The Shelter, The Truth, The Aftermath And Standing Up for What’s Right

The Shelter, The Truth, The Aftermath and Standing Up for What’s Right

by Tony Miller, Head Grape | TallahasseeGrapeVine.Com

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I think everyone realizes by now that Renee Miller at City Walk is my wife. Renee and I used to do missionary work with the homeless and people in transition from 2007 to 2010 with our organization called Mt Moriah. After a 2 year break, Renee never escaped her calling and went back into ministry, opening up City Walk Urban Missions in July of 2012.

As a Christian organization, her mission is to show love to people in transition, to give them hope and realize that people do care about their circumstances and their future – that Jesus forgives them for past mistakes and wants them to live life abundantly.

The organization works with people in transition in different ways, from celebrating the baby step of getting their own place by helping supply them with used furniture and housewares that are donated to our program, to counseling and working with people to get them focused on priorities instead of past hurts and current drama, and to supplying backpacks, blankets and Bibles to the homeless.

After complaints that did not match up with our experiences at The Shelter, Renee decided to check into The Shelter to see how people were actually treated when there were no volunteers around.

At first, I was against this decision. First of all, the staff have seen her around there and know she is not homeless. But after 47 guys were denied blankets one cold Saturday night, I could not stop her from going in. She had no idea what she was in for.

Renee frantically called me from the Shelter that night. She literally thought she was going to be raped or assaulted. Maybe that was not the staff member’s intentions, but how was she to know? She felt trapped inside, the only way out was past him. She called the police and, for you naysayers that say she made this up, it is on record that TPD showed up there to escort her out. The stalking staff member, later revealed at Mike Pepper, even tried to interfere with the police when they came to ask for her. That night, the officers informed her although it was improper of the staffer, there were no criminal charges they could press.

All the other allegations in the blog were stories told to Renee from other residents while she was there at the Shelter for 3 hours. Residents that also believed Renee was homeless and wanted to “show her the ropes.” (Read Blog Here)

If you remember the original blog post, we did not name names nor did we even mention Mel Eby’s name, directly or indirectly. We did not call for any firings or investigations. The point of the article was to show how the homeless need good people to stand up and help them.

We never imagined that a blog post in a modest, local website would cause such a stir, locally and nationally. The Shelter’s Board of Directors reacted with their own investigation and the City Manager called for a criminal investigation – obviously not of Renee’s allegation, since it was already decided it was not unlawful, but to see if there was any unreported criminal activity against the residents that may have been afraid to come forward for fear of retaliation.

And come forward they did. Not just to the police, but to us, to the Board and to other advocates. After the initial blog post, we really had nothing to do with anything happening at the Shelter afterwards. The article got wheels turning, it gave residents the ability to come forward without impunity, and changes were being made for the better at the Shelter. But, honestly, all that came after the blog was out of our hands. We did not even know what the solution to this problem was, as we did not know anything about the Shelter’s board, their funding or their policies. All we knew was what we heard from residents and from Renee’s brief experience.

It amazes me how many people told Renee and I that they have known of abuses for years and they commended Renee for speaking out. They tell her that she was “so brave.”

Maybe I am wired differently, but if I knew of mistreatment – what is so brave about telling someone about it? Isn’t that what we are obligated to do as citizens? Why didn’t they come forward after hearing about the abuses in the past? What is there to be afraid of that would make “being brave” necessary?

If you don’t speak out for the voiceless, even after knowing they are suffering injustice, then who will? How do you sleep at night? You are morally obligated to speak up. Yet so many choose to keep quiet.

Since the allegations have been made public, my family and I have been harassed (mostly online by anonymous trolls,) questioned our motives and threatened. We had to get police protection on our home for while we are not home during the day. The City Walk store has been vandalized, the most obvious being the front door window being smashed out in the middle of the night. Even our church pastor has received harassing phone calls that he stopped answering his phone.

I guess you don’t rock the boat in Tallahassee.

“You have enemies? Great. That means you stood up for something, sometime in your life.”

– Winston Churchill

Now the Tallahassee Democrat, who named Mel Eby the “Person of the Year” for 2012, is in damage control mode. In their defense, the “Person of the Year” was nominated and voted on by readers and not by the Democrat themselves – and from the outside looking in, Mel looks like a saint. He has been running the Shelter for 25 years, claims to never had taken a vacation or day off, and has grown the Shelter to accommodate 225 people a night, from 10 when it was just a cold night shelter at a local church.

