Local officials signed new contracts with The Hand Up Project after two residents died last year and former employees alleged financial mismanagement.

By Lizz Giordano / Crosscut.com / May 22, 2023

The smell hit Rena Keckler first as she entered the Everett hotel room where her ex-husband, Forest Fraser, had died a few days earlier. Uneaten food had spoiled inside the broken refrigerator. Unwashed laundry lay piled on one of the two beds. 

Keckler said she found few personal items detailing Fraser’s 46 years of life, except for a small stack of journals – pages scribbled with song lyrics, passwords, lists of expenses, and phone numbers of friends and social services. 

“He was always upbeat and positive,” Keckler said. “He’d always say, ‘Yeah, let’s do it, let’s go.’” 

At the time of his death in May 2022, Fraser was enrolled in a housing program run by The Hand Up Project, a local nonprofit. Packing up his room, Keckler and the son they shared filled half a dozen garbage bags. They left with more questions than answers, she said, after receiving few details about his time in the program or the help he was receiving. 

A program staffer found Fraser’s body during one of the twice-daily room checks, according to the police report. The medical examiner’s report obtained by his family showed Fraser died of acute methamphetamine intoxication.

Laura Reed, a former staffer, quit working for The Hand Up Project in late 2021 and filed multiple complaints alleging the program had stopped providing adequate services. She also accused program managers of misusing donations. (Lizz Giordano/Crosscut)

Fraser marked the second death at The Hand Up Project’s hotel housing unit in a span of about a week. Staffers called authorities just eight days earlier, police reports stated, where an officer found the body of another resident who had reportedly not been seen for about 24 to 36 hours. 

“I was kind of disappointed when I got there,” Keckler said later. “The lack of structure was obvious. If there was more structure, more check-ins, maybe it wouldn’t have been this way.”

Snohomish County and other local agencies have directed more than $3 million in COVID-19 relief money to The Hand Up Project’s hotel respite program since 2020. The funding continued to flow as numerous complaints surfaced over staffing and unsafe practices in the months prior to the deaths. Former employees described a chaotic program in which they were often asked to take on tasks they were not trained or certified to perform. Others described inconsistent service referrals, security problems and unpaid hotel charges. 

The Hand Up Project’s board recently ousted its founder Robert Smiley and his wife from the organization in February after the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Department opened an investigation into alleged fraud. A sheriff’s department spokesperson confirmed that the investigation remains ongoing.

Smiley did not respond to questions about how the program was run when contacted via Facebook.

Snohomish County Councilmember Megan Dunn wrote to Crosscut that all allegations are taken seriously and the county continues to ensure the contract is being fulfilled.

“This community being served is extremely vulnerable with many co-occurring conditions,” Dunn wrote in a statement. “They are safer being off the streets, and the opportunities to move them into more permanent, healthier environments only increases through such programs.”

Tackling homelessness during a pandemic

Smiley founded the The Hand Up Project in 2014 with a mission “to assist people struggling with substance abuse and destructive behavior that has led to homelessness,” according to his LinkedIn page. The nonprofit, which has been showcased in local media reports, runs sober homes in Snohomish County and, according to its website, conducts encampment cleanups and outreach services. 

The Hand Up Project’s hotel respite program launched in the fall of 2020 in response to the tents that had popped up on the Snohomish County campus in downtown Everett in the early days of the pandemic.It prioritized placementfor people living unsheltered within a two-block radius of the courthouse plaza.

The program aimed to move chronically homeless residents off the streets while connecting them with wraparound services – such as mental health and substance-abuse treatment – and eventually move them into permanent housing, according to the nonprofit’s website. Clients resided at a Days Inn in a bank of rooms sandwiched between Interstate 5 and a parking lot on the north end of the Everett Mall. 

The Hand Up Project began with a block of 20 client rooms, and later expanded to 28 rooms in 2022. The program employed about nine full- and part-time employees, including an operations manager, a case manager and several security positions, according to program documents.

Initial contracts between Snohomish County and The Hand Up Project show that the nonprofit agreed to provide shelter along with case management services to connect clients with treatment programs at a cost of $490,000. Funding for the program could also go toward food, toiletries, laundry, medication or transportation to services. In total, the county has allocated about $3 million in funds to the Everett program. The latest contract Crosscut obtained in a records request was signed in June 2022 and added $1.4 million to the program. 

In January 2023, the nonprofit received another $500,000 in COVID-19 funds, half from the county and half from the city of Monroe to expand the program to serve families there, according to Kent Patton, a spokesperson for the county. That contract expires at the end of 2023. 

The Hand Up Project also signed a $200,000 contract in January of last year with the North Sound Behavioral Health Administrative Services Organization to temporarily house clients at the same hotel. 

Nate Marti, a manager with the Snohomish County’s human services department who helps oversee the respite program, said officials chose The Hand Up Project to run the hotel respite program because of the organization’s experience in providing outreach to individuals.

