Caring for Clairice

Blackshire didn't have to go far from Shed to reach the freeway.
Daniel Kramer

The last time anyone saw Clairice Blackshire alive, she was naked, drunk and walking from her apartment room to the North Freeway feeder road.

She had been living at the Northline Inn at Crosstimbers and I-45, a former Howard Johnson's hotel that is now a privately owned affordable housing complex for the mentally ill, recovering drug addicts and the formerly homeless. Blackshire, 47, was under the care of Harris County Social Services.

Luke Imoisi, a Northline tenant as well as the property manager, says he saw Blackshire stagger out of a car at about 2 a.m. on January 3. He says he escorted the woman to her apartment, then returned to his own room. About 30 minutes later, the front desk security guard called Imoisi, saying he saw Blackshire walk about 30 steps off the property and take off her dress.

Imoisi says he looked for Blackshire -- a nude, six-foot-tall, 170-pound woman -- but couldn't find her. He told the security guard to "wait and see if she don't come back," before anyone called the police. He says he had no reason to alert law enforcement since she was not a missing person. Plus, he says, Blackshire had a history of getting drunk and walking out of the complex.

"If my clients are in my building, I take care of them in my building, on my property," Imoisi says. "But if they're off my property, there's nothing I can do."

Imoisi went back to his room. No 911 calls were ever placed from Northline Inn, according to Houston police.

Sometime around 8:30 a.m., police were notified of a body on I-45. A red pickup had hit Blackshire and driven on. The driver turned himself in the next day.

Police believe Blackshire was walking in the left lane of the freeway when the truck struck her and knocked her about 75 feet into the HOV lane. She was carrying $31 and a cigarette case.

Blackshire's was not the first death involving the operators of the Northline Inn.

The facility is run by a nonprofit called Self-Sufficiency Through Housing and Economic Development, better known as Shed. In 1994, with an $821,000 loan from the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs, Shed bought the San Jacinto Gardens apartments in the Third Ward.

Shed entered into what Shed CEO Larry Martins calls a joint venture with Bankers Investment Trust. That company was formed by Lemont Curry, a onetime Shed board member. Shed and Bankers set out to convert the complex into low-income housing units.

In August 1997, a 15-year-old high school honor student named Jarvis Hooks was visiting his girlfriend at the complex when he decided to take a swim. He jumped in the pool and started screaming for help. His friends outside the pool thought he was playing a prank. Hooks was a natural athlete, a champion sprinter and star football and basketball player.

When it became apparent that he wasn't joking, there wasn't much others could do for him. One tenant grabbed a metal rescue pole, stuck it in the water and was shocked -- Hooks had been electrocuted.

A jury in 1999 found that the pool's lighting system lacked a ground fault circuit interrupter, required by Houston codes. Jurors found Curry and the property managers responsible for Hooks's death, awarding $3.1 million to Hooks's family and $85,000 to Hooks's friends and the tenant who tried to rescue him.

Before that case ended, Shed began looking to convert another building into low-income housing units. It applied for a HUD grant that would subsidize the tenants' rent.

By the time HUD approved the funding, the city had condemned and demolished the building, apparently unaware of the pending HUD agreement with Shed, according to Dave Zappasodi of the City of Houston Housing Authority.

HUD allowed the group to find another complex, which they did in the former Howard Johnson's on the North Freeway.

But there were complications with the HUD funds. The original agreement was based on the demolished building, which had 80 rooms, but Shed's new property had 120 rooms. The HUD contract required Shed to maintain 90 percent occupancy, even though HUD could subsidize only 80 units. Shed applied for another HUD grant through Harris County for the other 40 rooms.

It was too much. In 2001, HUD accused Shed of overcharging tenants and, in one instance, trying to bill HUD multiple times for the same tenant. HUD said Shed was violating the terms of the contract by charging tenants for meals regardless of whether they chose to eat in the facility's cafeteria. A year later, the housing authority accused Shed of not renting enough units and renting to tenants who did not appear to meet HUD's eligibility requirements.  

Shed CEO Larry Martins told the housing authority that many tenant records were destroyed in 2001 during the flooding from Tropical Storm Allison. But instead of trying to correct the violations, Shed opted out of the contract.

In addition to the housing authority funding, the City of Houston lent Shed about $957,000 from 1998 to 1999 to purchase and rehabilitate the property.

At the same time, Shed scored a $1.4 million HUD grant, to be administered by the Harris County Community and Economic Development Department.

