June 19, 2014

Complaints mount against A Safe Haven in Chicago

June 19, 2014. Chicago. On Chicago’s west side, there’s a shelter and rehabilitation center that is gaining attention as of late. And the attention is not very good, at least as far as many of the facility’s patients and employees are concerned. Staff are rude and inconsiderate. Patients are criminally violent. And nobody seems to care that small children are mixed with, and occasionally injured by, violent ex-convicts. And that doesn’t even touch upon the corporation’s questionable financial practices.

According to past residents, A Safe Haven is run like a prison not a shelter or a temporary residence. Image courtesy of SocialEnterpriseChicago.org.

A Safe Haven was started in 1994 by Neli Vazquez-Rowland and her husband Brian Rowland. Two Wall Street wizards, the financial power couple suddenly found themselves at the bottom of the ladder. With Brian suffering from alcoholism, they soon discovered that there are few resources or assistance programs in Chicago for the homeless, addicted, sick, mentally ill, veterans or even just those productive members of society who’ve lost everything, often through no fault of their own.

A Safe Haven

From its humble beginnings of a 13-unit apartment building in Chicago’s north side Logan Square neighborhood, A Safe Haven has expanded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. The corporation now boasts 500 apartments at 16 different sites, a 1,375-bed facility on Roosevelt Rd., 130 employees, a host of government contracts, and a $16 million annual budget. But all that may be jeopardized as complaints by residents and former employees mount.

As detailed by the company’s website, ‘Today, Neli is president of A Safe Haven Foundation. Brian is the CEO/manager of A Safe Haven LLC, which is under contract with the foundation to manage its operations.’ Along with a somewhat mysterious second ‘Limited Liability Corporation’ called KMA Holdings V, LLC, this massive public-private social services enterprise is still overseen by the married couple from the western suburbs. While Neli owns the charity, Brian owns the for-profit corporation that actually operates the multi-location rehab and short-term living complexes.

Resident complaints

While it seems the couple’s intentions are admirable, it also appears that two Wall Street money managers from Oppenheimer could use some help managing and training their staff in the areas of moral decency and common sense. For the record, Oppenheimer is the same investment house that was sued by the State of Illinois for losing $150 million of ‘guaranteed’ deposits from the state’s college savings plan known as ‘Bright Start’. The company was forced to repay $77 million, but tens of thousands of working class Illinois families lost their child’s college savings, never to get it back.

From that environment came both Neli and Brian Rowland. And just like Oppenheimer tried to be all things to all people, A Safe Haven appears to have fallen into the same trap. The corporation calls its customers ‘clients’, but most consider themselves either ‘patients’ or ‘residents’. And it’s true. Many are mentally ill or just-released convicts with no place to go. Others are veterans who are referred to the facility by the VA for safe, affordable, short-term housing. Families with small children mix freely with violent convicts still wearing prison ankle bracelets. And one witness swears he witnessed a violent fight between two male residents that injured a 5-year-old girl. And that was just in his first five minutes there.

One family’s horror story

The reason this author and publication looked into A Safe Haven was because of a heartfelt letter from one of our Chicago-area readers. The military veteran and his wife, new to Chicago thanks to the invitation and sales techniques of A Safe Haven, were horrified by their experience at the facility. After being forcibly separated from each other by what they describe as ‘prison guards’, and housed with hundreds of just-released violent criminals, the man’s wife was physically attacked and beaten in the middle of the night. This angry vet swears that not only did the staff at A Safe Haven refuse to notify authorities, they went out of their way to sweep the entire incident under the rug.

“Both the wife and I were told by employees about how A Safe Haven was a place of peace and quiet transition and a place that openly welcomed veterans with open arms,” the vet recalls, “But this never happened.” Thanks to the treatment the couple received there, insisting they had no alternative after falling for the sales staff’s false promises, the veteran swears, “I will not ever stop until all of A Safe Haven has been exposed for the prison-like environment they provide. This place houses criminals alongside veterans alongside the homeless. They can never get the rules straight.”

