Monday, December 4, 2023

Nonprofit assisting homeless with hospital recovery in limbo amid employee complaints

Nonprofit Hope Recuperative Care, which operated out of two houses along Wrightsville Avenue owned by Winter Park Baptist Church, has temporarily suspended its services. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti Willis)

[Update: The Hope Recuperative Care Board unanimously decided to dissolve the nonprofit. It will begin selling off its assets or donating them to other nonprofits.

“Frankly, we’re running out of money,” board member David Weaver said.]

WILMINGTON — A local nonprofit has been pushed out of its location following a multitude of complaints from employees over poor management, unsafe working conditions and unhealthy living quarters.

READ MORE: Tri-county homeless count 60% higher than last year, numbers of unsheltered children on the rise

Winter Park Baptist Church, landlord over Hope Recuperative Care’s property, has terminated its lease, according to multiple sources. There was a note on the door of its campus at 4806 Wrightsville Ave. stating its five-member board of directors would meet Wednesday to discuss dissolving the nonprofit.

Hope Recuperative Care board member David Weaver said no decision has been made whether to shutter the nonprofit. 

Also a former volunteer who assisted with the set up the nonprofit four years ago, Weaver said he’s donated money.

“It’s been wonderful to see people recuperating from medical issues through the love of Christ,” he said. “I haven’t done it because I had to; I wanted to.”

Three employees told Port City Daily they have filed grievances with the church, the state department of labor and the Healthy Opportunities Pilot program regarding the nonprofit. PCD reached out to Hope Recuperative director Darlene DiTonno, who said she could not speak by time of press.

Upon visiting the church in person Tuesday, staff told PCD they had no information to share. Weaver said the church asked the nonprofit to vacate because it had other uses for the property.

“Winter Park Baptist was kind enough to loan us the houses for five or six years,” he said.

Hope Recuperative Care was founded in 2019 to provide post-hospitalization recovery housing for those who would otherwise be homeless. It operated out of two houses on Wrightsville Avenue and was able to accommodate six guests at a time, each with individual bedrooms. The average stay of guests was three months, according to Weaver, with staff on site 24/7 to provide transportation to appointments; no clinical care was offered. 

The suspension of the nonprofit comes as the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services confirmed Hope Recuperative Care is no longer accepting patients in its Healthy Opportunities Pilot Program. HOP evaluates the effectiveness of non-medical interventions to improve health outcomes for high-risk Medicaid members. NCDHHS cited complications with Hope Recuperative’s lease.

“It is our understanding that Hope Recuperative Care’s HOP contract with its Network Lead (Community Care of the Lower Cape Fear) is being terminated because Hope Recuperative Care is no longer able to provide services due to an issue with their lease agreement,” NCDHHS spokesperson Kelly Haight told Port City Daily last week.

In June 2022, Hope Recuperative became part of NCDHHS’ Healthy Opportunities Pilot, in place through 2024, with up to $650 million in Medicaid funding available statewide. There are three selected regions of the pilot statewide; one region includes Brunswick, Pender, New Hanover, Onslow, Bladen and Columbus counties.  

Hope Recuperative received more than $10,000 from NCDHHS per the HOP program over the last year. Locally managed by Community Care of the Lower Cape Fear, HOP is an innovative approach to evaluate non-medical interventions related to housing, food, transportation and interpersonal safety to eligible Medicaid enrollees.

The nonprofit offered medical respite and short-term post-hospitalization housing, not to exceed six months and received rent reimbursement up to 115% fair-market value for HOP referral patients.

To date, Hope Recuperative Care has received five referrals for housing services, including two Medicaid members for medical respite. The nonprofit received $12,418 in payments from the state. It also had three Medicaid patients for short-term hospitalization housing; invoices are still in process, NCDHHS spokesperson Summer Tonizzo said.

As of Sept. 26, the nonprofit was listed on the Community Care of Lower Cape Fear’s directory as “otherwise on hold.”

Tonizzo confirmed being on hold means the organization is not accepting new referrals.

“Organizations that stop receiving new service referrals must work with their Network Lead to ensure that members are able to receive services from another [human services organization network],” Haight said.

HOP is only one financial arm of HRC; it also receives funding from a variety of sources, including Novant New Hanover Regional Medical Center and donations.

“I’m not real sure how the finances operated before HOP came in,” Weaver confirmed, having only been on the board for three months.

Hope Recuperative, one of more than 45 organizations in the HOP program overseen by Community Care of the Lower Cape Fear, can reapply to participate in the pilot once it’s able to provide services again, Haight added.

Former employee Jackie Stokes said she brought her concerns to the Community Care of the Lower Cape Fear.

“We have set up multiple pathways for members, community members, staff, care managers, etc. to report any concerns,” Community Care of the Lower Cape Fear director Sarah Ridout told PCD. “Any report we receive goes through a thorough investigative process that includes NCDHHS review.”

Not all guests at HRC are part of the HOP program. Hope Recuperative hosted roughly 100 guests since its founding — there is no exact record of how many, Weaver said — though five are in HOP.

The nonprofit was to offer a free, safe, hospitable location to stay during recovery, yet two former employees claimed some patients were being charged rent — up to $800 per month — by DiTonno and her son, Dean Bauer, who took over as on-site manager of the nonprofit facility in April.

“Another lady staying there reported she was paying cash and being asked to leave,” Stokes said. “And she was scared to come out of her room because Dean is going to yell at her.”

Weaver said the nonprofit never made anyone sign a lease or pay rent.

Staff turnover seemed to be frequent, according to the former employees who spoke with Port City Daily after being terminated. All said they were not given a reason for being let go.

