For the past year, a two-story house in Crystal River has been a refuge for people who might otherwise be living in their car or on the street.
At the end of the month, though, the landlord wants to evict the Citrus County Interfaith Organization for the Homeless.
The landlord, Anthony Marino, says there is a need for a shelter in this county. Indeed, that is why he offered the group the empty house last year for the token sum of $1 annually.
But now he says he is afraid to let the organization stay.
In the past year, a juvenile at the house tried to commit suicide and a shelter resident stole a vehicle in the neighborhood.
Tenants in Marino's small strip of stores behind the NE First Street shelter have grown frightened. "Mostly women take care of the places," he said. "They're getting afraid to even park their cars in the back."
At the beginning of this month, a former shelter client was arrested and accused of trying to torch the place.
A county inspector also found a long list of fire code violations.
And, according to state officials, a director of the organization willfully tried to defraud the federal government's commodity food giveaway designed to provide help to those in need.
"They were eligible for 10 pounds of cheese for a two-month period and they received 135 pounds," said Janet Allen, supervisor of the field unit based in the Jacksonville office of the state Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services (HRS).
Rather than apply for the food as one household as required, individual residents at the shelter were named on applications for separate food allotments. Allen said Becky Turnbough, the organization's executive director, filled out some of the applications.
Allen said she did not think the rules violation was an accident because Turnbough had worked as a volunteer in the food giveaway program and likely was familiar with the requirements.
Citrus County's Department of Community Services, which manages the program locally, has barred the organization from receiving any more free food, Allen said.
Turnbough could not be reached for comment late last week about the fraud allegations, which resulted in no charges.
Maureen Wilson, who serves on the organization's board of directors, said she did not know the specific details of the incident. She said, however, that she was confident that "we didn't steal anything or do anything illegal."
"We're new and we're struggling
With few volunteers and little money, Wilson said that at the shelter, "every day is a challenge to get by."
Stan Fitterman, the county's Housing Services director, said, "They appear to be having some problem with management that hopefully they can resolve.
"There have been reports of them having far too many people. There are reports that they have allowed food to go bad. And any time you accept men and women in a shelter together, you're going to have problems unless you have adequate staff and security. And it doesn't appear that they have it."
In an interview early last week, Turnbough said that since September, about 30 people have stayed in the house each night. The house has three bedrooms, and the large numbers are accommodated on rows of bunk beds.
Wilson said the organization takes in only the number of people it believes it can handle. "We turn people away every day," she said.
Wilson acknowledges that there have been problems over the past year, but she says management is not to blame. It simply needs more volunteers, she said.
"We're new and we're struggling," she said. "All we are is a group of five or six people who saw a need, and a tremendous need it is. We said, "Let's do something.' "
It is inevitable that a few people out of the hundreds the shelter housed last year would get into trouble, Wilson said. "In any type of population, whether it's the homeless or the non-homeless, you're going to have people that are bad. But you shouldn't take four or five incidents and multiply them to the 400 or 500 people who were helped there."
Turnbough said the group has been trying to fix the fire code violations and holding fire drills each night.
Residents of the shelter must adhere to a strict set of rules or they're asked to leave, she said. Those rules include no drugs or alcohol on the premises; no "fraternizing" between men and women; curfew at 11 p.m.
Though there is no limit on length of stay, residents are required to begin working or looking for work within 15 days of arrival unless they are medically unable, Turnbough said.
Each person seeking shelter must submit to a review by the Crystal River Police Department for outstanding arrest warrants, Turnbough said. As a result, several have been arrested.
Residents have ranged from the very young to the very old, Turnbough said. "The majority of the people have been in situations where the husband or father has been laid off or lost his job for one reason or another. They've gotten a little bit further and further behind on the rent and were evicted."
Most have been from Citrus County, not transients, she said.
"I think we're going to be okay'
The search is on for a place to house the operation once the lease with Marino expires at the end of the month.
"God has been protecting us," Turnbough said. "I refuse to believe he is going to have all these people back on the street again."
Turnbough, Wilson and others active in the shelter had hoped that the county might let them use the empty Crystal River Roofing building on State Road 44. The county purchased it several years ago, thinking it would build a road through it.
It appears unlikely that the County Commission will let the group establish a shelter there, however. AAA Roofing has offered to pay the county $700 per month rent to use the facility. The company is also willing to make $6,000 worth of repairs to the structure.
The commission is scheduled to review the proposal at its meeting Feb. 25.
Wilson said the group is exploring other options for a new shelter. "I think we're going to be okay somehow," she said.
Wilson said the group may appear before the County Commission in the coming weeks seeking help. The request could include assistance with grant applications, transportation for clients on the county bus system, or aid through the human services division, Wilson said.
Several months ago, Turnbough made a similar request of the commission and was turned down. Wilson said the group expects to be better prepared this time.
"In the year that we've been here, we've been able to help a lot of people," Wilson said. "A lot of people have gotten jobs and gotten stable. A lot of good has been done."
To continue, though, the organization is going to need a lot of help, she said. It needs volunteers to help raise funds, search for employment opportunities, counsel clients, and do administrative and secretarial work.
"We just need more people," she said.