The man tells of one particular experience where he asked one employee if he was allowed to have a cigarette right outside on the patio. After being told it was fine, the veteran was ambushed by another employee who screamed at the poor guy for smoking on the patio. “I got my *ss reamed and reamed hard,” he describes, “I was abused, scolded, screamed at, harassed and punked by the staff at A Safe Haven. I will say this under oath.”

The couple recalls with horror how they followed the staff’s directions upon their arrival and waited in the cafeteria to be process into the facility. Ten hours later, it was finally their turn, where upon they were promptly berated and accused of not following procedures. Describing his overall stay at A Safe  Haven, the military veteran says, “We got yelled at, abused horribly, treated like we were criminals, before ever realizing we were there just for a bed. We were not drug addicts, criminals, thieves or any of the like. But we were treated as such the entire stay.”

Complaints from residents and employees

The above story isn’t unique. Almost regardless of where you look, A Safe Haven seems to consistently receive mixed reviews. It’s not difficult to find past residents who rave about the facility, as well as those with horror stories like the one above. Here is a sampling of some of the other online complaints.

The website CiteHealth.com says, “A Safe Haven is not the place to go. The people are rude and in just the cap program is bad. The staff members are very rude…The staff is disrespectful. They will hire any ghetto or criminal they see fit. They need better staff but God bless the ones who do try to be good.”

Reviews from past and current employees of A Safe Haven on the website GlassDoor.com were also mixed. One positive comment was somewhat overshadowed by mentioning how employees are forced to fundraise for the corporation. One review from a former employee read, “The company kept asking me for more and more money - I have no money. Especially when the CEOs and other supervisors are making $90,000 a year! And the fundraising for the most part was so far away from the people in need…Some of the supervisors had major control issues that came out to the residents and subordinates - it was creepy how they would behave.”

According to the Better Business Bureau, A Safe Haven satisfied 19 of 20 requirements for a legitimate charity organization. The one area the facility failed was fundraising. According to the cited filings, the company raised $551,743 in donations, but spent $623,210 to do it. The BBB says a charity should only spend a maximum of 35% of its donations on fundraising for more donations. In this case, A Safe Haven spent 113% of their donations on fundraising.

Taxpayer funded

A Safe Haven has a $16 million annual budget and much of that money comes from taxpayers via government agencies. The company provides services to roughly 1,200 people per day and says the average cost is $80 per person per day. Who’s paying for that? The below list details the government agencies that fund much of the corporation and its 16 facilities:

  • Black United Fund of Illinois – Neighborhood Recovery Initiative
  • Chicago Department of Family and Support Services
  • Chicago Department of Public Health
  • Department of Economic and Commerce Opportunity
  • Illinois Department of Corrections
  • Illinois Department of Human Services – Division of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse and Other Agencies
  • Illinois Secretary of State
  • Illinois Violence Prevention Authority
  • Mayors Office of Workforce Development
  • Organization of the Northeast – Neighborhood Recovery Initiative
  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administrations
  • US Department of Health and Human Services – Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
  • US Department of Housing and Urban Development
  • US Department of Justice
  • US Department of Labor
  • US Veterans Administration

A final review of A Safe Haven suggests the owners and founders have well-meaning intentions and provide many valuable services to many people in need. Based on reviews from former residents and staff members, the biggest complaint is a complete absence of employee training and discipline. Also apparently missing is adequate security and any common sense approach to separating victims from assailants.

A Safe Haven prides itself on helping everyone from just-released violent criminals, many still officially under house arrest complete with electronic ankle bracelets, to veterans, to temporarily homeless families with small children. And while that mix sounds good on paper, it is a disaster when done literally. The accusations that employees routinely abuse patients and ignore violent and criminal behavior, going so far as refusing to allow residents to notify authorities, is cause for a criminal investigation by the State of Illinois, not a complaint on an internet review site.

The bright spot in this situation is that while past residents and employees wouldn’t recommend A Safe Haven to their friends and family, almost all will agree that the idea the founders and owners attempted to make a reality would fill a desperately needed hole in society’s safety net. Unfortunately, if something isn’t done to address the ever-growing complaints, A Safe Haven may lose its government funding, and with it, thousands of people in need will lose the help they are so desperate for.


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