. Amid the confusion, no one is taking control.
The center’s collapse has been years in the making. It began with uncontrolled and illicit spending under its former director, who is being investigated by federal and state authorities, and continued after bailout efforts a year ago.
Taxpayers — who have shelled out more than a half-million dollars since 2008 for capital improvements alone — now appear to be on the hook for a 14-bed expansion. North Charleston officials said they soon might board up the project, reported to be only 68 percent finished.
A handful of veterans who once lived at the Spruill Avenue facility now stay at an emergency shelter in Charleston where the masses turn for help.
The Good Neighbor Center has been named as a defendant in six civil lawsuits filed since January, as contractors attempt to recoup more than $100,000 they say is owed for work already done.
Those cases are on top of a suit filed against the shelter last year by former director Nancy Cook, who was fired after reports in The Post and Courier prompted a federal audit showing she misspent VA funds. The shelter’s absentee board of directors had been unaware of Cook’s runaway spending.
Cook also remains at the center of another federal investigation, and North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey was among the local officials questioned this month, city legal staff said Wednesday. Summey said Cook had listed him as a shelter board member, although he never was one.
Separately, the S.C. Department of Revenue is conducting its own investigation, a source with knowledge of the inquiry revealed Wednesday.
Cook has denied any wrongdoing.
“Ms Cook ran the shelter for 19 years,” Gregg Meyers, her attorney, said in a statement. “No one is perfect, but if Ms Cook was the problem … she would not have operated so successfully for so long. Ultimately it is the Board that is responsible for the organization.”
Last week, a temporary chain-link fence secured with a padlock blocked the entrance to the Good Neighbor Center, also called the North Charleston Community Interfaith Shelter. The doors were shut, picnic tables empty and construction materials untouched.
Bobby Knight, a member of the board of directors during the upheaval of the last two years, said he is in charge there. Knight — who has refused to step down despite recommendations from S.C. Sen. Mike Rose and others that he do so — said two homeless men still live at the facility. He said the men will be allowed to stay until they exhaust the shelter’s scant reserve funds.
To pump up reserves, Knight recently put out a sign targeting both veterans and construction laborers: Pay a $120 “donation” for a six-night stay.
“We are trying to find some contractors who want to rent rooms,” he said. “If someone wants to stay here and contribute money, we can take that money and do nonprofit things.”
Officials from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs have been tight-lipped since early April. That’s when Charleston’s Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center, citing safety concerns, removed veterans from the Good Neighbor Center and cut off the “per diem” payments that had covered residents’ basic needs.
The VA Central Office halted payments on a separate $542,000 capital improvement grant to the shelter in November, following reports of misspending. More than 60 percent of that amount already has been spent, according to a reimbursement report Knight released last week.
The S.C. Housing Authority in 2011 approved a $300,000 forgivable loan to the shelter to help finance its expansion. It already has provided more than $192,000 of that amount, according to the Housing Authority. But the agency’s involvement ended once the state confirmed the facility had complied with the loan’s terms.
Asked what would happen to the unfinished project, Housing Authority spokesman Clayton Ingram said: “Yeah, that’s a question I can’t answer. It’s outside our purview.”
North Charleston gave the shelter a $25,000 grant in 2008. Charleston County provided a $26,000 grant in 2010. Both grants paid for bathroom repairs at the existing shelter, and the funds were spent as recently as January, city and county officials said.
The Good Neighbor Center had been selected as a grant recipient following “multi-tiered layers of review,” Jean Sullivan, a financial officer for Charleston County Community Services, said in an email.
Elected officials whose districts include the shelter have kept their distance from the troubled facility. Rose’s district does not include the shelter, but he was one official who spoke out.
“The lesson in all of this is that there have been inadequate controls and inadequate transparency,” said Rose, R-Summerville, who has met with local VA officials to discuss the complex. “Here’s the takeout: Don’t give money without adequate controls. Assume there’s going to be a problem.”
Don Weaver, a spokesman for the South Carolina Association of Taxpayers, a Columbia watchdog group, blasted the lax oversight of public money and the “bureaucratic gridlock” of getting to the bottom of the Good Neighbor Center’s troubles.
“Everybody’s in charge, and nobody’s in charge,” Weaver said. “Ultimately it’s the person on the street who suffers. Bureaucrats go home at 5 and in the meantime, there’s a poor vet sleeping on a park bench in Charleston.”
The Good Neighbor Center’s success or failure has broad implications for the entire community.
The center, which has 32 beds in addition to the 14 planned in the expansion, was the VA’s biggest transitional housing program in the Lowcountry. Fewer than 90 transitional beds remain for the area’s swelling homeless veteran population, according to VA data.
