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Deaths at Veterans Home

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Deaths at Veterans Home

Issa Umi, secretary of St. Leo’s tenant council, blames the deaths on Catholic Charities. (WBEZ/Chip Mitchell)

Since opening last year, a Chicago apartment building has earned national recognition for helping dozens of homeless veterans get on their feet. But Chicago Public Radio has learned that at least six of the building's tenants have died since last fall. The deaths raise questions about the building's management by one of the nation's largest charities. And they expose weak oversight of publicly funded veterans housing.

A top official of Chicago's Catholic Charities traveled to Washington, D.C., in April to testify before a U.S. House panel.

D'ARCY: Hello, Mr. Chairman, honorable committee members and guests. My name is William D'Arcy...

He reported on a Catholic Charities project that's been running since last year on Chicago's South Side. About a quarter of the $20 million for the project came from the federal Department of Veterans Affairs. D'Arcy explained that a centerpiece of the project is called St. Leo's Residence.

D'ARCY: The project provides 141 formerly homeless veterans with studio apartments. The veteran has to commit to seeking and obtaining and maintaining employment, they have to pay rent, and they have to agree to live in a drug-free environment.
D'Arcy said Catholic Charities also helped build a VA clinic behind the residence.

D'ARCY: And Catholic Charities provides case managers whose goal is to make the veterans self-sufficient again. D'Arcy told the Congressman that St. Leo's has been a success for its tenants, who're mostly Vietnam vets. He said 79 of the residents got some sort of job during the project's first year. He said 23 moved into more independent housing. But Chicago Public Radio has learned that things have not gone so well for at least a half-dozen other St. Leo's residents. Those six died.  

UMI: This would be the apartment of Nathanial Thomas. This would be his, Apartment 204.

Issa Umi is secretary of St. Leo's tenant council. He brings me to where a 53-year-old veteran lived until passing away in April. Cook County records indicate that the man died of cocaine intoxication. According to the records, another five tenants succumbed to diseases ranging from liver cancer to heart ailments and diabetes.

UMI: This is the apartment of -- this is Ciszek's apartment here.

In June, 53-year-old Robert Ciszek turned up dead in his fourth floor room. The county medical examiner determined Ciszek died from heart disease and chronic drug use. Some of his neighbors suspect the body rotted in the apartment for days. One says he recognized this kind of stench from his military service. Umi says Ciszek didn't have to die this way.

UMI: One of the things that has come up a whole lot of times is something called wellbeing checks -- the social-service people to check on their clients at least once or twice a week to make sure that people don't fall through that crack.

St. Leo's has four social workers but no medical staff.  Catholic Charities acknowledges it didn't screen tenants for drug abuse, medical conditions or mental illnesses. Tenants say there are other risks, like malfunctioning phones and smoke detectors. And they worry about a rapid turnover of St. Leo's staff.

ANSWERING MACHINE: To reach the property manager, William Connor, press one. For the assistant property manager...

A St. Leo's answering machine lists five staff members. Four of those individuals no longer work at the building. I raised most of these concerns with Chicago's Catholic Charities chief, Reverend Michael Boland.

BOLAND: What you're looking at is ridiculous.

Boland says his organization never envisioned St. Leo's as a full-service recovery center for veterans. He says the deaths are no cause for alarm, considering what the tenants have gone through.

BOLAND: They have been living for a long time on the streets. Often times they've been suffering from different kinds of ailments or different kinds of clinical disorders. And they've been self-medicating. So their bodies are, really, very fragile. So they're medically fragile, which is why from the very beginning we wanted the VA to be there with the clinic.

Reverend Boland is referring to the veterans' clinic behind the residence. He says Catholic Charities has not investigated whether the deaths are related. The organization issued a statement that says St. Leo's, quote, “offers veterans a chance to live out their lives in a dignified manner and look after their own health.” That makes sense to St. Leo's tenant Lawrence Watkins.

WATKINS: A lot of us are disabled veterans. So there comes a time, when we're disabled -- we're sick and we pass on. I may kick tomorrow. I'm an old guy, 55. But, apart from that, there are no problems. I was homeless. And thanks to St. Leo's they helped me to get on veterans disability. This is the best place I've ever had in my life.

But some advocates for homeless veterans see red flags about what's happening at St. Leo's. Rick Weidman directs policy and government affairs for Vietnam Veterans of America.

WEIDMAN: If the first step is getting people into some kind of shelter so that they're not freezing to death on Chicago streets, then the second step is getting them into transitional housing, where they have to get dry and clean, and there's a zero-tolerance policy. And, there, you have pretty close oversight on the medical end, both neuropsychiatric as well as physiological health. From the sounds of what's going on at St. Leo's, the individuals who perished should have been at that second stage of transitional housing with close oversight. The second step was missing.

The deaths have caught the attention of at least one government official. Eugene Herskovic directs the VA's Chicago-area homeless programs. He says his job includes keeping an eye on St. Leo's.

HERSKOVIC: It's one of my responsibilities -- oversight.

And do you think they addressed the problems?

HERSKOVIC: I made them address the problems.

Herskovic says he made St. Leo's register its tenants at the VA clinic nearby. Asked about other problems, he refers me to this VA spokesman, Raymond Leber.

LEBER: These deaths, it's the first I've heard about this. There's nothing we can really comment on though, because this is not our facility. This is -- St. Leo's is owned and operated by Catholic Charities.

Catholic Charities says its project could be a model for housing homeless veterans. But some St. Leo's tenants say there will be no model until Catholic Charities comes to grips with the six deaths.

Ambi: Knocking.

UMI: This apartment, we're standing in front of 423. This was George Smith's apartment. He was wheelchair bound.

Issa Umi, the tenant council secretary, brings me to another room. He says he feels responsible for keeping tabs on the health and welfare of the other tenants. He fears it's only a matter of time before he'll be pointing out more apartments of people who died.

I'm Chip Mitchell, Chicago Public Radio.

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