Richy Jamieson was terminated June 15; he said guests feared if they did not pay the rent, they would be kicked out and have nowhere else to go.

“It’s really bad,” he said. “I feel sorry for the guests.”

Jamieson said guests are receiving “rent receipts” in the form of donation receipts instead, meaning their “rent” was considered a donation to the nonprofit.

A former guest at HRC for a month after suffering a stroke, Jameison said he heard the nonprofit needed staff and applied to join the team in June 2022. He worked weekend shifts and during some weekdays from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. He would prepare dinners for guests. Jamieson also stayed overnight but did not get paid for those hours.

He said he stepped away from his weekend shifts because it became too much.

“I was tired of people not showing up, calling me, asking, ‘Can you cover?’ So I’d go back and didn’t get paid,” Jamieson said.

In total, he said Hope Recuperative Care owes him $2,745 for unpaid work. If not received, he plans to submit a workman’s lien on the property for his owed compensation.

“I’m going to the church right now and tell them I need to get paid because what they did was wrong and they owe me that money,” he said last month. “It’s unbelievable how they take advantage of people and not do what they’re supposed to be doing.”

When he went to the church about unpaid wages, he also reported his other concerns to staff. According to Jamieson, Winter Baptist originally gave HRC until Nov. 1 to leave, but pushed the date up to Sept. 30 after hearing former employee’s feedback.

Weaver said the opposite. Originally the church was asking the nonprofit to vacate by the end of September but agreed to extend the terms to Nov. 1.

Jamieson, still not paid, was asked to leave two months ago when Bauer moved into the house to live full-time, according to the employees.

“They needed to get me out of the way,” Jamieson said. “They said they got rid of the overnight shift and didn’t need anyone to cook or prepare the meals.”

He added once Bauer took over, about five months ago, acceptable practice for guests began to slip. He referenced doctor’s appointments or pharmacy pick-ups many guests missed due to having no ride — a service HRC is supposed to offer.

Weaver said he could not speak to personnel issues.

Jamieson is not the only former employee speaking out about a negative work experience at HRC. Stokes also thinks she was wrongfully terminated due to retaliation and has filed a complaint with the North Carolina Department of Labor.

The state organization acknowledged Stokes’ request.

“Due to the laws of North Carolina there is nothing they can do about it for retaliatory termination,” Stokes told PCD. “I know it’s retaliation but they can’t say it is.”

She had seven days to supply any additional information for an appeal.

“I have no more to give them,” Stokes said. “That’s what happened. I can’t add anymore or make up anything.”

Stokes met with an attorney, she said, per N.C. Department of Labor advice. She was informed, unless she was seeking her job back or unpaid wages, it was unnecessary to sue. She didn’t want to go that route anyway but wanted the nonprofit to be exposed.

As the former house manager for HRC, Stokes said she was verbally and emotionally abused by Bauer on multiple occasions. The most recent incident was a week before she was fired.

“The assistant director [Bauer] is still with us,” Weaver said. “And doing what we consider an excellent job.”

PCD asked Weaver for Bauer’s contact information, but Weaver said he would advise Bauer not to speak with PCD, as concerns pertain to personnel matters.

According to Stokes, on July 20, Bauer called her outside to discuss a concern she raised: She found out there was an office within the house converted into a bedroom and unacceptable for living with a working camera in it. 

Weaver confirmed there was a camera, since it was a former office but it was taken down.

“It was not abused,” he said.

Stokes also said dogs were living in the house and had gone to the bathroom inside, sometimes without being cleaned; Weaver confirmed the animals were living there but said they would do their business outdoors.

These instances and more were filed in a complaint to the N.C. Department of Labor — reviewed by PCD.

Stokes said Bauer allegedly began yelling at her erratically, coming within arm’s distance of personal space. She wrote in the complaint to the state she feared for her safety. When she brought her concerns to HRC board members, Stokes said she was “assured” she would not be terminated for reporting her experience.

On July 24, she also requested video footage captured on outside cameras of a July 20 interaction with Bauer. About a week later, the day she was told she would receive the footage, Stokes was instead terminated.

The board told Stokes “it was not appropriate” to provide her copies of the video.

“I’ve never had a written warning or anything,” Stokes said, adding she also tried to bring her concerns to board members.

Weaver again said he could not speak to any personnel issues, but said the “board felt any terminations were with cause.”

Another employee, a certified peer specialist, was terminated but wished to remain anonymous due to her ongoing work within the community. In her role, she helped clients staying at HRC find more permanent housing to transition to after they recovered.

She said she was always “leery” of DiTonno who shared information about clients and other staff members.

“I shouldn’t have known about people’s personal business,” the employee said.

She recalled turnover of at least six staff members within an eight-month period. Weaver confirmed “staffing has been variable.”

The peer specialist said after three months her hours were cut back and DiTonno stopped answering her phone calls. She noted there was a lack of communication and training involved in hiring staff.

The anonymous employee also said she spent her personal money on food and was never reimbursed for it or mileage.

“All of us are loyal to helping people and were devoted to the program,” Jaimeson said.

According to a note posted to HRC’s former home, its board will hold a meeting Wednesday, Oct. 4, at 3 p.m. “to discuss a plan of dissolution of HRC as a nonprofit corporation, in accordance with the regulations of the State of North Carolina.”

The meeting will be held at the activity building of Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church, 1401 S. College Road.

“It’s not been a perfect operation, nothing is, but we’ve always tried to correct everything we could do,” Weaver said. 

There are two guests left in the house and Weaver said the board is working to relocate them.

Hope Recuperative Care posted a note on its doors that its board will meet Wednesday to discuss dissolving its nonprofit status. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti Willis)

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