Clarence Smith-Bey more booms than talks. An accident during a military exercise in 1973 damaged his hearing and left him with chronic headaches and post-traumatic stress disorder. Within a decade, Smith-Bey was addicted to drugs, unemployed and cycling in and out of homelessness.
That was all supposed to change in 2013. He’d been clean five years and enrolled in classes at Prince George’s Community College. He dropped by the Veterans Affairs Community Resource and Referral Center in Northeast Washington for help getting off the streets. Workers there told him about a local outfit named Peaceful Haven, which contracted with the District to care for the mentally ill and disabled. Peaceful Haven had a house 10 miles from the community college and would handle utilities, Smith-Bey said he was told.
After a local organization used federal funds to pay Smith-Bey’s $750 security deposit and most of the first three months of rent, he moved into the basement of the low-slung home, feeling as hopeful as he could ever recall. “I was on a real nice rise,” the 62-year-old said.
It didn’t take long for it to reverse. Smith-Bey said he spent three winter weeks without heat and returned to his house in early August of 2014 to discover some of his possessions piled outside and the locks changed. Smith-Bey, who spent the next 16 months on the streets, has since sued Peaceful Haven, as have two other homeless veterans, alleging unlawful eviction.
Amid surging homelessness in the District and beyond, few subgroups have received more attention than homeless veterans. Last year, the White House intensified its push to house all veterans, calling for $1.4 billion to pay for VA programs to help them. Mayors across the country, including in the District, pledged to house all veterans by the end of 2015 — and some, including Virginia and Montgomery County, have proclaimed success. In August 2013, about 1,500 homeless veterans lived in the District. But over the next two years, that number shrank to fewer than 220 — an achievement housing advocates have almost unanimously cheered. “Our remaining challenge is one of engaging our most entrenched, most vulnerable individuals,” said Kristy Greenwalt, director of the District’s Interagency Council on Homelessness.
The push, while successful in most cases, appears also to have attracted some landlords who have provided veterans with substandard housing and questionably evicted them back into homelessness, according to court records and interviews with legal experts, veterans and landlords familiar with the issue. The common link in some of these cases, court records and interviews suggest, is an unvetted list of housing options the District’s Veterans Affairs Community Resource and Referral Center provides to veterans.
“I have clients who have gone through [this] process and have been victims of wrongful eviction,” said Eric Hughes, an attorney with Neighborhood Legal Services Program. “It takes on a systemic tone.” Hughes said he has encountered about 10 veterans in that situation. “These numbers add up, because every [housing lawyer] would have their own anecdotal stories.”
Amber Harding, a housing attorney with the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, said the resource center should scrutinize landlords to whom they refer homeless veterans. “There is a responsibility to make sure as close to 100 percent of these [sites] are safe and legitimate,” she said. “That’s basic good governance.”
In 2009, the Obama administration announced the ambitious goal of housing all veterans by the end of 2015. Within two years, District agencies and nonprofit groups, equipped with federal funds, were searching for landlords who could take the veterans. The District’s Veterans Affairs resource center had a list of landlords — culled from online sources, referrals and solicitations — that it gave veterans looking for housing.
Sevena Boughton, a Veterans Affairs official familiar with that list, said the resource center doesn’t investigate the landlords on it. “We don’t provide any oversight for these facilities,” Boughton said. “We can’t endorse any house.”
The agency’s director of public relations, Gloria Hairston, later said she would look into whether the agency could do more to scrutinize the backgrounds of the landlords it includes on the list.
Larry Edwards wishes it would. A product of the U Street corridor before gentrification, he got drafted in 1972 just as the Vietnam War was winding down. He was shipped to Germany, where he developed a heroin addiction that shadowed him for decades. In 2007, he was charged with felony distribution of a controlled substance, spent four years in prison, then a few months in a halfway house before strolling into the District’s Veterans Affairs resource center in July of 2013.
He was told of Peaceful Haven. The outfit had a room in an apartment on Call Place SE, all utilities included, for $600 per month. On its website, Peaceful Haven described itself as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that provides a “safe yet educational residential environment for adults and veterans with mental illness.” The landlord, whom Edwards met, referred to herself as Dr. LaTonja Martin, often adding “Ph.D” when signing her name.
