Vanessa Ellingson is the single mother of two young boys and a three-month-old girl. She’s also homeless, spending her days roaming St. Paul and waiting for space to open at shelters.
Not so long ago, Ellingson was staying at Kateri Residence for Native homeless women, recovering from chemical dependency. She lived there for eight months but was unceremoniously booted to the streets, she says, after she repeatedly complained about the lack of furniture in the building and the case managers’ failure to meet with residents one-on-one as required.
“I’m trying to stand up for me and these women," Ellingson says.
She quit her job as a caretaker at University Village Apartments on the U of M campus to seek sobriety at Kateri. She arrived with her own recovery plan, and followed Kateri’s rules about logging at least 20 hours of outside programming every week, doing chores every day, and returning to the house every night by curfew.
But when she feared she might relapse, Ellingson looked to her case manager for support. She wanted to have one-on-one meetings at least once a week, per Kateri’s policies, but found staff members were never available.
Then, Kateri underwent many months of remodeling. The walls were painted, the old furniture thrown out. But before Kateri could replace the couches, dressers, dining room tables, and chairs in the women’s apartments, management ran out of money. For about three months, residents lived in barren rooms.
Ellingson says plenty of women felt cranky and uncomfortable at Kateri, but most were too afraid for their housing to speak out. She took it on herself to keep asking staff for changes until the day, about a month ago, that a group of three administrators called her into a meeting.
According to an audio recording that Ellingson took of that meeting, the Kateri managers asked her to summarize what she’s unhappy about. Ellingson said she wanted to be respected and supported. She called the staff unprofessional, eventually leading one to tell Ellingson, “We can’t have you calling staff names and making accusations that aren’t true. So here’s the choice: If you’re so unhappy, there’s the door.”
“The whole eight months I was there, I never met with the case manager one-on-one until I complained about it,” Ellingson says. “I met with her three times in eight months. After I brought that up was when they started trying to find every reason to get rid of me.”
Kateri office manager Bethany Campbell declined to comment about specific residents, but she maintains that case managers do meet with clients at least once a week without fail. The only exception would be if the case managers got sick, in which case they’d always reschedule.
Campbell confirmed that there was a period of time when furniture was sparse, but couldn’t remember how long it was. “We had issues that came up with getting the furniture very quickly, but it’s not like there wasn’t any,” she says. “Each apartment did have enough tables and chairs and things to sit on. It was just a little bit rough.”
Kateri almost never evicts a client, Campbell added. Usually only drugs, alcohol, or violence warrants that. Sometimes, she says, the managers will have meetings with residents who appear to be slacking in their responsibilities.
“A lot of times during that conversation, a lot of people will be unhappy, and they’ll just leave on their own,” Campbell says. “Sometimes they don’t like that they’re expected to be working toward their goals and that they need to be held accountable to that.”
According to a current resident, Kateri recently was refurnished. Case managers are meeting with clients, but only once every two weeks. The resident asked that we not use her name out of fear that she might have to leave as well.
"Well, there were a lot of us who were unhappy, and [Ellingson] was the only one who said anything to the staff," says the resident. "The staff wouldn't give her legitimate answers about why they weren't meeting our needs. I don't know why they'd kick her out, basically, when she has a newborn baby and is struggling as it is. To make her leave, what? For complaining a lot? They shouldn’t have done that. At the very least, they could have helped her find somewhere to go."
Another source who witnessed Kateri managers intimidating Ellingson says there's no doubt in her mind that Ellingson was forced out because she spoke up. This source, who also asked not to be named, says case managers tend to keep their office doors shut all day, gossiping among each other. It makes the clients feel they can't reach out for help.
"Once a week meetings? That never happened," the source says. "People like this, if their heart’s in the right place, they need to work there. But if it’s not and it’s just a paycheck, they need to go somewhere else. I was really upset when Vanessa left. This is not the first client you’ve done this to. It’s pretty sickening."
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