Darleen Jacob was sitting in the house that was supposed to be a refuge from the domestic violence she had fled when her counselor walked into the living room, said “sorry” and handed her a single sheet of paper.

“This letter serves as 30-day notice to vacate the program,” it read.

It had been a year since the 36-year-old mother of two arrived at the house run by Bowie Supportive Housing Corporation, a nonprofit organization that receives funding from the government of Prince George’s County, Md., for its domestic violence support services. When she moved in, Jacob was excited by promises of help finding child care, educational opportunities and permanent housing.

Jacob had paid her rent on time, she said, and followed house rules. And yet, at the peak of the pandemic in Prince George’s, she was being kicked out.

“It’s like you’re being victimized all over again,” Jacob said.

She would become one of three women dismissed in the same month from the two houses run by the nonprofit organization, thrusting them into a legal quagmire of eviction moratoriums, court closures and docket backlogs in a period that experts warn already poses a unique danger to victims of domestic violence.

Along with their attorneys from Maryland Legal Aid, Jacob and another woman argue that their eviction was illegal because the program did not operate within the bounds of landlord-tenant laws or honor the state-mandated stay on evictions.

But former Bowie mayor Gary Allen, who runs the housing corporation, says the women were legally removed because the nonprofit organization is not a landlord. It is, instead, Allen said, a transitional housing program with “wraparound services,” operating with the women as guests bound by a “covenant” agreement that is not a lease.

The conflict — which has prompted the program to rethink how it removes women from its homes — has raised questions over whether the nonprofit is considered a landlord and whether it has provided the services it argues shields it from following landlord-tenant laws.

Five women who spoke with The Washington Post said many of those services were not consistently provided — a claim Allen disputes. And after questions from The Post, some members of the Prince George’s County Council said the county needs more oversight of the grant programs that have provided the nonprofit, also known as St. Matthews Housing Corporation, nearly $200,000 since 2016.

Allen defends the group’s work. He said that the women did receive support from the organization and that the nonprofit never misrepresented its mission.

The day Jacob was told to leave, her roommate, Le’Keisha Clarida, got into a confrontation with the counselor, in part, she said, because of her outrage that the nonprofit would displace a woman and her children during a pandemic.

Jacob’s dismissal letter noted her “lack of progress toward transition” but did not outline how she had fallen short. Allen later told The Post she was asked to leave because she was often absent and did not seem to be committed to the program. He said Clarida invited people over despite the ban on visitors during the pandemic.

But the women said they suspected the attempt to push them out was illegal, so they stayed. A month later, the counselor returned, this time with the property manager. They pulled Jacob’s food from the fridge, letting it spoil, she said. They bagged her clean clothes with her children’s dirty shoes. And they removed the women’s bedroom doors from the hinges, the women said, loaded them on a truck and drove away.

“We promised them a room,” Allen told The Post. “We didn’t promise them a door.”

Legal landlord?

The four-bedroom rambler where Jacob and Clarida lived opened three decades ago and initially housed homeless men. When the program run by St. Matthew’s Methodist Church started struggling financially, clergy members asked Allen to become involved. It shifted to serve domestic violence survivors in 2015, then later expanded to a second house and began securing domestic violence grants from the county council.

Potential residents are recommended by case workers and approved by the nonprofit’s board. They agree to pay a monthly “covenant fee” of $400, which Allen said helps pay the mortgage. Each woman has a bedroom, shares common spaces and agrees to follow house rules, and she has up to two years to transition to permanent housing.

Of the 20 domestic violence survivors accepted into the program since 2016, Allen said that seven have found permanent housing and that five are in the process. Others moved out before finishing the program, and five residencies were terminated — including those of Jacob, Clarida and another woman asked to leave in May, Precious Middleton.

Allen said the three women were given the option to return to the shelters from which they had come and were offered assistance to move. He said food was not removed from the refrigerators.

“We do not just put people out on the street, ever,” Allen said. “That whole idea of eviction is kind of ridiculous.”

But whether those dismissals were evictions depends on the legal system’s definition of a landlord.

Though there is no Maryland statute defining a tenant, other statutes and case law support the idea that the women’s rental agreement is a lease and forms a landlord-tenant relationship bound by housing laws, said Barret Claunch, the legal aid lawyer representing Jacob and Clarida. That means, Claunch said, to legally remove Clarida and Jacob, the program should have filed a motion in district court citing the reason for an eviction, which a judge would have had to approve before the sheriff’s office served notice.

None of that had happened by the morning of June 6 when the nonprofit tried to remove Jacob and Clarida almost two months before the state’s stay on evictions expired, Claunch and the women said.

Clarida was in the dining room playing with her young son when a volunteer counselor and a property manager came into the house with trash bags. Clarida called Jacob, who was at her mother’s apartment, then called the police and started recording on her cellphone.

