Tacoma shelter rife with dangers, ex-workers say. Is regional housing provider to blame?

A woman says she was fired from her job managing a Tacoma homeless shelter earlier this year after she took complaints of unsafe conditions and other problems to the regional nonprofit that runs the facility and others like it across the Puget Sound region.

Anita Letasi told The News Tribune recently that conditions at Aspen Court, a converted hotel at 8620 S. Hosmer St., were appalling and that officials at the Low Income Housing Institute ignored her reports and requests for change. Letasi described rampant drug use, unsanitary conditions and violations of admission rules, among other issues that she says continue to go unaddressed.

The News Tribune spoke with three other former Aspen Court employees as well as former and current residents who gave accounts similar to those of Letasi. They described a culture of intimidation and fear where management consistently undermined security and safety concerns, among other issues.

Two former employees wanted to remain anonymous, citing fear of retaliation from LIHI and loss of future employment opportunities in the nonprofit sector. A third, Myah Barrett, worked as a shelter organizer at Aspen Court from November 2021, a month before Aspen Court opened, until March 15. She decided to talk about her experience publicly after she accepted another job offer.

Letasi retained an attorney who sent LIHI a letter on Feb. 24 saying his client intends to sue for wrongful termination. The letter requests Letasi’s personnel file and the preservation of any and all records LIHI has pertaining to Letasi or the maintenance and operation of the Aspen Court location.

No other employees or residents are pursuing litigation against LIHI at this time.

“It’s important to expose them. … I believe that they’re just becoming this giant machine of taking taxpayers’ money and not having any recourse for their behavior,” Letasi told The News Tribune on Feb. 23. “I’m sickened to know that I was a part of it and to know what’s going on inside. And so that’s why I’m coming forward, because I would like changes. I’d like them to be regulated. I’d like them to be accountable.”

In an email to The News Tribune on March 13, LIHI executive director Sharon Lee said a lawsuit has not been filed against LIHI by Letasi and that she could not comment on the details of a former employee’s termination.

“LIHI is a state leader in providing homeless and low income housing and services. We serve chronically homeless individuals with compassion. We have successful outcomes in moving people from shelters to permanent housing,” Lee said in a Feb. 28 email in response to questions from The News Tribune. “We are very proud of our achievements in the community. We’ve helped thousands of people leave homelessness and find secure and safe shelter, and permanent housing.”

According to a termination letter LIHI officials sent to Letasi on Jan. 12, Letasi was fired for creating a “hostile work environment.” LIHI officials said investigations into Letasi’s safety concerns and complaints about coworkers’ behaviors and policies not being followed “either had no merit or were exaggerated.”

Lee said in the March 13 email to The News Tribune that LIHI practices progressive discipline in cases of poor work performance, including providing feedback, coaching and written warning before termination.

Letasi said she received no feedback or coaching on her performance while employed at Aspen Court and did not receive written warning before she was terminated. Letasi says she was fired over the phone days after she discussed safety concerns with human resources, which blind-sided her.

Letasi worked at Aspen Court for about four months and served as a full-time, salaried operations manager making $59,000 a year. Some of her duties included managing the daily activities of the shelter, providing leadership and customer service, communicating with clients at bimonthly meetings, supervising staff, answering questions, purchasing cleaning supplies and keeping staff updated on any policies, Letasi said.

As a night shelter organizer, Barrett made $21.88 an hour. Her duties included janitorial maintenance, managing the front desk, responding to resident concerns, enforcing LIHI policies, flipping rooms, running laundry and night security, among others. Although she has a passion for human services work, Barrett said she was not prepared emotionally and physically for the tasks presented to her as a 22-year-old when she started. Often, Barrett said she would spend hours counseling residents in crisis, de-escalating situations and managing about 100 vulnerable adults overnight, many of whom were using drugs.