“During the beginning of the pandemic, there were a lot of people in the downtown Everett area, understandably,” Marti said, “so we wanted to get those people connected to services. And their proposal clearly articulated their ability to do that.”

Contracts with the county required the program to report details of client placements into housing and other metrics, but county officials twice provided data about the program that they later acknowledged to be faulty after Crosscut asked about inconsistencies between data sets. The data also did not include the two deaths from May 2022, and was missing more than two dozen entries. 

In the latest available data from the county, 109 clients exited the program in 2022. The county reported 41 people, or 38%, left for long-term housing, though some of those clients moved into Pallet shelters — which many cities consider temporary housing — or went to “temporarily living with family/friends.”

Twenty-five people went back to living on the street or to a shelter, the county reported. Another 31 disappeared. A few clients who went to detox secured housing after completing treatment. 

A 2021 progress report shows similar numbers for enrollment in substance-abuse and mental treatment and a lower percentage of clients, 28.6%, who exited the program to long-term housing. 

Safety and service complaints

Former Hand Up Project employees told Crosscut that problems started soon after the first clients began moving into the Days Inn in September 2020. Initially hired to perform administrative work, Laura Reed said her role quickly expanded to conducting intake interviews for new enrollees and case management, though she held no certification. 

“It was total chaos,” Reed said. “They had no plan other than to pick people up and put them in a room.”

Reed and other former employees described a program that provided less and less over time. They said they noticed the program stopped bringing in prepared meals twice a day and program staff levels dropped in subsequent contracts. One case manager, Lisa, who asked to be identified by first name only, said outreach services lacked follow-through and consistency. She eventually stopped referring clients to the program. 

“It just seemed they were trying to cut as much client costs as they could,” Reed said

Sonny Behrends, a former lawyer who resigned from the Washington State Bar Association in 2020 to avoid discipline after being accused of failing to represent clients despite collecting payment, came on board to help manage the program around the fall of 2021. He also joined The Hand Up Project’s governing board, according to 2022 filings. 

Marti at Snohomish County said officials leave management decisions to their service providers: “Our role is not to get into an organization’s business, unless it severely impacts the program. They hire folks with lived experience, and we find extreme value in that.”

After leaving The Hand Up Project in August 2021, Reed and another former staffer, Bruce Erickson, filed complaints in late 2021 alleging negligence, financial mismanagement and practices that endangered the safety of the clients. 

“The current [clients’] health are declining,” Erickson wrote in his complaint. “If there’s a death, which we feel is likely due to [the director’s] inability to run this program, she would blame us. We’re angry at her and sad for the clients.”

A report shows Snohomish County Human Services staff investigated on-site in late 2021. Officials reported that client and staff interviews did not support the complaints. Inspections of client rooms found them in acceptable condition. 

“Our main concern going out there was the client’s well-being and safety, and while we didn’t check every room, the clients and rooms we checked were in good shape,” the county report stated. “We also spoke to [local service partner] staff about their ongoing observations of the program since they have clients in the program. They did not share any significant concerns and felt there was good oversight of the clients.”

Berhands later told Crosscut the motives of the former staffers for speaking out “are at best dubious.” He added that these former staffers have every interest in seeing the program fail. 

On May 9, 2022, The Hand Up Project staff called police for a wellness check on a 48-year-old resident who had not been seen in recent days. Police reports state the room was locked and a chair blocked the doorway. The officer found the resident deceased in the bathroom with no signs of injury or substance abuse. An earlier report stated the resident had been living at one of the Hand Up Project’s sober houses in Lynnwood before checking into the hotel program in late January. Crosscut was unable to reach her next of kin.

On May 17, 2022, a security staffer for the program called 911 again to report Fraser’s death. Police reports state the staffer found Fraser deceased in the bath during a room check. 

Erickson, who had previously worked security for the program and conducted room checks, later questioned the consistency of those safety practices. 

“If those room checks were being done,” he told Crosscut, “those deaths could have been prevented.”

Marti, who helps oversee the program for the county’s Human Services department, said officials had confirmed staff were monitoring clients during previous site visits. 

Rena Keckler holds the portrait of her ex-husband, Forest Fraser, that was on display at his funeral. He was one of two people who died in May 2022 while enrolled in The Hand Up Project hotel respite program. (Lizz Giordano/Crosscut)

“We found that clients were being checked on,” he said. “They had policies for the frequency of checks.”

County spokesperson Kent Patton noted officials are extremely cautious when weighing whether to shut down housing programs.

“Regardless of what you think about this program or the problems,” he said, “if you shut it down, you’re throwing a whole bunch of people back on the streets with a greater possibility of being exploited or dying.”

Allegations of financial misuse

Bud Kopp joined The Hand Up Project’s governing board in 2018 after meeting Smiley through Alcoholics Anonymous. The commercial real estate broker said he was asked to handle the nonprofit’s finances and began to suspect Smiley had misused donations intended for the nonprofit. 