Also, in Mel’s defense, a lot of people criticized his salary once it was revealed. Running a Shelter is not an easy job and the director deserves to be compensated. Let me go on record stating I have no problem with his salary.

My problem with the Tallahassee Democrat, is their attempt to make light of the subject – to make leadership at The Shelter look like innocent bystanders as the staff ran rampant.

When the Tallahassee Police Report came out and stated that criminal charges were unfounded, the newspaper of record worded it as if this showed there were no problems at the Shelter. There definitely were problems, just nothing that could pursued criminally. The headline stated that the allegations were unfounded. The reader was lead to believe that Renee’s story was false. The report got comments on Facebook like “How much damage did she cause?” and many hateful statements towards Renee. Thankfully, there were more people that stood up for her than not. The next day, the paper changed their tune and the headline stated that criminal charges could not be pursued.

First of all, the Police were not investigating Renee’s story. They were investigating reports of residents and past residents that decided to come forward because Renee opened that door for them. We already knew Renee’s harassment was not criminal. The Democrat story whitewashed the 32-page police report to make Mel fade into the background, preferring to reference some of the more mild allegations and leaving Mel’s involvement out completely.

Now Mel has “retired” and the Board and everyone want to protect him by claiming he was an integral part of the Shelter but now they need new leadership to take it to another level and they commend his service, etc.

The story, found on their site, says Mel retired in the aftermath of Renee Miller’s allegations of abuse. Yet the allegations of abuse were not from Renee but from the residents that came forward over and over again after Renee opened that door for them. Mel did not retire, he was fired. But to protect his legacy, the Board allowed him to “retire.” Obviously to also protect the Board’s lack of oversight going on for years now.

One commenter on WCTV’s site that anonymously calls himself “Concerned Citizen” wrote “I guess Ms. Miller got what she was after. Wonder when she will take over for him.” Renee does not and never did want to run the Shelter and did not have any delusion that she would even be in the running. Why can’t someone just do the right thing without having motives questioned? No wonder this country is so full of hate.

Now to the Police Report and the Truth about the Shelter. Every word in RED is lifted verbatim from the Police Report.

First, let’s talk about the bed bugs. Obviously, this is not a criminal activity yet they address it in the Police Report.

The investigator states in her report, “Eby advised he has never denied or tried to hide the fact The Shelter has a problem with bed bugs. He stated he has sprays and repellents available for clients to use if they choose to treat their bed prior to sleeping in it.”

Seriously? Instead of hiring a professional pest control company, residents had to come to him and request insect repellent and bug spray? He did not even provide it unless you asked for it. Imagine spraying your mattress with Raid and your body with Off then sleeping immediately afterwards? I say it again: Seriously?

I know babies and toddlers and children that sleep at the Shelter. Not only had they slept with bed bugs, but they slept while breathing in a chemical? That was leadership’s solution?

After the problems were exposed, a real pest control company came in during the day while the residents were gone. They removed every mattress and treated them outside. They fumigated the building. They replaced the mattresses before the residents came back. There has not been a bed bug seen since, according to the residents City Walk works with. It was that easy.

According to the Police Report, in Spring of 2012, an FSU grad student did a thesis on the homeless and the shelter. She did extensive interviews with some homeless people. In her thesis, the student tells of bed bugs and roaches. One of her interviewees, named Sissy, claims that “those who receive disability, pension or other government assistance are required to sign their checks over to the director of the facility, who then gives them some ten to fifty dollars of spending money, saying that the rest of the money goes toward their room and board at this, supposedly, rent free facility.”

The student also interviewed Matt Lenarz, who verified Sissy’s story.

Sissy’s account was not first hand, she did not have checks from the government. She claimed to have witnessed this from other people. The TPD investigated this and could not find anyone to come forward stating this was the case. The Shelter states they are not Payees on anyone’s checks and they have an agreement with a check cashing business so residents can cash their checks. They claim they do not hold money for anyone.

At City Walk we also heard this claim from other homeless people, along with stories about filling prescriptions for residents for painkillers and psychotropic drugs and then taking some of the pills from the bottle for themselves, their friends or to sell. This is also investigated in the report, but not proof was found.

Another mentally ill woman came forward and told investigators that she does not stay at the Shelter because she was kicked out for not having sex with Jerry (who was one of the two that was fired.) She also claimed that they cashed checks and took a cut but it did not happen directly to her. She said that a staff member offered but she did not want him to take any of her money so she got someone else to do it for her.