“I have a huge open heart. But it’s draining. It’s a very mentally draining position,” Barrett said through tears in an interview on March 1 when she was still employed at Aspen Court. “I have a passion for helping people. And I think that’s why I’ve stayed so long. These are my neighbors, and if I leave, that’s solving problems for me. It doesn’t solve the problem for them. Somebody told me once, it’s like the teachers that stay in bad schools. Because, you know, if they leave, then who’s left?”

LIHI operates over 3,400 housing units at 75 sites in six counties throughout the Puget Sound region, including Aspen Court, and has received tens of millions of dollars in public money for its operations. As of March 13, Aspen Court sheltered 99 people, 51% of whom are people of color, Lee said. About 35% of residents are 55 or older.

On Feb. 28 LIHI announced it had purchased the Candlewood Suites hotel in Lakewood for $20.2 million, which will be converted into an enhanced homeless shelter serving about 85 people in Pierce County. LIHI bought the building with funding from the state Legislature through the Department of Commerce Right-of-Way program.

Last year LIHI purchased the Heron Apartments in Tacoma after receiving $3 million from the City of Tacoma and $21.3 million from the state Department of Commerce. The Heron Apartments offer a mix of supportive housing for those formerly experiencing homelessness and affordable workforce housing.

In 2018, Letasi sued a previous employer in Pierce County for sexual harassment and wrongful termination, alleging when she told human resources about sexual harassment she was fired from her position and her wages were withheld. Letasi won $200,000 in the lawsuit. An attorney representing Letasi declined to comment further.

The former Comfort Inn on the 8600 block of South Hosmer Street in Tacoma was purchased by the Low Income Housing Institute in October 2021 with financial assistance from Pierce County, the City of Tacoma and City of Lakewood. The institute turned the hotel into a 94-room enchanted shelter for people experiencing homelessness.
The former Comfort Inn on the 8600 block of South Hosmer Street in Tacoma was purchased by the Low Income Housing Institute in October 2021 with financial assistance from Pierce County, the City of Tacoma and City of Lakewood. The institute turned the hotel into a 94-room enchanted shelter for people experiencing homelessness.

A brief history of Aspen Court

In 2021, LIHI purchased the Comfort Inn in Tacoma for $8.8 million to turn it into a transitional shelter that would house up to 120 men, women and couples, including pets. The City of Tacoma and Pierce County each provided $5 million towards the Aspen Court project, and the City of Lakewood provided $1 million to purchase the hotel and fund programming in the future.

Two hundred thirty-one people experiencing homelessness have been served at Aspen Court since it opened Dec. 15, 2021, and 59 people have moved into permanent housing, Lee said in an email to the News Tribune on March 13.

LIHI gets client referrals from the City of Tacoma’s Homeless Engagement Alternatives Liaison Team, the City of Lakewood, the Lakewood Police Department, Greater Lakes Mental Healthcare and the homeless alternative liaison, said LIHI program manager John Brown in an email to the News Tribune on March 6. An active waiting list is updated weekly.

During the intake process, clients are interviewed, and LIHI gathers information about a client’s mental and physical health to help them get into an inpatient facility or obtain a job, Brown said.

“Once Aspen Court is at total capacity, we compile a list and call our community partners when we have an opening,” he said in the email. “We also have weekly meetings with our community partners to go over our numbers and our referrals.”

Clients who become a danger to themselves or others are removed from the program. Brown said LIHI tries “every possible recourse to keep this person in our program” and works with case management to help them find another suitable place to stay.

Lee told The News Tribune that LIHI’s clients often face issues, including substance use and mental illness, that can make it challenging to work with them, but the alternative is returning people to the street.

“We can’t expect everyone to be on their best behavior,” she said. “We’re really trying to be part of a solution.”

City of Tacoma communication specialist Megan Snow said the city cannot comment on pending or current litigation but said the city has “stringent oversight” of its contractors.

