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A director at Salt Lake City Housing Authority quits, audit coming

Published November 2, 2011 10:57 am

Board will ask auditors to investigate Housing Authority's handling of veteran's death.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The manager of homeless programs for the Housing Authority of Salt Lake City resigned Tuesday and its board will ask auditors to scrutinize the agency's handling of a veteran's death, employee turnover and allegations that drug use by residents is tolerated.

Marka Turner had been placed on administrative leave on Monday, said Housing Authority Commissioner Michael Clara.

"The board had been looking into this, and we had several closed-door sessions investigating the issue," Clara said. "I believe that we're going in the right direction."

The Department of Veterans Affairs said in September that the housing agency was endangering the health and safety of veterans at Sunrise Metro and Valor Apartments by withholding information about them. It threatened to stop paying the agency, but dropped that threat in a letter delivered Tuesday to the housing authority's executive director, Bill Nighswonger.

New procedures and an employee code of ethics should address the problems the V.A. found in a September audit, wrote Steven W. Young, director of the George E. Wahlen Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center. The V.A., which said some veterans were going without treatment for weeks, will inspect the complexes again within 60 days.

Young said he also hoped for a culture change. "An open, transparent and collaborative relationship" between the V.A. and the housing agency "is imperative for the delivery of high quality services for veterans," he wrote.

V.A. spokeswoman Jill Atwood said the V.A. did not request any employees be reassigned or terminated.

Board chairman David Mansell confirmed there had been staffing changes at Sunrise Metro, but declined to specify their extent. He directed further questions to Nighswonger, who did not return calls Tuesday.

The Housing Authority's Board of Commissioners decided in a Monday meeting to search for a consultant to conduct a management audit of the agency, with a focus on Sunrise Metro, an apartment complex for the chronically homeless, and Freedom Landing, a complex for veterans located at 1900 W. North Temple.

"The question I have is [whether] the whole structure of how things are managed there [is] normal and helpful," Commissioner Jennifer Bruno said.

"The goal of that question is not necessarily to change Sunrise ... [the consultants] are going to take a fundamental look at what does and doesn't work," said Commissioner Valda Tarbet.

Sunrise, located at 580 South 500 West, follows the Housing First model, which provides the homeless a place to live, then helps them work on problems such as addiction and mental illness with case workers based on-site.

But at Sunrise, Clara said, turnover among those case workers has been unacceptably high — more than 20 people in the last two years.

Former employees have blamed a hostile work environment, a lack of training, tolerance of substance abuse by residents and a culture that discouraged reporting of problems. One former case manager, Jessica Morales, told the Salt Lake Tribune that the investigation into the January 2010 death of veteran Roy Cohoe was botched.

The Housing Authority is a federally funded agency charged with providing affordable housing and rent subsidies for low-income people in Salt Lake City.

The V.A.'s Sept. 16 threat to withdraw funding followed an investigation in the wake of complaints by several former housing authority employees.

Its funding covers 20 veterans at the Sunrise Metro complex and 13 veterans at Valor Apartments, and amounts to roughly $30 per day for each veteran in transitional housing.

In his letter delivered Tuesday, Young said all deficiencies identified in a Sept. 6 inspection and outlined in the Sept. 16 letter have been addressed. Flaws had included "flagrant indiscretions in confidentiality and professional standards" by staff, the earlier letter said.

Homeless veterans who are in the V.A.'s "grant and per diem" program can be funded for up to two years. Most, however, leave the transitional housing program after six to eight months, said Al Hernandez, the V.A.'s homeless coordinator, in a recent interview. Many remain in the same complexes but are no longer funded by the V.A.

The problems at Sunrise and Valor, he said, were flagged by former case managers. One of the issues, he said, was that Sunrise Metro's policies were not precise enough, essentially allowing case managers to use their clinical judgment to determine whether a veteran was using alcohol or illicit drugs in violation of the program's rules.

"We said, 'You need to add some meat to that,' " Hernandez said.

lwhitehurst@sltrib.com

Twitter: @lwhitehurst

kmoulton@sltrib.com