Three former staff members of Camp LaGuardia, the city’s upstate homeless shelter, were arrested last week after allegedly conspiring to steal $5,000 in social security funds from a resident.
According to state police, the staffers intercepted the resident’s $6,800 check, escorted him to United Check Cashing in Middletown, New York, and had him sign for cash and money orders. After giving the client $1,700, they divided the remainder among themselves and an accomplice. But the plan had a fatal flaw: The accomplice went back to the same check-cashing place later that day to redeem his share. The shop manager grew suspicious and notified Camp LaGuardia.
After an internal investigation, the staffers, all of whom had prior arrests, were put on leave and later terminated.
Volunteers of America (VOA), the nonprofit contractor that runs the 1,000-bed shelter, declined to comment on details of the case. The arrests “have nothing to do with us,” said Tere Pettitt, chief operating officer for VOA’s greater New York division. “We have many policies in place to protect the property of residents…. It’s all very structured.”
But Alex Hedgepeth and Marc Hutchinson, president and vice president respectively of the camp’s Client Advisory Board, disagree. They said staff sometimes open mail addressed to residents, a charge Volunteers of America disputes. Department of Homeless Services (DHS) regulations require that caseworkers deliver mail unopened.
Most of the camp’s clients, including those who suffer from addiction or mental illness, handle their own money and are free to spend it as they choose. But that also leaves them open to manipulation, said Hedgepeth. “They have no one acting on their behalf,” he said.
State police were called in on November 5, according to an investigator in the Monroe County office. All of the accused perpetrators were arrested last week, and two have been arraigned. The money, he said, has not been recovered.
DHS is confident the issue has been resolved. “VOA is reevaluating the systems that are in place to minimize vulnerability, and we’ll be watching and supporting those efforts carefully,” said spokesperson Jim Anderson.
Meanwhile, the Client Advisory Board is calling for a full inquiry by the city’s Department of Investigation. A spokesperson for DOI declined to comment.