“We review all complaints that come to the City and work with both the individuals who bring us complaints and/or concerns and the provider to find solutions,” Snow said in an email on Feb. 23. “We also regularly check in with our shelter providers via phone and onsite to assess needs. The City audits its contracted partners per our contracts and if needed will take remediation action or can terminate a contract if there are health, safety or other contract violations. The City does not oversee or have legal responsibility regarding how contracted partners conduct or operate their business or organization.”

‘Haven for a menagerie of illegal activity’

In a letter sent to LIHI on Feb. 24, Letasi’s lawyer, Thomas McCosh, described Aspen Court as “a safe haven for a menagerie of illegal activity,” based on what Letasi said she experienced and witnessed.

In December, while working as an operations manager, Letasi sent a letter to the LIHI human resources department asking for assistance handling a variety of issues, including her exposure to toxic gasses at work. In the letter, Letasi said on Dec. 22 she and two other staff members were hospitalized after they were exposed to toxic fumes at work, a byproduct of what she believed was from a resident cooking over-the-counter medications in their room.

Letasi said she was in the doorway of a room when a cloud of fumes went into her lungs and burned them, causing her to vomit and gag. Her emergency room doctor said Letasi’s symptoms were equivalent to mustard-gas exposure.

McCosh said Letasi applied for worker’s compensation, “and to the best of our knowledge, that claim was denied pending an appeal.”

While working at Aspen Court, Barrett said, it was “so obviously clear” residents were using drugs and the fumes were making others in the building sick. In December Barrett said she called out of work for three days after experiencing headaches and feelings of nausea and dizziness she believed to be caused by drug usage at Aspen Court.

“It was weird, and, God, it was killing me because I’m not the type that really calls out, especially on a short notice,” said Barrett, who worked the overnight shift at Aspen Court. “But it was like, I’d wake up and I’d feel like I was dying.”

These are symptoms Tia Shaylonda knows, too.

Shaylonda was a resident at Aspen Court for a year, from January 2022 to January 2023. In the winter of 2022, Shaylonda said she started feeling nauseous all the time, with pounding headaches so bad she had to miss work. Shaylonda said she’d come home to her room and see vapors in the air, which she believed to be from her neighbors’ drug use. Shaylonda said she complained to management and nothing was done.

“It was a terrible experience. I mean, the program, it has potential to do good, but that’s not the way it’s going,” said Shaylonda, who is now couch surfing with her dog. “I know that I’m not the only one [who had] a headache or nausea or any of that. [It] smells like something funny in the air. One of the girls said it feels like we’re being fumigated. Your lungs burn and it’s really awful.”

While she was working at Aspen Court, Letasi sent repeated requests to LIHI for protective equipment for employees and safety meetings, as well as requests for security in the building, which she said went unfulfilled.

Barrett said she went to the Tacoma Needle Exchange herself to pick up sharps containers and Narcan to store in the building. Up until she left on March 15, Barrett said, she was not aware of stick-proof gloves, eye protection, hazmat gear or respiratory gear that were available to staff, despite sometimes cleaning up rooms with blood, feces, drug paraphernalia and other bodily fluids.

LIHI management said employees rarely work alone, but Barrett said she worked by herself overnight for about three months from November 2021 until mid-January 2022. Barrett said she was so nervous to be working alone on what an investigation by The News Tribune found to be one of Tacoma’s deadliest streets that she brought her dog to work for protection.

In an email to The News Tribune March 13, Lee said there was no leakage of mustard gas at Aspen Court and smoking is not allowed in the building or residents’ rooms. Lee said adequate personal protective equipment, including respiration masks, face masks and stick-proof gloves are available on site, and front-desk security staff are on duty at all hours.

“We understand there were no employee claims approved by LIHI that related to workers’ compensation for mustard gas,” Lee said. “Any suggestion that we do not have adequate PPE at Aspen Court is incorrect. All managers have credit cards and can purchase items needed.”

Senior village operations manager Joe Perva denied claims that staff are expected to clean rooms with blood-borne pathogens and said Aspen Court has an outside agency do that work.

