Nonprofit leaves people lost after Harvey

Laila Garcia, 4, left, and her sister, Zoey Garcia, 5, sit on the front porch of their temporary home at the ALMS apartments in Bloomington.

When Darlene Moya, 38, returned from Austin with her three children after fleeing Hurricane Harvey, she found herself locked out of her Victoria rental home.

The single mom said she knew this might happen when she decided what most mothers would: Instead of spending $170 on rent, which is due weekly, she used the last couple hundred dollars to her name to evacuate her daughters - who are 2, 3 and 15 years old. The family sought shelter with relatives in Austin, out of Hurricane Harvey's deadly path.

"I had two choices," said Moya, who owns a secondhand clothing shop. "Either I pay the rent here and we wait it out and see - but if I stay here, I'm putting (my children's) lives in danger."

When Moya returned a week later, the landlord had locked her out of the home - with all of her belongings still inside, she said. Moya, who had been unable to return to work because the power was out, was told she needed to come up with $340 - two weeks rent - if she still wanted to live there, she said.

Moya was at a loss, she said. But little did she know the property manager that told her to come up with rent money - just days after Hurricane Harvey ravaged the Gulf Coast - is actually a nonprofit agency that claims to have provided millions of dollars in emergency shelter and free housing during the past decade.

Since 2007, La Raza Unidos, which is known by its renters as ALMS, has filed tax documents stating it has provided more than $4.9 million in free housing, in addition to more than $1.5 million in emergency shelters and relief to victims of natural disasters and house fires. The nonprofit's mission is to "provide free clothing, food and shelter to the impoverished."

But among residents, ALMS is better known as the property manager of hundreds of apartments, many of which are rented for between $140 and $190 a week. Many of the units - some of which have just one room with a microwave and a mini-fridge - are in Bloomington, one of the poorest parts of Victoria County.

Nowhere in the nonprofit's tax documents, however, is there any mention of a rental property program.

"I think that as a general rule, nonprofits need to do exactly what they claim to do if they want to maintain their nonprofit status," said Victoria County District Attorney Steve Tyler. "And if they fraudulently portrayed themselves as a nonprofit, they can suffer consequences."

The Internal Revenue Service said it can't comment on whether specific organizations and individuals are adhering to nonprofit laws.

ALMS' attorney didn't respond to questions about the rental program. Instead, Bernard Klimist said ALMS provided emergency housing to more than 100 people who sought shelter after Hurricane Harvey damaged their homes.

He added the nonprofit's free housing program has continuously provided free housing in single-family homes to people in need since 2006.

"They had generators running so they could pass out food and water ... 24 hours a day (after Hurricane Harvey)," Klimist said. "Everyone could see their lights on and knew what they were doing."

But Klimist did not respond to multiple requests to tour homes used in the nonprofit's free housing and shelter programs. He also didn't answer requests for information about where the homes are located.

Advocates unaware

Many of Victoria's government and nonprofit officials were unaware of any shelters providing disaster relief or free housing open in all of Victoria County after Hurricane Harvey - let alone any programs run by ALMS.

"I don't know anything about disaster relief that was offered by anyone in Bloomington or Placedo," said Commissioner Danny Garcia, whose district covers part of the county where dozens of ALMS rentals are located.

Kim Pickens, who for years served as president of the Victoria Area Homeless Coalition, said she hadn't heard from anyone who lived in free housing or shelter provided by ALMS - even before Hurricane Harvey left hundreds of Victoria residents without homes.

"I do not personally know of anyone I can verify that has received free housing through ALMS," said Pickens, who works as an advocate for homeless residents.

The Volunteers Active in Disaster network, which coordinated volunteer efforts in Harvey's aftermath, also was unaware of disaster relief services provided by ALMS.

But the attorney for ALMS tells a different story. In addition to housing 100 people, ALMS donated and distributed truckloads of water, canned goods, clothing, bleach and clean linens to Bloomington residents in need, Klimist said.

None of ALMS' tenants were displaced during the storm, Klimist said. But some people were moved into different units.

"They did not evict anyone, lock out anyone nor charge anyone for uninhabitable spaces during the recent disaster," Klimist said, adding the confusion might have been caused by problems with phone lines during the storm.

Stacie Allen, who lives with her husband in one of the Bloomington rentals, agreed with Klimist: There were problems with communication during the storm, she said.

"I have to be honest: at first, I didn't know their systems were down," said Allen, who moved to Bloomington when her husband lost his oil field job two years ago. "They did ask me for rent, and I did get upset."

The storm left Allen without power and electricity for a week, she said. Still, she had already paid rent - $160 due weekly, she said, which totals about $640 a month.

The storm had forced many people out of work, leaving them without the means to pay, she said.

"How dare you ask for rent?" she said, recalling her frustration.

But after she voiced her concerns, ALMS gave her a two-week rent credit, she said. They also replaced her mattress and brought other supplies for doing laundry such as quarters and detergent, she said.

"It's just a blessing they finally came through with this," Allen said.

Other experiences

But some ALMS tenants weren't so lucky.

Earlier this summer, Scottra Vincent moved from Louisiana with her boyfriend to Bloomington when he found a job in a local oil field, she said. They agreed to pay ALMS $540 per month to rent an apartment, she said.

When Harvey struck months later, the couple, who knew few people in the area, fled to safety with family and friends in Louisiana.

The two returned to Bloomington almost a week later to survey the belongings they'd left behind. Upon arrival, they found the unit's roof had been ripped off and was a crumpled pile near the entrance, Vincent said.

"I had got there before they locked me out," she said. "I showed up in the middle of the night to grab what I could grab."

Vincent was told she needed to pay rent if she wanted to keep the damaged apartment, she said. But without a sure answer about when it would be fixed, the couple packed up their belongings and went back to Louisiana.

Vincent's story is like others Theresa Martinez, 49, has heard in Hurricane Harvey's aftermath.

Despite losing her mobile home to Hurricane Harvey, the Bloomington native has spent the past couple of weeks cooking hot meals and distributing canned food, water and clothing to residents living in poverty.

"I went to look around, and I was very upset to see that the people had no food or nothing," said Martinez.

While volunteering at St. Patrick's Catholic Church, she met Moya and two other families struggling to come up with rent money for ALMS, she said. Martinez also delivered supplies to the apartments, where some people couldn't afford to evacuate.

"They don't have no income or nowhere to go," Martinez said.

Bloomington already was struggling with poverty before Hurricane Harvey ripped off roofs and crushed homes with trees. Martinez felt frustrated because there wasn't more being done to help people who lost their homes, she said.

"A lot of these people don't have vehicles; they're on a fixed income," she said. "And we need to set up a shelter for them."

For a previous special report on ALMS, please see: Bloomington fights new face of poverty

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Marina writes about housing, Hurricane Harvey recovery and local politics for the Victoria Advocate. You can reach Marina by emailing or follow her on Twitter, @MarinaStarleaf.

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