By the time officers pulled up, Jacob’s belongings were in a pile on the porch. An officer asked whether they had a formal eviction order from a judge, and when the volunteers could produce only Allen’s dismissal letters, the officers said what the organization was doing was not legal, said Bowie Police Chief John Nesky.

By midsummer, the program asked the court to remove Clarida, but not Jacob, through an injunction that a judge later denied. The court did grant a peace order against Clarida after a verbal dispute with the counselor who confronted her about violating coronavirus rules by inviting a hairstylist to the house.

The counselor said she felt unsafe. Clarida said she was upset over Jacob’s ousting.

“I lost my cool,” Clarida said in court. “She was putting this woman out.”

'Trying to do good'

The housing corporation said it was able to dismiss the women without going to court because of the “wraparound services” it provides — services it also said it declared on grant applications for county funding. But some women who spoke to The Post said their experiences did not align with the promises.

Middleton, another resident asked to leave during the pandemic, said a counselor asked Middleton’s daughter to babysit her housemate’s children rather than find her child care. Middleton said she gave food to Clarida and helped the other women with job applications — support she said the nonprofit was supposed to provide.

“I was like, ‘What kind of program is this?’ ” Middleton said.

Allen said Middleton was asked to leave after she clashed with other residents, but the letter he sent, like the one to Jacob, said only that she was not moving quickly enough toward a transition.

“They really turned my life upside down when the promise was that I could get my life together again,” said Middleton, who moved after another nonprofit agreed to fund her housing.

Middleton’s story contrasts with the “ultimate stability” that Allen told the council the program would provide women when he applied for funding from the domestic violence grant program, which was started in 2017 after two domestic-violence-related killings of teachers in the county. Prince George’s has long reported some of the highest rates of domestic-violence-related homicides in Maryland.

Prince George’s County Council member Jolene Ivey (D-District 5) said she was disappointed that women were asked to leave during the pandemic. If the group is not treating its clients well, she said, future funding could be at risk. “These are the most vulnerable people,” Ivey said.

Council funding, which makes up about 40 percent of the nonprofit’s budget, is used to provide counseling for clients and to maintain the house, Allen said. The group received $35,600 in 2017 and similar amounts each year since, in addition to smaller grants awarded by county council Chair Todd M. Turner (D), whose District 4 includes Bowie, according to a review of grant records.

A county council spokeswoman said the housing corporation provided the information required on grant applications. But Jennifer Pollitt Hill, the interim executive director of the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence, reviewed the two most recent applications and said basic information that the county requested in submissions is missing — including how many people lived in the houses during the grant year and for how long. Hill also said, according to best practices, applications also should have included details on who is running the program, their résumés and job descriptions. Though grant applications promised that the nonprofit would become a member of the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence by the end of 2019, it is not and never has been part of the statewide organization, Hill said.

Allen acknowledged that shortcoming. The Bowie Supportive Housing Corporation is managed mostly by volunteers, he said, who are doing their best with the resources they have. He added that neither he nor the volunteers are specifically trained in domestic violence work. But he said the organization has tried to improve its services, including by joining a countywide network of nonprofit organizations.

County council staffers and a hired consultant, who conducted a site visit last year, found that Allen’s nonprofit had met all council requirements for funding. But elected officials said they are reviewing how to improve accountability in the county’s grant program, which has faced transparency questions in the past and has seen nondepartmental grants jump from $2 million in 2014 to $4.83 million this year.

Turner, the council chair, said he has supported the housing nonprofit for several years, “believing they provide much-needed services.” But Turner added that it is possible the housing corporation and other small nonprofits might need to review their programs and that the council might need to review its own process.

“Being in the fifth year of the domestic violence grant program, we should go back and do an evaluation,” he said. “Are there things we should be doing differently?”

Leo Green, a former Prince George’s County judge whom Allen brought on for legal advice after the attempted expulsion in June, said he has been working with the nonprofit to rewrite the covenant agreement and incorporate “a more robust process for dismissal wherein everyone gets a say and there’s an appeal process to the board.”

“I firmly believe they’re trying to do good,” Green said.

Complaint and summons

Jacob has not been back to the house in Bowie since the day the door to her room was removed. She did not feel safe, she said, so she moved into her mother’s three-bedroom apartment with her two children, her brother, her sister and her niece.

“It feels to me that they just do whatever they want, and if nobody does anything, it’s just going to keep happening,” Jacob said. “I feel bad for the families that keep walking into a place thinking it’s something it’s not.”

Clarida said she had no choice but to stay. She had no family nearby, she said, and refused to take her son back to a shelter. It took the nonprofit a month to put her bedroom door back on the hinges, she said.

Clarida said she has spent the fall finding a new job and looking for a new place to live.

Then, she received another letter. “Complaint and summons against tenant in breach of lease,” it read.

After months of claiming Clarida was not a tenant and that the covenant was not a lease, the nonprofit had formally filed an eviction notice in landlord-tenant court.

This story has been updated to correct the day of the confrontation between Clarida and the counselor.

Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.