On a tour of Aspen Court on March 17, The News Tribune was shown stick-proof gloves, a hazmat suit, N95 masks, blood-borne pathogen kits, respirator masks, booties and protective eye gear in a utility closet.

The former Comfort Inn in Tacoma is now the Aspen Court transitional housing facility, operated by the Low Income Housing Institute. The hotel is shown on Tuesday, June 22, 2021.
The former Comfort Inn in Tacoma is now the Aspen Court transitional housing facility, operated by the Low Income Housing Institute. The hotel is shown on Tuesday, June 22, 2021.

Drugs and weapons

Clients sign a statement upon entry that they will not use or bring weapons, drugs or alcohol into Aspen Court.

Letasi contends, “Aspen Court management knew of, and deliberately chose not to prevent, its clients abusing drugs and alcohol and engaging in other illegal activity,” according to an email McCosh sent LIHI.

In the December letter to human resources, Letasi said since Sept. 15 staff had found over 55 needles, 25 switchblades, a machete, a sword, 50 meth pipes, bags of crystal meth, bags of marijuana, baggies of cocaine, alcohol, round pills of many kinds, fentanyl, bongs and other drug paraphernalia while conducting bag checks on residents. Letasi said in the letter she was told by her supervisor to put confiscated drugs down the drain or in the trash.

On March 15, Barrett told The News Tribune she often left confiscated drugs in a plastic bag on her supervisor’s desk with a sticky note that had the resident’s room number.

Lee said LIHI staff does find and confiscate weapons, which are not allowed per Aspen Court’s Code of Conduct, while conducting bag and weekly room checks.

“Aspen Court is safe because we are vigilant about not allowing and by getting rid of weapons. To have someone complain that we confiscate weapons ignores the more important fact that the weapons are no longer in the hands of the clients,” Lee wrote in an email to the News Tribune.

“Some agencies recommend dissolving and flushing small quantities [of drugs] down the toilet. Others suggest using kitty litter and then disposal. But the preferred and recommended way is to call the police and follow their instructions. I think the point to make here is that other operational staff were handling this, no one was in danger, and the confiscated item was taken care of and not in the hands of clients.”

While she was in training, Letasi said, she found a loaded gun in a drawer of her office that was confiscated from a client. Letasi told LIHI human resources she asked her supervisor whom the gun belonged to but didn’t receive an answer and never saw the incident documented.

In December, Letasi told LIHI human resources she assembled drugs and the gun and delivered them to the Lakewood Police Department. Letasi told The News Tribune she did so because she didn’t trust her supervisor to dispose of the items himself and noted several items were missing. Lt. Jeremy Prater with the Lakewood Police Department confirmed Letasi dropped off the items on that date.

Lee said in an email that LIHI’s policy is that weapons are to be collected and held in a secure, locked place until the police can pick them up.

“Staff are asked not to transport weapons or illegal drugs to the police on their own as this is not authorized and is risky for staff if they get stopped by the police while driving,” she said. “Staff who willfully ignore a supervisor’s directive and transports weapons and drugs in their car to the police station on their own without our permission will be disciplined for violating our policy.”

Allegations of favoritism

In her four months working at Aspen Court, Letasi said, she witnessed favoritism and nepotism from managers, who would sometimes choose at will who was eligible to receive low-income housing.

There is a referral process LIHI must abide by due to its contacts with local government, but Letasi said her supervisor would provide favors for clients he knew, sometimes allowing them to skip the waiting list, invite guests, pay a fee to skip the waiting list for a room, not abide by mandatory bag checks and/or avoid mandatory sexual-assault background checks. Letasi said her supervisor told her if she ever needed a favor for a family member who was homeless, he could do that for her, too.

Barrett said she witnessed rule-bending from upper management. She said some staff treated certain residents differently than others based on whom they like and often did not practice de-escalation techniques, sometimes being openly “blatant, aggressive, unkind” to residents in vulnerable situations.

