Facing closure amid police probe, Wilmington homeless shelter gets lifeline

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SafeSpace, formally the Rick VanStory Center, closed its doors after losing a state contract. (Camilia Jones for WHYY)

SafeSpace, formally the Rick VanStory Center, closed its doors after losing a state contract. (Camilia Jones for WHYY)

A Wilmington shelter that planned to stop letting the homeless stay overnight Oct. 1 because of an investigation into missing funds received an anonymous donation of $10,000 to remain open for another month, the executive director announced Friday.

The Rick VanStory Resource Center at 500 W. Second Street, a few blocks from downtown, is an outreach center for people suffering from addiction and mental health issues. The center has a day program and for the last year has had 54 overnight beds. The overnight shelter, known as the Beaman’s Safe Space, has filled a void for the homeless, as dozens start congregating at the doors about 4:30 p.m. every night.

But in recent months, Wilmington police have been investigating the possible misappropriation or theft of at least $125,000 from the eight-year-old agency’s funds, said Patrick Gunnin, RVRC’s new executive director.

The Delaware Department of Health and Social Services, which gives the agency $1.23 million annually from state and federal funds, also has been asking questions. The government grants do not cover the cost of Beaman’s Safe Space.

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Gunnin took over in August after founder and previous leader Alan Conover was terminated and bookkeeper Larry Moody left the agency, Gunnin told WHYY on Friday.

Gunnin, who had spent more than three decades with the Boys and Girls Clubs before joining the VanStory center, said it quickly became apparent that the agency couldn’t afford the $10,000 a month it costs to keep the overnight shelter open. The money pays for staff, utilities, laundry services, showers and more, he said.

About 75 people at RVRC cheered when Patrick Gunnin announced the donation that will allow the shelter to remain open. (Camilia Jones for WHYY)

He posted a notice on the agency’s doors that it would close this Sunday, Oct. 1. After a story about the situation appeared in the Wilmington News Journal on Friday, Gunnin said an anonymous donor gave $10,000 to keep the 54 beds in operation until Nov. 1.

WHYY was at the center on Friday to report on the shelter’s impending closure when Gunnin made the surprise announcement about 10 a.m. to huge applause by about 75 people gathered for a recovery rally . He’s hoping the agency can leverage those funds to get more donations to keep the overnight shelter open through the upcoming winter and beyond.

“We can use [the money] as a challenge gift for other people to keep the doors open,” Gunnin said.

Angel Rodriguez, 32, who walks with a crutch and uses the center for the day and overnight program, said “it’s a shame” that people like himself might suffer more because money for the homeless was misappropriated.

Told by WHYY outside the center that a donor had given RVRC enough money to keep people sheltered for another month, Rodriguez expressed relief.

“Really? It’s great to hear that news,” Rodriguez said. “It wasn’t the homeless peoples’ fault. To suspend something where people can come and sleep and feel safe, it’s just not right. There’s too many homeless people here in Delaware.”

Asked about the missing funds, Gunnin said the those dollars “were not used properly. They were not used for vendors … They were used for other personal purposes and we’re trying to figure out how and where.”

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He said Conover and Moody received and controlled agency funds, so police want them to “answer some questions.”

City police spokeswoman Sgt. Stephanie Castellani said about noon she would reach out to detectives to find out the status of the probe.

Jill Fredel, spokeswoman for Health and Social Services, said her agency “can’t talk about this because it’s a criminal investigation.”

Fredel did detail the funding from her agency to RVRC this year.

A total of $800,000 is for the day program. “We call it a drop-in center,” she said.

Another $431,000 – which included $300,000 of federal dollars – is part of the Projects for Assistance in Transition from Homelessness (PATH) program.

“It’s an outreach program,” Fredel said. Employees and peers who suffer from addiction and/or mental illness “go out in the community to identify people who are homeless and connect them to services,” she said.

Fredel said other city shelters, including the Sunday Breakfast Mission, are aware of the RVRC’s situation, as are those who operate a mobile crisis service provided by her agency’s Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health.

Anyone in New Castle County who needs those services is urged to the mobile crisis unit at 800-652-2929, Fredel said.

Gunnin said RVRC hopes to be able to keep up its services but right now has to prudent with its money.

The overnight shelter was a “field of dreams” gamble by the organization without the funding in place, but is a worthy program sorely needed in the high-poverty city. He urged any donors to call RVRC at 302-691-7946.

“We’re just really going through a financial crunch,” he said.

Camilia Jones contributed to this story.

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