Trouble at Home

A nonprofit that helps veterans in need is facing a severe financial and organizational crisis

Mary Pat Sullivan: "(Comin' Home) became really big when I was there, and my a management skills were not for a really big agency. I'm not much for political bullshit."

Vietnam veteran George Dellitt says Comin' Home saved him—and now he's trying to help save the organization.

Dellitt, a former Comin' Home client, is now a resident shift supervisor at the veteran-support organization's apartment/duplex complex on Palo Verde Road, north of Grant Road.

"Comin' Home has absolutely changed my life, and it's because of the veterans and the staff," Dellitt says. "It's because of the camaraderie we feel facing the same issues together—the same we faced when we were in the military. There's a bond that develops that gives us strength to see veterans making it and succeeding."

Dellitt is sitting in an almost-empty office with Mike Mager, who is now serving as one of the few remaining Comin' Home board members. Mager joined the board last year to fill a spot that, according to the organization bylaws, is reserved for a former client. As the organizations problems grew over the past year, most board members resigned, leaving Mager as the only member able to serve as president.

Mager says the 20-year-old organization primarily helps veterans who are homeless or near-homeless get steady housing, group therapy and access to services they are entitled to through Veterans Affairs.

"Our problems started about a year and a half ago; it's been downhill since with the money," Mager says, confirming that he recently had to tell the remaining staff members that there was no money left for payroll.

Mager says that within the last year, the VA revoked grants that provide about $40,000 a month to help pay case managers and Comin' Home residents' transitional-housing rent. Some landlords haven't gotten paid and have issued eviction notices to Comin' Home clients. While Mager and others have scrambled to get those rents paid, they've also had to cover eviction-related legal fees. The organization additionally owes Tucson Electric Power tens of thousands of dollars.

Mager says the group is downsizing by getting rid of an administration office off Alvernon Way. By the end of the year, the organization will close several offsite rentals and consolidate all operations into the apartments and duplexes owned by Comin' Home.

How did the organization lose its VA funding? Dellitt and Mager say it was all about personality conflicts between VA grant administrators in Tucson and Comin' Home's former director, Mary Pat Sullivan.

However, Laura Griffith—who was first hired to work as a case manager for Comin' Home and then briefly served as the director—disagrees. She says the problems have to do with a lack of effective management and an ethics violation.

Griffith says problems began two years ago—while Sullivan was sleeping with a client. That client was in recovery, and when he was forced to return to detox, he told counselors about his relationship with Sullivan. Following an investigation, Sullivan lost her clinical social-work license in July—and, therefore, Comin' Home lost its on-site counselor and case manager, which are required by the VA grants.

Sullivan stepped down as director at the end of September.

Sullivan told the Tucson Weekly that she thinks the loss of funding, in part, has to do with a lack of adequate staffing. Griffith confirms that staffing issues caused problems, because before Sullivan left, several case managers quit for various reasons. Griffith was asked to come on in May as a contractor and oversee groups for client therapy, but it wasn't enough: The VA grants required one case manager for every 15 clients. At that time, the agency worked with almost 70 clients.

In October, Griffith was asked to work as director, and she started to look at the organization's finances; she says she found multiple problems. She discovered that invoices hadn't been sent to the city of Tucson for a match that the city provided for the agency's housing program. She also found many "burned bridges" with banks and other groups with which the agency worked. She blames Sullivan for those burned bridges.

"Part of what I needed to do was start talking to everyone. The VA wanted to work with us. They don't want Comin' Home to close. They don't want to lose these beds," Griffith says.

As Griffith was talking to city and county officials and the VA, she discovered that the board had asked Sullivan to help as a volunteer adviser. In an agreement with the board, Sullivan was no longer allowed to be near clients, but she helped iron out rent agreements and funding issues.

"I was mad, because I felt like the board lied to me and others. Mary Pat has lost of a lot of goodwill in the community," says Griffith, a Desert Storm veteran who is returning to school to work on a doctorate in pastoral counseling.

When asked whether Griffith's accusations are fair, Sullivan says she doesn't want to discuss it and turn the interview into a "he said, she said." She did confirm that she is helping out the board as a volunteer.

"It's unfortunate that in the chaos of my leaving, I wasn't able to pass along advice and wrap up my time with the agency the way it should have been done," Sullivan says. "That's what I'm trying to do now."

About the ethics breach, Sullivan says she wishes it had never happened.

"I felt bad. It was one of those things in that I was not functioning in the clearest-thinking head, and I truly regret that, and I wish I'd known where to reach out for myself at that point in time. I could have kept that from happening, I believe," Sullivan says.

Sullivan admits she had problems managing the agency, which grew during her years as its director.

"It became really big when I was there, and my management skills were not for a really big agency. I'm not much for political bullshit. I probably should have left two years ago and brought in a bigger agency director."

According to Sullivan, Dellitt and Mager, Comin' Home now needs to shrink in order to survive.

Mager says they need the community's help. "Especially people with executive experience. We could use an accountant, but also someone who understands nonprofit management. We need their help now."

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