In the March 13 email to The News Tribune, Lee said there is no favoritism at Aspen Court. She also said allegations of multiple complaints regarding a senior manager at Aspen Court were not true, saying that all staff are asked to abide by LIHI’s personnel policy that states staff will maintain “a welcoming atmosphere and respectful behavior towards residents, patrons and co-workers, including no swearing, cursing, shouting or yelling … No acts of physical or emotional intimidation [and] No abuse of power or authority.”

“We know that some disgruntled and former staff have attempted to shine a negative light on their boss,” Lee said in the March 13 email. “My staff and HR have an open door to look into practices that violate the Personnel Policies. In this case, after many hours of investigation, HR staff found that the claims made against the senior manager are unsubstantiated.”

There have been similar allegations at other LIHI properties in the region.

On Jan. 18 a letter signed by more than 16 local mutual-aid groups was sent to Seattle and King County officials, as well as the Washington state Legislature, alleging problems at tiny house villages owned by LIHI. The letter was reported by Hannah Krieg at The Stranger.

In the letter, mutual-aid volunteers, who work with people experiencing homelessness, said they kept in touch with people who were placed into LIHI transitional housing. The volunteers said they heard repeated stories about favoritism, lack of mental health support, health and safety hazards, lack of trauma-informed care and a culture of apathy toward resident issues. The letter calls for a full outside audit of LIHI finances and use of public funding, as well as immediate steps to shift hiring and funding to alternative providers and management models.

Krieg reported that the King County Regional Homelessness Authority said on Jan. 18, “We take allegations of any mistreatment of unhoused neighbors very seriously,” and, “To ensure accountability, KCRHA regularly conducts oversight and monitoring of contracted service providers, including on-site inspections, and may issue corrective action plans if needed.”

In an email to elected officials on Jan. 20, Lee said LIHI takes all concerns about its management of Tiny House Villages seriously, but, “The [Jan. 18] letter contained a number of misrepresentations and statements not grounded in facts.”

“Our Tiny House Village case management staff have a very high rate of success in transitioning people into housing compared to other forms of shelter programs,” Lee wrote. “Last year we moved hundreds of homeless people from our shelter programs into permanent housing. Nearly 50% of our Seattle tiny house clients exiting a village transitioned into permanent housing last year. We want to continue that good work, and are always open to making changes or improvements when there are concerns.”

Wrongful termination?

The letter of termination Letasi received from LIHI human resources on Jan. 12 stated Letasi created a “hostile work environment” by “being overly aggressive to clients and abrasive to employees and clients.” In detailing her safety concerns to LIHI human resources, LIHI said she used an “accusatory and unprofessional [tone] for a manager,” which also contributed to a hostile work environment.

McCosh said LIHI’s dismissal of Letasi’s grievances and her attempts to prevent illegal activity were cited as grounds for her termination.

“Washington law prohibits employers from terminating employees in violation of a clear public policy. One such public policy is reporting and opposing illegal activity in the workplace,” McCosh wrote in a letter to LIHI. “Because Ms. Letasi was terminated in violation of this law, she has a claim against LIHI for wrongful termination in violation of public policy. Ms. Letasi also has negligence against LIHI, who exposed her to toxic chemicals that her doctor described as being comparable to ‘mustard gas.’”

Letasi’s claim for damages, including lost wages and benefits, pain and suffering and medical expenses due to injuries sustained in the workplace, is believed to exceed $500,000, according to McCosh’s letter to LIHI.

Other future actions might include the pursuit of claims against LIHI related to state and federal whistleblower protection statutes, he said.

As someone who got into the field wanting to make a difference, Letasi said, how LIHI operates is “a slap in the face to taxpayers.” Letasi said she is worried about what will happen to the clients still staying at Aspen Court.

“I’m very, very, very, very worried. Very concerned,” she said. “I’m worried about their ability to make it, to get out, to be successful knowing that all the odds are against them. That they’re only there as numbers, as far as LIHI is concerned. They’re not there as human beings that have needs.”