03/07/2013 09:02 am ET Updated Mar 07, 2013

Homeless Abuse At 'The Shelter' In Florida Leads To Undercover Investigation, Policy Overhaul

When Renee Miller heard about the abuse homeless people faced at a shelter in Tallahassee, Fla., she decided to find out if the reality lived up to the rumors. What the advocate witnessed horrified her into action.

Miller, owner of City Walk Urban Mission -- an organization that helps struggling homeless people -- decided to go undercover at another nearby organization, The Shelter, after learning that the homeless clients there were being mistreated, the Tallahassee News reported. After Miller was propositioned by a staff member, and learned of other disturbing incidents, she wrote a whistle-blowing blog for the Tallahassee Grapevine exposing the abuse at the organization.

Her story quickly gained traction, led to a full-on investigation and to the firing of two employees, according to the Tallahassee Democrat.

Though Miller doesn’t believe in “coddling” homeless people, she said what she witnessed at The Shelter was downright inhumane.

After assuming a fake homeless identity at the organization, which serves about 230 men and women a month, an employee there told the mother of six that the shelter wasn't safe and tried coercing her into going home with him, so they could "hook up," Miller wrote in her blog.

“Seriously, a staff member -- a person with some authority -- was propositioning me -- no, better yet, PREYING on a woman he KNOWS is in a vulnerable situation,” Miller wrote in her blog. “A woman comes to The Shelter to escape the insecurity of the streets, not to be thrown to the wolves.”

Miller also reported that some women perform sexual favors to get laundry privileges. Others said they've been called names and have had their belongings stolen.

“He knows we’re powerless here and he can treat us however he wants,” one client at The Shelter told Miller. “I can’t go to anyone because I don’t want to risk having nowhere to go and losing my kids.”

Perhaps what was most eye opening about Miller’s blog was the realization that homeless people are more often than not, powerless in the face of mistreatment. There is little literature about the number of homeless people who are abused and few means for them to report such issues.

“It’s very difficult to figure out how to report abuse as a shelter resident,” Kate Barnhart, Director of New Alternatives, told HuffPost Live on Wednesday. “When we try to call city shelters, we find that nobody ever answers the phone. It’s very difficult to even communicate with them even as a provider to another provider, never mind as a client who may not have regular access to a telephone and may be scared out of their minds to face authority.”

But at the very least, Miller’s tenacity has succeeded in beginning to reform The Shelter in Tallahassee and in getting a national conversation going about homeless abuse.

The United Way of Big Bend, which supplies The Shelter with nearly half of its $975,000 budget, requested an independent review of the organization’s policies, protocols and procedures, the Tallahassee Democrat reported. Two employees were fired and the board placed the executive director on paid leave.

While Miller commended the swift actions, and the homeless people at The Shelter have the opportunity to express their concerns, they said they still feel anxious about standing up for themselves.

“One of the realities of being homeless in our time is that you are very powerless,” Carl Siciliano, executive director of Ali Forney Center, told HuffPost Live. “You are very vulnerable.”



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