Freeport West, a longtime Minneapolis nonprofit that aids homeless and at-risk youth, is trying to get back on track after a turbulent period of heavy staff turnover, allegations of mismanagement and at least the temporary loss of some government support.
Freeport, formed in 1970, put its executive director, Ramona Wilson, on administrative leave in February and fired her last month.
The state Human Services Department canceled three contracts with Freeport in June 2010, terminating $127,500 in state aid. After an $87,000 contract with Freeport expired on March 31, Ramsey County's Human Services Department opted not to renew until it examined Freeport's restructuring plans, said Dave Haley, the department's assistant to the director. He said the county was "interested in potentially re-engaging" with the agency.
Four employees were laid off this year because of a lack of funding and three others resigned, Freeport says. Meanwhile, the agency says it's working to catch up on $62,000 in missed payments to other social service agencies for which Freeport is fiscal agent.
Documents from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the state Human Services Department show both were deluged with complaints about Freeport.
They included accusations that Freeport served "ineligible clients," employed "family, friends and fellow church members," and that it did not work with other agencies working with homeless youth.
Even without state funding, Freeport has a $2 million-plus budget, 25 full-time-equivalent employees and a variety of services, including 30 transitional housing units and a house for six teenage mothers and their children.
Freeport says it provided 1,306 youth with intensive services and case management last year from a three-story mansion on Park Avenue and a youth center in St. Paul.
Feds demand change
Freeport underwent intense scrutiny from HUD, which gives the agency $412,000 annually for transitional housing and $242,000 for street-based outreach. In a February letter, a HUD official cited such problems as "the pattern of hirings/firings," with "close to 100% turnover in the past few years," "serious lapses in protecting" some federal funds and an allegation of a hostile work environment.
Employees broke down in tears from being yelled at and were told to "either be on board or get off the ship," according to complaints cited in the HUD memo. While demanding changes, HUD did not cut Freeport off.
"Freeport was doing some very needed work for homeless youth and families," says HUD spokeswoman Laura Feldman. "If we were to cut funds, the people who need help would be the ones who would be hurt, so it is always our aim to work with organizations to fix problems. ... They are actually working hard to turn this around, and we are very pleased with their progress."
Fired director Wilson was the target of much of the criticism. "I have a lot to say in defense of how I operated, but I won't get into a lot of details now," Wilson said in late February after being placed on leave.
Her attorney, Seymour Mansfield, said he's negotiating with Freeport about Wilson's claim of wrongful dismissal.
He said, "She wants to make these things clear -- [that] she believes her termination was unwise and unjustified, that she performed her job as executive director at Freeport ably and honestly and [that she] advanced Freeport West in all aspects of its funding, programs and competencies."
Mansfield said that statements about Wilson in documents and news accounts are "unfounded, incomplete and untrue."
Among the allegations was that Wilson pressed staff to attend a religious play titled "Judgment Day," written by Sherree Ellis, a Freeport manager in St. Paul.
"At the time it was strongly encouraged" that staff attend, said Dorothy Abellard, Freeport's interim executive director.
But Ellis said no one was pressured. Also untrue, said Ellis, was an allegation that Wilson hired her son at Freeport. Wilson's son interned there but was paid through another program, Ellis said.
Ellis was among those who lost their jobs. She said it was "very sad" that she and Wilson were let go and called Wilson's firing "a big loss" for Freeport. "There were so many untruths," she said of the accusations against Wilson.
When Wilson was put on leave, Freeport's board commissioned a "cultural assessment" of its organization by an outside law firm, said Fredrick Blocton, the board chair.
"We do not have a final report," he said. But, he added, "Freeport's future is bright as it can be," with support from HUD, Ramsey and Hennepin counties and private funders, and a "strong interim team" led by Abellard.
A forgotten memo
In January, Blocton and Wilson signed a memo to HUD, defending Freeport and saying ex-employees made "unfounded attacks and false accusations of malice and portray[ed] Freeport West in a way that has no bearing on reality."
Blocton said last week that he could not recall the memo.
After the Star Tribune faxed a copy to him, he e-mailed that he would not comment on it.
Margaret Davis said she quit Freeport's board when she learned Wilson was to be put on leave.
"Up until the day I resigned, those allegations [against Wilson] were never proven and [came from] people who had left on their own or were released because they were not doing the job," she said. She called Wilson "a very good administrator."
Freeport is fiscal agent for itself and 10 other organizations in the Streetworks Collaborative, which serves youth in need. Funds to the group are funneled through Freeport.
Susan Phillips, director of the metro homeless youth program at Lutheran Social Service, said that after Wilson became head of Freeport, "the collective leadership was stripped away."
She said Freeport stopped providing the groups with financial information, and, last summer, stopped funneling funds to eight groups.
By March, a document shows, Freeport owed the groups $62,580.
Last month it presented a plan to catch up on payments to the subcontractors over the next six months.
Said Phillips: "I feel Mr. Blocton is working very closely with the existing staff ... and with HUD. "I feel pretty confident they are going to sort things out, and Freeport is going to go back to being the incredible organization it was."
Abellard said she is hopeful. "I believe the morale of staff has changed," she said, "and there is a new energy around the services we provide."
Randy Furst • 612-673-7382