Edwards agreed to a one-year lease. At the apartment, he met 65-year-old Willie Whitley, who court records show served in the Air Force, needed kidney dialysis three times per week, and was connected with Peaceful Haven through the District’s Veterans Affairs resource center. One day, months later in early January, they were watching television when the power went out. “Everything just stopped,” Edwards said. “And we were looking around, and I said, ‘We better call Dr. Martin.’ ”
The Washington Post called that January the “coldest month in decades,” and Edwards and Whitley, who has since died, were frantic without heat. Edwards said Martin had promised to get it turned back on — but never did. Twelve days without heat later, Edwards said in a lawsuit, he got word: Martin had terminated his housing with no legal process. Edwards was suddenly homeless in the chill of winter.
Martin’s attorney, Michael Plummer, said the veterans were behind on rent. “When you’re working with people with a tough background, they may have some mental issues and don’t have the wherewithal to pay rent,” he said. “And that’s what we experienced with Edwards and Smith-Bey.”
Edwards and Smith-Bey contest that assertion, saying in court papers they regularly paid rent.
Evictions in the District and Maryland require court approval, and tenants are allowed to dispute the reasons. Ilana Marmon, a social worker at the District’s Veterans Affairs resource center, spoke during a hearing involving Edwards and Whitley’s lawsuit against Peaceful Haven. She testified that Martin “deliberately sought out vulnerable veterans as tenants by obtaining a spot on the VA Resource Center’s referral list . . . [and] has harmed other veterans in addition to Mr. Edwards.”
“The VA Resource Center has determined that [they] are unreliable housing providers and . . . no longer refers veterans to” Peaceful Haven, Marmon testified.
Superior Court Judge Brian F. Holeman ultimately concluded Martin had acted with “evil motive,” awarding Edwards $120,000 in damages. Martin, who said she wasn’t notified of the suit, did not participate in the hearings.
“I just worked for Peaceful Haven,” she later said in a letter to the court. “I incorporated the company. I think it was totally unfair after reading the paperwork that the amount of lies that was told on me, especially me being a Veteran of the Air Force myself. . . . I have done nothing but help people all of my life.”
The Air Force has no record of a LaTonja Martin serving in its ranks. The Post could not verify that she obtained a doctorate. Martin declined in an email to specify where she earned her degree. “I received my doctorate in 2010 Summa Cum Laude, in fact,” she wrote. “I do not see why my educational background has to do with anything. Regarding military service, I did serve in the military but I am not willing to disclose the documents proving so.”
The Internal Revenue Service’s registry of 501(c)(3) nonprofit groups does not show a local organization named Peaceful Haven. “I was not responsible for the nonprofit status filing. I cannot answer anything regarding this,” Martin said.
As Edwards bounced between couches across Washington, Whitley moved into another of Peaceful Haven’s properties, a townhouse in Northeast where as many as six mentally ill residents lived.
Since at least 2010, the city has contracted with LaTonja Martin to operate what’s called independent community residence facilities to care for some of the city’s most vulnerable residents. In 2014, the year Whitley moved into another Peaceful Haven property, the city’s Department of Behavior Health signed two contracts with Martin — the first for $91,494, the second $355,634.
Whitley didn’t have a bed. The locks on the old place had been changed, and he alleged in court documents that he couldn’t retrieve some of his possessions. So he was given an air mattress in a room that had bedbugs, court documents say. The air mattress was one of dozens of deficiencies the city’s Department of Mental Health Office of Accountability cited at Peaceful Haven’s operation on 56th Street. The agency sent Martin a letter Feb. 24, 2014, noting the “existence of deficiencies that constitute serious and continuing danger to the health, safety, or welfare of the residents.”
Soon after, Edward visited his friend at the facility and became concerned about the mentally ill living there. “Sometimes, they’d be laying on the floor in the hallway, and you can’t go up the steps,” he said.
One month later, the property’s owner filed eviction papers against Peaceful Haven, which had fallen $8,800 behind on rent. In May, shortly after a District court approved that eviction, the Department of Behavior Health revoked Peaceful Haven’s license to operate a community residence facility at the location where Whitley lived.
The veteran was back on the streets. After a year of sleeping in cars and in shelters, Whitley died in March of last year. “He was complaining that he didn’t have no place to go,” Edwards said.
The District has continued doing business with Martin, who no longer houses veterans but still operates two community residence facilities under the name of Martin & Martin Residential Services. In October of last year, the Department of Behavior Health signed a $355,634 contract with Martin.
“We revoked the license for [one] house,” said Phyllis Jones, chief of staff for the District Department of Behavioral Health. “We’ve shown we mean business. We are monitoring the other two houses. . . . At this time, the two houses meet the licensing requirements.”
Even considering that assertion, veteran Smith-Bey said, he would never move into one of Martin’s houses. He battled homelessness for more than a year before he found another place to live. And this time, he said, he was much more careful about trusting his landlord.