A woman came forward to tell her story of doing community service hours at the Shelter. I left out her name to protect her. She “said she personally witnessed Mel Eby offer to sign off on community service hours in exchange for sex. (She) stated she observed Eby take women to a room upstairs and observed Eby taking women home with him…. (The woman) said she learned through interactions with other girls if sex and/or sexual acts were completed with Eby and/or particular staff members, then Eby would sign off on that person’s community service hours…. (She) said while completing her hours at The Shelter, she witnessed several different women go upstairs to Eby’s office or actually leave the property with Eby. (She) advised that one girl in particular, who was there to complete community service hours went out of sight with Eby. (She) did not see the girl again and never witnessed her complete anymore service hours.”

“(She) said she tried to report what she observed to The Shelter’s Executive Board but was unable to contact the board directly. (She) continued by advising only the numbers listed on the website for The Shelter were the phone numbers for The Shelter itself.”

The report goes on to interview other residents and most agree there is a lot of verbal abuse and sexual comments, mostly perpetrated by Mike Pepper and Jerry Smith, the two that got fired.

The Board of Directors asked the investigator to interview three specific female residents. “The initial information provided to this investigator was that one of the three clients had reported to an Executive Board member they had witnessed staff members paying clients for sex. However, all three witnesses were directly asked that question and all three denied ever seeing or even hearing about those actions occurring.”

Really? – Why would the Board claim she came forward to them but then they clam up in front of the police? Since we are not privy to the Board’s report, we don’t know the details about this account.

Every staff member told of 2 incidents involving Mike Pepper (the one that harassed Renee and was later fired) – for sake of repeating the same stories over and over, I will just quote each one once directly from the report:

“The first incident was involving Mike and a female client from the Shelter. Mike was working the graveyard shift and was supposed to be in the main building for his shift. Staff members began looking for him and found Mike walking out from behind the building across the street. A few minutes later, the female client, who had recently been banned from the Shelter, came walking out from behind the same building. The female reported to Eby she had given Mike oral sex because he said he would let her back into the Shelter if he did so. Pepper was not terminated over this incident and nothing was done with Pepper at the time.”

The second incident “involved a transgender client (TGC) who had been staying at the Shelter. The TGC reported to Eby that she had sexual experience with Mike and ever since then he has been picking on her. The TGC stated Mike came into the bathroom and asked her for oral sex. She told him no because he did not have a condom. Mike then told the TGC to kiss his neck while he “jerked off”, which she agreed to do.”

Again, Mike was not reprimanded or fired over this incident. Please note, it was stated in the report that the transgender client was allowed to shower in a separate facility apart from the other guests due to her circumstances. Later in the report, Eby states that he asked Pepper about both incidents and Pepper denied both of them. In the police report, Eby sticks up for Pepper stating, according to the report, that “Mike might be a horny young guy and (Eby) has seen signs supporting that.”

One staff member, Peter Rittman, told investigators “he has complained a lot in the past about how staff interacts with and talks to clients. Rittman continued by advising he has come to accept the staff’s behavior since nothing was done in the past when he made complaints.”

My point exactly – and exactly why we decided to go public with Renee’s blog and not report it to Eby as some people believe would have been better to keep this “hush, hush.” Eby would have just looked the other way, as he did over and over in the past.

Which makes me wonder, if I did not have Tallahassee Grapevine, would any other citizen been able to get this story out there to make a change? Most people do not have an outlet like this to speak out. Maybe this is the reason God allowed me to build such a trusted base of readers – it was all leading up to this incident. For me to be entrusted with this readership and to not use it for God’s will would be shameful and irresponsible.

Reiter, the interim director, “advised he recently had a female client come forward and report to him staff member, Reginald Reggie McCray, asked her to give him a “hand job.” Reiter requested the client put the details of the incident into writing and provide it to him for follow up.” (which, according to the report, she did provide the report to Reiter, but declined to be named in the police report.)

Mike Pepper was interviewed and asked about the female client behind the building, which he denied. Then asked about the transgender client and he denied it. Then asked about trying to pick up Renee Miller and he denied it. (obviously, you see a pattern here. There is an old saying about denial, “If 9 Russians tell you you’re drunk, you need to sit down.”)

In his interview with the investigator, Eby first relayed a story of how 4 years ago, a male staff member allowed a female client to use his cell phone to watch a show. “The client returned the phone to Thomas once the show ended. Thomas got upset and said “You used up all my minutes now you are going to have to s**k my d**k.” The client’s immediate reaction was to slap Thomas in the face, which she did. Thomas told the female client he was going to report her to Eby.”

