One day last fall, Danya Dominguez went to check on a formerly homeless client in the converted Long Beach hotel where she works as a case manager. What she found was traumatic.

“He was dead in his room. He was cold,” she said.

That wasn’t the only time it happened. Over about a year, Dominguez recalled at least eight deaths at the former Best Western on Long Beach Boulevard — some were from serious health problems, at least one person overdosed, and a couple of deaths were unexplained.

Seeing so many clients die at the 99-room transitional housing facility haunted Dominguez. She lost a patch of hair from stress.

Dominguez and a coworker tried to blow the whistle to their bosses at the nonprofit running the facility, who in turn raised concerns to the city, which owns the former hotel.

Emails the Long Beach Post obtained through a public records request show increasingly urgent messages to one of the city’s top homelessness officials from the nonprofit’s CEO sounding the alarm on issues with the facility and the contract to run it.

But the city, citing cost concerns, didn’t provide the medical worker or on-site drug counselor the nonprofit asked for.

Although Dominguez was hired to connect clients with resources and help them work toward self-sufficiency, staffing shortages meant she was also juggling other duties and a heavy client load — but a case manager isn’t equipped to address high-level medical issues like the man who moved in with stage 4 cancer and a colostomy bag.

“We do not have the site staff to accommodate those needs,” Dominguez said.

In all, at least 14 people enrolled at the facility died over the last two years, a far higher number than at any other homeless facility in Long Beach, according to public records, which only provided limited information on exactly where or how most of the clients died.

“We feel that a lot of those deaths could be prevented if we had the right services,” Dominguez said.

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Paul Duncan, manager of the city’s Homeless Services Bureau, acknowledged the facility’s high death rate, but said in an email to the Post this was because “we have prioritized people who are older and people with chronic or terminal health conditions such as cancer, heart and kidney failure and other serious health conditions.”

He also noted that “a good number” of clients at the facility were previously given state-funded hotel rooms because of their vulnerability to COVID-19.

In December — after the CEO’s series of escalating emails to Duncan requesting more resources, trying to set up regular check-in calls and asking when months-old invoices would be paid — the nonprofit running the transitional housing facility, the Orange County-based Illumination Foundation, told the city it was pulling out at the end of its contract in February.

Currently, the site is being run by a patchwork of city staff, former Illumination Foundation employees who agreed to stay on and help clients, and other temporary workers.

A worsening situation

In March 2021, the city opened the former hotel (known as PHK for the state Project Homekey funds used to buy it) as transitional housing — more stable and private than an emergency congregate shelter, but still an interim stop while people look for a more permanent home.

The month before the facility opened, the city hired the Illumination Foundation to staff and run it.

A news release announcing the City Council’s decision to buy the Best Western and convert it to homeless housing said the facility would offer “wraparound services” including health care, mental health and substance use treatment and employment training.

“Having access to a safe place and essential needs is critical for all, and this project will provide shelter and support to those who need it,” then-Mayor Robert Garcia said in the release.

According to Lennie Mefford, a 76-year-old former resident who now lives in a subsidized apartment community near the traffic circle, when PHK first opened it was a nice place to live.

But it deteriorated over time, she said, describing problems including bedbugs, a broken elevator that left people in wheelchairs periodically stuck on upper floors, residents using and dealing drugs, and a general lack of rules or protocols.

Employees who cared about the residents were overloaded with work, while other staff “just came to collect a paycheck,” Mefford said.

Dominguez said her experience working at PHK was stressful from the start because the facility didn’t have enough staff to meet the needs of nearly 100 residents.

“The first week I worked there, somebody died,” said D’Andre Beckham, who was fired in January after about a year and a half at PHK. When he and his coworkers were asked to clean out recently vacated rooms, “it’d be like hazardous waste things that you don’t want to touch.”

(Beckham said he was told there were problems with his attendance and timecard; he believes his dismissal was retaliation for speaking up about conditions at the facility. The Illumination Foundation’s CEO said in an email the organization does not comment on former employees.)

There was “minimal upkeep” of the facility, which had frequent mold and pest problems, Beckham said, and the environment was sometimes chaotic because “there was no real structure or guidelines” for residents.

But one of the biggest concerns was ill clients being sent to live at a facility that only offered minimal medical help.

“Our facility is not recuperative care, but they would refer a lot of clients which were very, very high need,” Dominguez said.