In Shed's grant application, the organization pledged to provide a "holistic approach to solving homelessness." Shed promised to provide counseling and education in "daily living skills such as personal hygiene, housekeeping, menu planning/shopping [and] "money management/budgeting." Shed also promised to refer tenants to GED classes and employment training, and to provide transportation for them to attend those programs.

County development director David Turkel says his department ceased funding in 2001 because Shed violated the terms of the grant.

County officials are now talking with the county attorney about whether to seek reimbursement from Shed for the earlier funding, Turkel says. He declined to disclose the specific violations, citing potential litigation.

Shed's inability to produce documentation also caught the attention of the city's Housing and Community Development Department, whose performance-based loan was tied to Northline's cash flow and tenant eligibility, according to department spokesperson Kevin Davis. While the loan is not in default, the city is waiting for Shed to produce the documents necessary to stay in good standing.

Davis says the department has no doubt Shed will be able to provide the documentation.

The Houston Area Women's Center referred Blackshire to the Harris County Social Services Department in 2001, according to department deputy director Sidney Braquet. Citing client confidentiality, HAWC personnel declined comment.

The county found shelter for her and became her payee, using her monthly Social Security checks to pay her rent.

Blackshire's multiple mental illnesses made it difficult for her to stay in one place and hold down a job, Braquet says. She spent a few months at a church shelter before moving into Shed in August 2002.

By that time, because of Shed's accounting irregularities, Social Services no longer placed clients at Shed if those clients received their money directly from county funds, Braquet says. The department could not prevent others, like Blackshire, who received federal assistance, from staying where they wanted.

As with the other tenants, Blackshire's $475 rent included three meals a day and personal items such as soap, detergent and toothbrushes. She liked the accommodations and "she seemed to be pleased the last time she was visited" in December, Braquet says. Caseworkers visited Blackshire at Shed monthly.

After paying rent, Blackshire had only $66 left over each month, according to a former case manager. The meager pocket money may have been one reason why Blackshire engaged in prostitution. City and county court records show she had two solicitation convictions in 2002 and 2003. Braquet says his department was unaware of her record.

Shed's Larry Martins says the Northline Inn provides decent shelter for tenants with special needs. He shrugs off the HUD allegations as smoke and mirrors and says he never even saw the agency's report.

"The allegations came out of nowhere," he says.

Martins says he used to be a program director for the Harris County Mental Health and Mental Retardation Authority in the late 1990s, although that agency listed a Lawrence Martins as only a team leader for a group home, not a program director.

Martins says his full-time Northline staff of four, including an around-the-clock security guard, manages up to 112 tenants a month. He says Shed's system of care runs more smoothly than public housing units, which he says tend to get bogged down in red tape and ignore their clients.

"The whole idea is for the community to come together and solve a common problem," he says of low-income housing programs like Shed.

Martins says Shed has gone a long way to solve the problem. He claims the facility has served more than 1,000 people who otherwise would have wound up in prison, the emergency room or in some other form of public care. By Martins's calculations, Shed has saved Harris County taxpayers $71 million since 1998.

Moreover, he says the setup allows tenants to be "empowered" and independent.

"All our tenants are pretty much free to come and go as they wish," he says.

On a tour of the facility, which features laundry facilities and a conference room for church services, Martins is especially proud of Shed's tidy kitchen and cafeteria. He shows off a vacant room, which looks like typical motel fare -- small but clean.  

But while Martins is eager to show off parts of the building, he evades questions about a group of black three-ring binders at the front desk. The binders have labels pertaining to various agencies such as the MHMRA, the Department of Veterans Affairs, Families Under Urban and Social Attack, and Drug Abuse Programs of America.

When asked what the binders are for, Martins lunges toward the desk, scoops them up and tries to slide them out of sight.

"This is off the record," he says, adding that he's not trying to hide anything from anyone. He then says they contain sign-in sheets for visitors from those agencies.

Martins was also protective of the building's security camera videotapes. He would not proffer the tapes in order to determine if Blackshire left the building through the side entrance or through the front, where the security guard is supposed to sit.

He says clients have been known to slip out the side entrance and scale the six-foot parking lot fence. Blackshire would have had to climb the fence while "dead drunk," as Imoisi described her.

Martins is sure that his staff members would have done whatever they could for Blackshire, since they take their tenants' well-being seriously.

"We take a proactive approach," he says. "Whatever we can do…to help, we do."

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