Helter Shelter 

Poverello Center defends itself against allegations

Employees and board members of Missoula’s Poverello Center are expressing distress, shock and outrage over plans by Missoula Community Access Television (MCAT) to air a compilation of interviews of current and former clients and volunteers of the homeless shelter that accuse staff members of financial and criminal improprieties, including sexual harassment of some female employees, mail tampering and theft of money, property and food donations.

The interviews, conducted by independent San Francisco videographers Edward “Gus” Guzzi, and Philomena Ryan, were compiled over the last five months from more than 20 hours of videotaped interviews with at least a dozen Poverello clients and volunteers. The interviews are scheduled to be aired on MCAT in two one-hour segments beginning Dec. 20 after Monday night’s City Council meeting, followed by a call-in discussion.

“We don’t need this,” says Poverello Board of Directors President Liz Rantz, who says she was approached by Guzzi and Ryan over the summer about doing a documentary on the Poverello Center. Rantz says that initially she was delighted with the idea, until it became apparent to her that the project was aimed at attacking some members of her staff.

“It became very clear early on that [Guzzi] had an agenda. I wasn’t sure what it was,” says Rantz. “It partly related to his having a lot of experience with shelters and thinking he knew how they should be run. And we weren’t running this one the way he thought it should be run. And I was disturbed by this.”

According to Guzzi and Ryan, the decision to make the program arose in July while working on an unrelated art film for the Amsterdam Film Festival on people who ride the rails along Montana’s Hi-Line. Over a period of about four weeks, says Guzzi, homeless people began approaching them with stories of theft and abuses at the center, until they were convinced to shift the focus of their project.

Apparently, Guzzi and Ryan have been trying for months to get their story heard by anyone willing to listen. Among the numerous agencies and public officials they approached was Missoula Police Chief Pete Lawrenson, who acknowledges that he watched a few hours of videotape several months back, but saw no basis for launching an undercover investigation of the Center.

“Mr. Guzzi did not want me to go to the board of directors of the Poverello Center and discuss any of these allegations with them,” says Lawrenson. “The county attorney is in agreement with the police department that while there may be some [improprieties], the place to start is with the board of the Poverello Center to look at their operational controls, and if some criminal activity comes out of that, we would certainly be willing to look at it.

“I didn’t, from what I saw, see anything that was major or earth-shattering,” adds Lawrenson. “We certainly don’t have a huge drug problem up at the Poverello Center, or a major conspiracy to defraud food stamps. … The Poverello Center as an organization may have been the victim itself.”

“It’s the same way that all the authorities have phrased it. These are allegations,” says Guzzi, a former Franciscan brother who admits that he and Ryan are artists, not investigative reporters. “But we believe that these are not merely allegations, but eyewitness testimony. These people have either witnessed it or have been the victim of it.”

“We do self-investigations when people complain,” says Liz Rantz, who confirms that some allegations of some sexual “inappropriateness” were reported several months ago, but were minor in nature and immediately dealt with by making changes in staff policies.

“I called Philomena and Gus and invited them to come to a board meeting [to] talk to us, tell us what’s wrong, so we can fix it,” says Rantz. “They refused to do it. They thought it was a waste of their time.”

“How do you answer things you don’t know about?” asks Larry DeGarmo, director of the Poverello Center, who is one of the employees named in the interviews.

“We are not making these allegations. They come from the people on the tape,” says Guzzi. “I also believe that what’s on the tape is so overwhelming, that this many people can’t be lying. Too many people [are] corroborating stories, people who don’t know each other.”

Fact or fiction, such accusations couldn’t come at a worse time for the Pov. With the MCAT broadcast scheduled to air less than two weeks before Christmas, Rantz fears that the allegations could be devastating to the shelter, occurring right in the midst of their busiest season, both for donations and demands on staff and resources.

In addition, the Center is about to launch a major fundraising drive to raise about $100,000 for an expansion and renovation of their building at 535 Ryman Ave., scheduled to begin early next spring. Rantz says that rumors of this program have already raised concerns from one of their larger donors, causing their treasurer to sit down with her to review the center’s audit reports.

Compounding the problems is an already burgeoning demand on all shelters and food pantries statewide, which has more than doubled in the last two years as a direct fallout from welfare reform. Last year alone, The Pov served more than 100,000 meals, up dramatically from the year before.

“We don’t know how to stop this ... ,” says Rantz. “These grievances are simply not true. And I don’t know what to do about it. It’s crazy.”

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