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State yanks funding for troubled nonprofit's programs that serve the poor

ANITA LEE/SUN HERALD 
 Willie Mae Clark, 56, of Gulfport has depended on the Gulf Coast Community Action Agency for help paying her utility bills. The disabled woman was at the office Wednesday because her assistance had not come through.
ANITA LEE/SUN HERALD Willie Mae Clark, 56, of Gulfport has depended on the Gulf Coast Community Action Agency for help paying her utility bills. The disabled woman was at the office Wednesday because her assistance had not come through.

Operations are winding down at the troubled Gulf Coast Community Action Agency, a nonprofit organization that has served the poor for 46 years and managed Harrison County's Head Start program.

The state is following the federal government's lead in removing grant money from GCCAA. The federal Administration for Children & Families recently removed Head Start from GCCAA and put it under interim management.

Now, the Mississippi Department of Human Services is ending GCCAA's administration of programs that assist the needy with utility bills, home weatherization, emergency housing and services that help residents become self-sufficient, said Gulfport attorney Dean Holleman, who is advising the agency during the transition.

With the loss of the state programs, GCCAA will have little to no funding to continue operating. Holleman said "ineffective leadership" on the GCCAA staff contributed to the agency's problems.

But four relatively new board members who have resigned in recent months said the problem lies with the Board of Directors, its failure to follow bylaws and the tendency of several members to micro-manage the staff.

Not counting Head Start, the agency has about 20 employees. It serves residents of Harrison, Hancock, Stone, George and Greene counties.

Tina Ruffin, director of the Community Services Division of DHS, would not discuss the removal of GCCAA's funding, saying the agency is working on a news release. Holleman said on Jan. 1 DHS should have a new entity to manage the programs being removed from GCCAA.

"We don't know who that's going to be yet," he said.

According to GCCAA's latest nonprofit tax form available, for the year 2013, the agency received about $3 million in federal grants through DHS. Most of the funding helped with utility bills, with more than 4,015 residents assisted, the form said. The agency received more than $9 million a year for Head Start in Harrison County, which operates out of seven centers.

Holleman said all the agency's assets, including real estate and leases, must be inventoried. The assets belonging to GCCAA must continue to be used for charitable purposes, he said, possibly by a new or different nonprofit organization.

The county owns the building on 24th Street in Gulfport that houses GCCAA's administrative offices.

Two Gulfport residents were in the offices around 12:30 p.m. Tuesday to find out why GCCAA had not paid their utility bills as promised. Both women said they are disabled.

One of the women, Willie Mae Clark, said she has in the past been able to depend on GCCAA for assistance with her power bill, but it hasn't been paid since September or October.

"They started giving me the runaround," Clark, 56, said after her visit to the office. "You can't get your bill paid."

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