The state is cutting off funding to Massachusetts’ only homeless shelter network with a mainly Spanish-speaking staff in the wake of theft allegations against its former leader, leaving the organization on the brink of closure and disrupting the lives of nearly 150 families.
Casa Nueva Vida, which has been housing the homeless for more than 30 years, is likely to close next month, shelter officials say, after the Department of Housing and Community Development notified them that the state would not renew its contract that expires on June 30. Without up to $7.7 million in state funding next year, the agency cannot continue to operate its 14 shelters in Boston and Lawrence. Nearly all of its funding comes from the state.
Several staffers told the Globe that they — and the families they serve — are being punished for the misdeeds of Manuel Duran, the former longtime executive director who resigned a year ago and now faces criminal charges.
“It’s not fair that our contract did not get renewed because of something we had no control over,” said Darlene Vaccaro, a supervisor in Lawrence, who was once a client. “It’s like we’re being punished for something we had no knowledge of. It seems like another betrayal.”
Jahira Oliver, who has been staying with her two children at a Casa Nueva shelter in Dorchester for five months, said she’s unhappy that her family has to leave. She doesn’t know where they’ll go next.
“We have become pretty comfortable here, with each other and the workers,” said Oliver, who gave birth to her one-month-old son while living at the shelter. “The workers were so understanding. They did whatever they could to make me comfortable.”
A DHCD spokesman would not explain why the contract isn’t being renewed. Instead, the spokesman said in an e-mailed statement that “the safety and well-being of shelter occupants are DHCD’s first priority,” and the agency is working to find “other providers that can successfully deliver these important services for vulnerable families.”
In January, Duran agreed to pay $6 million to settle a civil suit brought by Attorney General Maura Healey, who charged him with pocketing millions of dollars that were supposed to help homeless people. Under the agreement, Duran, who built a real estate empire while he ran the shelters, has to sell nine properties, including three homeless shelters, and turn over the proceeds to the state.
Healey’s office alleged he stole $2.29 million from the agency, but under the state’s false claims law, the state was able to collect triple the amount.
Duran is also facing separate criminal charges, for allegedly stealing at least $1.5 million from the nonprofit in an elaborate scheme in which he secretly rented his own properties to Casa Nueva Vida for shelters. He charged exorbitant rents, prosecutors say, while using the lease agreements to obtain bank loans to expand his real estate holdings.
Duran is charged with perjury and an array of other charges. The case is scheduled for a pretrial hearing on May 16.
Yet, Duran has opened new businesses that own and operate real estate since leaving Casa Nueva Vida in April 2021, according to state corporate records. Under his agreement with the attorney general, he is barred from working for any nonprofit or any agency that receives state funding.
One former Casa Nueva Vida employee said that before Duran’s scheme was uncovered, she and other workers raised concerns about him with the DHCD official who oversaw the contract.
“Multiple people told her that they needed to look into Manuel. He was violating the rights of the residents and employees and was misusing funds,” said Kathia Solorzano, who worked at Casa Nueva Vida for more than three years. “I told them about the side businesses. They told me the need superseded what was right or wrong.”
She said she also warned DHCD that Duran often funneled homeless people from his shelters to apartment buildings that he or his partners owned.
DHCD officials denied they had been warned or knew anything about Duran’s wrongdoing.
Duran’s lawyer, Thomas Dwyer, called the decision to cancel Casa Nueva Vida’s state contract “patently unfair” and urged Governor Charlie Baker to step in “to correct this sad injustice.
“I’m extremely disappointed,” Dwyer said, noting that state officials gave Duran no hint that they were planning such a drastic step. “A charity that has done good work in the community for more than 30 years is being forced to close its doors.”
Vernon Blessing, the interim executive director appointed in January, was notified in early April that the state was pulling its funding, workers said. Most of the families have not yet been told of the closings.
On Tuesday, the DHCD moved the first of Casa Nueva’s families to another shelter, an official said.
“I feel very sad, very uncomfortable,” said shelter resident Santa De La Cruz, through a Spanish translator. She has been living at a Casa shelter in Dorchester for a year with her 8-year-old son Edgar Villar. “It’s like starting over again. I don’t know if we’ll get the same treatment at someplace new.”
Employees said they housed more than 550 families during the two-year pandemic. The 90-member staff, made up mostly of women, is largely bilingual. Shelter residents are often Spanish-speaking, though Casa Nueva Vida is also open to people of other backgrounds.
Zaide Estremera, a senior case manager, said the agency moved 109 families out of its shelters and into more permanent housing in the past year alone.
Maria Gutierrez, a housing manager in Boston, said the families are “very, very down, very sad” they have to leave Casa Nueva Vida. “The state won’t put them on the street. That’s a good thing. But what will happen to them? The families get very close. They cook together. They watch TV together. Waiting for housing — waiting for an apartment — it’s very tough.
“I pray to God please help us,” she said. “I’m hoping for a miracle. We’re living in America where miracles always happen.”
Andrea Estes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.