Kopp said he believes Smiley had collected thousands of dollars a month in donations from requests posted on Facebook. Kopp could not say where much of that money went.  

“He fooled me,” Kopp told Crosscut in an interview. “I was kind of naive, because I thought I could do some good running that organization. He can be pretty convincing.”

Kopp said he was forced to step down from the board in April 2020 after he brought up his concerns over how funds were being managed. In his resignation letter he accused the Hand Up Project’s board of directors of “unwillingness and/or inability … to follow necessary and appropriate procedures and protocols regarding the accountability of project money and expenses.”

Kopp said he did not file a complaint or report this allegation to the sheriff’s department. 

“I figured it would catch up with [Smiley] sooner or later,” he said. 

Snohomish County did start requiring The Hand Up Project to submit expenditure reports twice a month after Reed’s initial complaint. They also required the program to hire a professional cleaning service and additional social service support to help manage clients’ medical needs. 

Reed also began to question how Smiley tracked donations. In late 2021 she filed a complaint with the state Attorney General’s Office accusing Smiley of seeking donations over Facebook for a personal vacation, directing donors to the nonprofit’s Paypal and Venmo accounts. In her complaint she raised concerns about how the nonprofit could differentiate charitable donations to the organization from personal donations.

“It is unethical to start with, and brought up a lot of questions on how they are keeping track of funds,” she told Crosscut. 

In June 2022, the owner of the Days Inn housing the program complained to the county that the program owed him more than $65,000 for damages and other expenses. The hotel owner also shared concerns about security practices.

The North Sound Behavioral Health Administrative Services Organization, which had contracted with The Hand Up Project to temporarily shelter clients at the hotel, broke ties with the program last year after learning of the mounting complaints. 

Margaret Rojas, an assistant director for North Sound Behavioral Health, said they found the program was spending more than was allocated by contract. They asked The Hand Up Project to conduct an audit of its spending.

“We do have some concerns about infrastructure, whether or not they have the infrastructure to manage these types of funds,” Rojas said in an interview last October, a few months after funding was paused. “The people that we’ve worked with have been great people; they seem to really be devoted to the work that they do. But we’re just not sure that they have the business plan that they need to manage these types of funds.” 

The Hand Up Project still had not submitted the audit, and North Sound Behavioral Health is no longer working with the group, Rojas said in an email sent in March. 

In late February, the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Department launched an investigation into the nonprofit stemming from allegations of fraud brought to the department, according to Courtney O’Keefe, a spokesperson for the department. 

Soon after, the city of Edmonds terminated a recently signed contract with The Hand Up Project to conduct outreach to unhoused individuals and cleanup encampments. 

“In light of recent information discovered regarding the organization’s founder, the City of Edmonds is canceling the newly signed contract with Hands [sic] Up Project,” the press release read. 

In a series of Facebook posts from April, Smiley announced his departure from the nonprofit: “I need to make sure that everyone knows that I am no longer affiliated with “The Hand Up Project” based on my actions and behaviors even though I was still helping people there are things I did wrong and I will be held accountable….”  and  “I have to face all my bad behaviors and it is one heck of a list so far…”

He told Crosscut via Facebook those comments were not an acknowledgment of taking money but rather “it was just not tracked properly….”

Smiley didn’t respond to further questions. The lawyer representing the nonprofit’s board also didn’t return a request for comment.

County purchases the hotel

Federal funding from Snohomish County is set to end this summer as the county winds down the Everett hotel program.

The county purchased the Days Inn and another hotel in Edmonds to convert to a permanent emergency shelter in August, using American Rescue Plan money. A few months after taking control of the property, the county announced a delay in the project as it deals with methamphetamine contamination in some of the rooms. 

The shelters likely won’t be ready to open until next year, according to Patton. The county has not started the process for identifying agencies to run the shelter. Patton didn’t rule out contracting again with The Hand Up Project. 

“Any qualifying agency will be allowed to submit a bid, and we will choose the one most able to complete the work,” he added. 

Today the Days Inn remains fenced off and empty. A security guard roams the property. The respite program has since moved down the street to the Motel 6. 

Keckler said Fraser checked in periodically through texts, the latest informing her of his recent return to Everett in spring 2022, shortly before he enrolled in the hotel program. 

Fraser’s son turned 18 right before his dad’s death, becoming his next of kin. 

“His first adult moment was to bury his dad,” Keckler said.

Sorting through Fraser’s belongings, Keckler said she found journals and fast-food wrappers in which Fraser had scribbled down phone numbers and addresses, some of which were for addiction treatment services. 

“It looked like he was trying to get into a program,” she said. 

FEATURED IMAGE: An assortment of photos that were on display during Forest Fraser’s funeral. (Lizz Giordano/Crosscut)

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