System Failure

Tropical Storm Allison destroyed houses that never quite got fixed, thanks to bureaucratic bungling and cheaters

The suit alleged A-1 was guilty of overbilling clients, failing to fulfill the terms of service and withholding or losing much of the property it was supposed to clean. In a settlement last year, the company agreed to pay 45 former Houston-area customers close to $75,000 in restitution for damaged or missing items and poor service. The company further reimbursed the state $52,000 for legal expenses and agreed to more than 25 conditions to future service, according to court records.

While A-1 officials refused to comment on the settlement, complaints appear to be on the downturn. In the last three years, the Houston Better Business Bureau has processed 21 complaints against A-1 Global. That number has dwindled to three over the past 12 months.

Eventually, Thomas and her niece parted ways. Today, settled in a two-bedroom apartment in South Houston, Thomas won't let her ten-year-old daughter leave the four- by six-foot balcony area unsupervised. They rarely have time to ride. Her daughter wants to know when they're "going home," but Thomas hasn't the heart to admit to her youngster that this is it. She sold the old place for a fraction of its value after years of keeping up the note while paying monthly apartment bills. The financial strain of those years has put her back despite years of working to get ahead.

Glenda Caldwell has spent four years in a house 
contaminated by black mold.
Daniel Kramer
Glenda Caldwell has spent four years in a house contaminated by black mold.
The shower stall shows the result of broken sewer 
Daniel Kramer
The shower stall shows the result of broken sewer lines.

"Me and my friends, we thought about going down there and picketing. We really did," Thomas says. "I've cried on many a night."

Of all those bounced around, shuffled and ripped off, Caldwell received perhaps the most thorough experience. After a disastrous dance through the nonprofit world left her bereft of heat and furniture and stranded in a house of mold, files began appearing in numerous city departments expressing how dire her situation was. While the letters rode the bureaucratic wind for a time, they all seemed to settle in a chasm of institutional amnesia.

Mayor Bill White wrote Caldwell personally in April '04 after receiving a detailed letter from her about her problems. He said he was assigning someone to investigate her claims. He could have simply rung up the Urban League or the health department or even the housing department. By that time all of them had information on file confirming Caldwell was indeed living in an extremely hazardous environment.

Former housing director Daisy Stiner wrote Caldwell three months before White's letter that the broken sewer line was causing the mold growth in and around the house and that they were asking the Urban League to get a plumber to fix the lines. Urban League officials, however, said they had already spent their allotted amount on the repairs and would not hire a plumber.

Randy Oates, environmental specialist with the Harris County Bureau of Occupational Health and Radiation Control, checked out the situation and wrote Caldwell on March 9, 2004, that because of the mold-generating sewage that was still surfacing on her property and from her drains, her home was "not a safe place to live."

He continued, "It is also my opinion the property should be vacated and remain vacant until your sewer pipes are properly repaired, the moisture problem inside and outside the home is properly corrected, and mold growth inside the home is abated."

Ten days later he wrote to confirm lab samples had come back positive for black mold. Not exactly revolutionary information, since mold was first identified by the All-U-Need serviceman in the winter of '01. Still, no one had moved to get her out of the house or make the needed repairs, Caldwell says.

As she worked herself up the chain, she eventually got in touch with the office of U.S. Representative Al Green. Green seemed to take an interest. She says he promised to take care of her, to get her out of her home until repairs could be made (Lucinda Daniels, district director for Green's office in Houston, says the pledge was more broadly stated: simply to do whatever they could to help). After Green had all her moldy furniture tossed out, appearing briefly to have his picture taken alongside her outside the house for a press release, he never returned. To add insult to injury, the charity was noted in the Final Call, the Nation of Islam's official paper. Caldwell complains that she didn't know a reporter was present and that she was wrongly quoted as saying that a contractor ran off with her money. Press coverage and refuse service wasn't all Green offered. He proceeded to report Caldwell to Adult Protective Services.

Daniels says that Green went to APS looking for help for Caldwell, not, as Caldwell feared, to find a place to put her. Green also began a round of talks with Mayor White and the housing department about ways to assist Caldwell and others in her condition. But when police came around recently banging on her doors and windows, shouting, "Police officers! Open up!" Caldwell was sure they were there to take her away and dump her in some nursing home. She hid silently inside until they went away. The banging was so loud her sister heard it over the phone. She was surprised to discover it was White who had asked the police to investigate.

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