Scott Isaacks, associate director of Charleston’s VA Medical Center, said in a recent interview that the area has “ample resources to place them in.”
“Homelessness is a major initiative here,” Isaacks said.
But officials from Crisis Ministries, Charleston’s emergency shelter and a source of local research on homelessness, said the sudden loss puts pressure on the area’s other resources.
“Any time you don’t have beds, it creates a problem communitywide,” said Amy Zeigler, a Crisis Ministries spokeswoman.
Local homeless coordinators must plan for the future, and knowing whether they can count on the Good Neighbor Center’s existing and planned beds is essential, said Stacey Denaux, Crisis Ministries CEO.
“All of us would like to see some kind of explanation,” he said of the Good Neighbor Center. “We want transparency from the VA. We’re having to guess what’s happening there as we make projections for the future. If those beds are permanently off the map, we need to plan for that as a community.”
Local VA officials said the existing beds will return only if the shelter complies with safety regulations. Without viable leadership, the likelihood of that happening is poor.
Crisis Ministries is in the middle of its own expansion, and the VA is footing $1.2 million of the $6 million bill, Denaux said. By the end of 2013, Crisis Ministries plans to have 40 new beds for male veterans, she said.
The beds are necessary, said Commander William Campbell, spokesman for the South Carolina chapter of Veterans of Foreign Wars. Campbell said he traveled to Washington, D.C., in March to discuss issues including the plight of local homeless veterans.
“There are a lot in the Charleston area and throughout the state — it’s serious,” Campbell said.
Up to 400 veterans are homeless in the Charleston area, according to VA estimates from September.
Other fallout of the Good Neighbor Center’s collapse involves public safety.
North Charleston’s chief building official, Darbis Briggman, said last week he worries that squatters would camp in the unsecured, incomplete expansion. Officials soon might board up the project to prevent theft of aluminum, copper and other construction materials; to keep trespassers from engaging in illegal activities inside; and to secure the site for hurricane season, he said.
Briggman and Zoning Administrator William Gore said they were unaware the Good Neighbor Center was marketing itself as a motel. They said they were unsure how the shelter is being used.
“No one from the VA has contacted us,” Briggman said, adding that he would dispatch a zoning inspector to review the site.
Isaacks and other top officials at Charleston’s VA Medical Center refused to comment about the future of the expansion built entirely with public money — most of it from Veterans Affairs. Saying they provide no fiscal oversight of local homeless programs, the Charleston officials referred all questions to the VA Central Office.
Since veterans were removed from the Good Neighbor Center on April 2, those federal officials have failed to answer questions about the shelter despite dozens of email and voice mail requests from the newspaper. On April 10, VA spokesman Timothy Graham said in an email he was “following up on your questions now and will be in touch soon.”
On May 9, Graham referred the questions to a different department within the VA. Later in the day, a spokesman from that department said in a phone interview the newspaper should “stop pressuring me to answer questions I can’t answer.” Asked who could answer the questions, he said, “I don’t know who knows about it.”
On Thursday, regional VA spokeswoman Jan Northstar released a statement: “At this time VA continues to work with the grantee on compliance with the grant agreements.”
Northstar did not respond to a follow-up email seeking additional details. Bounce-back replies said Northstar would be out of the office until June 4.
Weaver, of the Association of Taxpayers, said the dearth of information is unsettling. “Government programs are not perceived credibly anymore,” he said. “It’s sad because some programs do work, but stuff like this paints them in a bad light.”
Oversight of public money to the Good Neighbor Center seems to be a low priority for the elected officials whose districts cover it.
Democratic U.S. Rep. James Clyburn said in a statement he was not familiar with the center before the newspaper contacted him last week. “I expect the investigation will be conducted thoroughly, and believe anyone who shortchanges our veterans ought to be severely punished,” he said in a statement.
Separate spokesmen for Republican U.S. Sens. Jim DeMint and Lindsey Graham said Monday they would look into issues concerning the federal money provided to the Good Neighbor Center. Both failed to provide statements or respond to emailed questions despite repeated requests from the newspaper last week.
S.C. Sen. Robert Ford, a Charleston Democrat, was surprised to learn the state gave a loan to the shelter to build the still-incomplete expansion.
“$300,000? … That’s the first thing I need to look into when I’m in Columbia tomorrow,” Ford said Monday.
Ford did not respond to requests for follow-up comments later in the week.
S.C. Rep. David Mack, a Charleston Democrat, also was unaware of the state’s loan to the shelter.
“I need to find out more information before I comment on that,” Mack said.
Reach Renee Dudley at 937-5550 or on Twitter @renee_dudley.