Homeless shelter owes more than $60K in rent

COVINGTON -- The Garden of Gethsemane Homeless Shelter is more than $60,000 behind on rent owed to the Covington Housing Authority.

The shelter's director, Clara Lett, signed a lease in February agreeing to pay $3,000 per month to the Housing Authority, which owns the property where the shelter is located on Turner Lake Circle. The lease was retroactive to Jan. 1.

In the nine months since, the shelter has paid only $3,000 of the $27,000 it owes in rent, according to Covington Housing Authority Executive Director Greg Williams.

The monthly rent amount was set at $3,000 in an attempt to also recoup some $38,000 in utility bills generated by the shelter but paid by the Housing Authority from May through December 2009. Utilities were still in the name of the Housing Authority at that time because it had not yet entered into a lease agreement with the shelter. Lett previously stated that she would pay back the Housing Authority for utility expenses but has yet to pay anything, according to Williams.

"We have expenses we have to pay, including insurance on the buildings and maintenance and repairs that are made periodically. We can't do that if we don't have rent," Williams said.

The shelter opened in June 2009. According to Williams, a disagreement over the terms resulted in a delay in getting a lease signed. The board of directors of Garden of Gethsemane approved a lease agreement in November and it was delivered to Lett within 48 hours, according to Housing Authority Attorney Jim Alexander. Lett did not return a signed lease until February 2010, Alexander said.

Lett admitted she signed the lease but said she doesn't have the rent money and doesn't agree with the Housing Authority's list of expenses that determined the monthly amount. She said the shelter, not the Housing Authority, has paid for maintenance and repairs, including lawn maintenance and repairing the air conditioning unit. Lett said she begged for a lease for months but was ignored and she could not get utilities in her name until a lease was signed.

Lett said she felt forced to sign the lease even though she didn't agree with its terms because she was ineligible for state funding without it.

"This is a homeless shelter. Where am I going to get the money?" she said. "You would think they would say, 'Let's see what we can do.' They haven't worked with us from day one. You would think they could help a homeless shelter."

By law, the Housing Authority cannot use federal money allocated for its programs to pay for expenses related to the shelter, Williams said.

Lett said she has not been notified by the Housing Authority that she is behind on payments, although she admits she's made only one payment since signing the lease.

"We've not been contacted. You would think if we hadn't paid rent and owed $60,000 we would have a letter or have something in writing, that they would contact us," she said.

Lett said she is paying $7,500 a month in utilities to the city of Covington, but is only taking in $2,000 per month, some from residents at the shelter who pay a nominal fee to live there and some from local grants and donations.

"Somehow, we're making it," she said.

She said she recently secured $24,000 in state funding, but the money comes with specific terms, and only $3,000 can be used for rent and $5,000 for utilities.

Earlier this year, Lett requested to be excused from paying a $5,000 utility deposit owed to the city of Covington when the account was transferred to the shelter's name. The City Council agreed to a payment plan over the course of a year, but the deposit was ultimately paid in full by First United Methodist Church of Covington, Lett said.

"I take my hat off to Newton County. The churches and organizations and all have embraced us," she said.

The city of Covington assisted with the purchase and renovations of the shelter, making an approximately $1 million grant to the Covington Housing Authority. Lett said while she's grateful for the generosity, she didn't realize the arrangement would place additional burdens on her operation.

"(The Housing Authority) will do what they need to do, but they'll be evicting women and children and men who don't have a dime. The city did what they did and we're grateful for that, but if I'd known all the things that were going to be attached ..." she said, trailing off.

The Housing Authority board has yet to decide whether to take action.

"That's a board decision. Mr. Alexander has given the board several options. They have not made a decision one way or another as to what they want to do," Williams said.

"We all want to be able to provide for those in need, but we've still got a business we have to run here," he added.