Sometime last summer, Dominguez and other case managers met with Illumination Foundation management about their concerns. Finally, after a client’s death in October, the nonprofit’s CEO relayed the concerns to Duncan with the city’s Homeless Services Bureau.

“We are very concerned about current issues that remain that jeopardize the safety and health of our clients and staff,” Illumination Foundation CEO John Ing wrote in an Oct. 10 email to Duncan.

A few days later, city staff and executives from the nonprofit held a virtual meeting, according to city emails.

Beforehand, Ing sent a list of topics to cover, including help with finding “a higher level of care” for residents who needed it; allowing site staff to decide whether potential new clients were “a good match for our program (medically)”; and requests for a full-time medical staffer and a substance abuse counselor to work onsite, the latter because a majority of deaths in the previous nine months involved “participants who struggled with addiction.”

Duncan emailed Ing after the meeting to say he’d discuss the concerns with his staff and he understood the need for more support services at the facility. He also emailed his city team about the nonprofit’s requests and said that while they might be able to use some already set-aside dollars or ask the county for more funding, “I am somewhat concerned around the impact within our budget to stabilize this program.”

About a month later, in mid-November, Ing was sending a series of increasingly urgent emails to city staff about a holdup with paperwork for a contract extension and unpaid invoices.

The morning of Dec. 5, after learning the city still hadn’t finalized the contract extension for work that had begun in August, Ing emailed city staff to stress that without a signed contract, “we have no legal protection in case something goes awry. Never mind the fact that we are not being paid on time.”

That afternoon, Ing gave the city notice that Illumination Foundation would not continue operating PHK when the current contract ended in February.

In response to an interview request from the Long Beach Post, Ing wrote in an email, “While we value our partnership with the City, Illumination Foundation decided not to renew its contract so that we can focus on our core housing and healthcare services.”

Ing added that his organization “worked closely with the City over the last two months to ensure a seamless transition to a new operator” before exiting the facility when its contract ended Feb. 18.

How it was handled

Duncan didn’t dispute that PHK has had maintenance and cleanliness problems, but said in his email to the Post that the city has tried “to resolve them as quickly as we are able.”

Residents are allowed to move in with their belongings, which sometimes carry bugs, he said, so there’s a regular pest control regimen. Because the building is aging, sometimes infrastructure and amenities such as plumbing and room heating/cooling units fail and need replacement, he added.

The program’s rules include a ban on the use of illegal drugs (though use in moderation of alcohol, tobacco and cannabis are allowed), but some clients arrive with substance use problems.

Duncan confirmed that “at one point there was a larger group of people who were significant substance users and that someone was supplying drugs to people in the building. …Some were asked to leave, including the person who was supplying drugs to the other participants.”

Issues with drugs at PHK have improved, Duncan said, but Long Beach’s housing-first philosophy — meeting clients’ basic daily needs so they can focus on getting back on their feet — means the city will continue to grapple with the problem.

Regarding clients’ health problems, Duncan said city staff made sure the nonprofit operator knew how to try to get people into Los Angeles County-run programs with appropriate specialty care.

As to why city staff left the task of client health referrals to Illumination Foundation rather than handling it before placing people at PHK, Duncan said, Illumination Foundation staff “had the best information” about how clients were doing and what their needs were.

The county has access to funding the city can’t get, such as for recuperative care, Duncan said, so Long Beach typically partners with the county to get people into those programs.

When Duncan told the city’s Continuum of Care board in January that a new operator would be needed for PHK, he said the per-bed reimbursement rate for running emergency and short-term housing facilities is too low and doesn’t cover operating costs including case management, meals, site security, and an increasing number of social services many people need to successfully transition from homelessness.

In his email to the Post, Duncan said the rate under Illumination Foundation’s contract was $60 per bed per night; that will rise to $80 per bed for the new operator.

It’s unclear whether the city could have paid for the additional staff Illumination Foundation requested.

Duncan said that although the nonprofit did exceed its budget and was reimbursed by the city, he tries “to stay within the parameters” of the operator’s original bid proposal — and since Illumination Foundation’s contract was about to expire, officials decided to put more money into the new agreement rather than making another change to the old one.

The first year Illumination Foundation ran PHK, the city allotted $2 million annually for its services; later adjustments to the contract increased that to nearly $2.5 million a year.

A proposed contract with new operator First to Serve, which already runs a year-round emergency homeless shelter for the city, offers $3.17 million to cover one year of operations at the transitional housing facility, according to city documents.

The Long Beach City Council is expected to vote on the contract Tuesday. A new operator could be in place within weeks.