“She did not want Thomas to tell Eby for fear of being kicked out and began to cry. Eby noticed the client crying and asked what happened. The client disclosed the above mentioned incident. Eby immediately interviewed three independent witnesses and all three witnesses corroborated the victims’s story. Eby terminated the employee the same day.”

Here is my confusion – if Eby was strict enough to fire this guy for saying that to the client, then why would he not fire any of the other staff members for doing far worse things with clients?

Eby went on to talk about Jerry Smith. Jerry was one of the staffers terminated. He is also the one in the original blog post that denied the guys their blankets and told them he hoped they all froze to death.

“Eby then informed the investigator Jerry had been suspended twice in the past and had been on “lifetime probation” at the time of his termination.”

“The first incident causing Jerry to get suspended involved a female client who was believed to be an addict. The female came to The Shelter and appeared to have been in some sort of fight or struggle based upon her appearance at the time. The female asked Jerry to use the phone in order to call the police because she had been sexually assaulted. Jerry’s response was something like “You women are always complaining about that, just go upstairs” Once Eby learned of this incident he suspended Jerry for 30 days and gave him one year probation upon his return.”

“The second incident causing Jerry a suspension involved a bag of marijuana found by a female client. The client gave a bag of marijuana she found on the floor of the women’s section to Mike Pepper… Mike threw the bag into the garbage. Eby was told later by staff witnesses Jerry retrieved the bag out of the garbage and kept it. Eby suspended Jerry for 30 days and put Jerry on “lifetime probation” upon his return to work.”

So Thomas got fired over his comments to the client but Jerry is just put on probation for these two infractions and Mike is never even reprimanded? I agree Thomas should have been fired, however, where is the bar in Eby’s mind? A tad inconsistent. Probably proving you need to decide, are you their friend or are you their boss?

Staff members all told the story of an ex-staff member named Greg. Greg was a correctional officer that was terminated because he was caught having sex with female inmates. He then got a job from Mel at the Shelter – Really? Hmmm… no comment on that decision. It speaks for itself.

Greg was later fired after finding out he was having an inappropriate relationship with one of the female clients. They say they found an “intimate letter” (in other words, a sexually explicit letter) he wrote to the homeless woman. Go figure – couldn’t see that coming.

Unfortunately, there was no hard evidence of prescription or check extortion – I have no idea if any of the rumors were true. I had personally heard stories from homeless people that say they “see it happen to other people.” But where there is smoke… there has to something to the rumor, even if it is not as bad as they make it out to be.

The Good News:

The good news is this “shake up” has changed the lives of thousands of people experiencing homelessness. There are now changes at our own Shelter here in Tallahassee: Bed Bug problem has been dealt with, New leadership, new system of reporting abuses and accountability, and women are being hired to supervise the female side of the dorms. The United Way has retained an expert consultant to do a month long study of The Shelter and the update their policies and procedures.

There is now talk that the Shelter may move and expand to house more people, eliminate overcrowding, and offer programs to assist the residents in getting back on their feet. (Previously, the Shelter offered a place to sleep, a meal to eat, laundry and shower, and access to a staff nurse. They did not offer any type of transitional programs. These programs are from other organizations that did outreach to the Shelter residents.)

But it does not stop there. This story went viral and was featured on major sites like Huffington Post and Alternet. We know that this story has shelters and programs across the United States and Canada looking into their own organizations and policies to see how they could do things better so things like this are not happening and do not happen in the future.

We never wanted the Shelter to be closed down. We never wanted the Shelter to lose funding. We need the Shelter. There are over 1000 people experiencing homelessness in Tallahassee, the Shelter only housed 20% of them. There are other great programs that need our assistance, many of which are Christian based and do not have access to government funds.

Isn’t it amazing that one person, standing up for others, can change the lives of thousands? You just have to not be afraid to leave your comfort zone.

After the harassment and consequences of speaking out on such a sacred landmark in Tallahassee, if you ask us if we would do it all over again our answer would be “Of course, there is no other option than to do the what is right and moral and just.”

If you would like a copy of the full Tallahassee Police Report, please email me at tony@tallahasseegrapevine.com and I will forward the PDF to you.

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One Comment on “The Shelter, The Truth, The Aftermath And Standing Up for What’s Right”

  1. Erwin Jackson, PhD. Says:

    Speaking the truth publicly may cause protectors of the status quo to attack you. However, the truth is exactly what our community needs to hear. Thanks for your effort to make Tallahassee a better community.

    Reply

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