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Tracking your donations: Undercover video raises serious questions about Indiana homeless shelter

An Indiana homeless shelter is trying to explain unsafe living conditions, tons of donated items being dumped or burned, and donated food going to the family, friends and pets of charity leaders.

MARION, Ind. (WTHR) — An Indiana homeless shelter is trying to explain what 13 Investigates caught on camera during a 3-month investigation: unsafe living conditions inside the facility, tons of donated items being dumped or burned, and donated food intended for the needy instead being diverted to the family, friends and pets of charity leaders.

The findings have shocked many longtime supporters of the Grant County Rescue Mission, who are calling for further investigation and a leadership shakeup at the charity.

"I am so disappointed. That's so unfair," said Kiley Bone, who broke into tears after watching WTHR's undercover video. The young mother recently donated over a dozen bags of used clothes to the homeless shelter. "Anyone who sees that [video] will say ‘That's not right.' People need to know about this."

Mounds and mounds of donations

Grant County Rescue Mission

The Grant County Rescue Mission was founded in 1985 to serve a growing homeless population in and around Marion, Indiana. The private, not-for-profit organization provides free shelter and meals to homeless residents in Grant County. The Christian-based charity has separate shelters for men and women, a house to accommodate a homeless family, and low-rent apartments to assist those in need.

"It's the only place in town that does three meals a day, seven days a week, and never closes," said Rev. Tom Ballard, the charity's executive director. "Last year we served a little over 70,000 meals. We're all about just helping people get back on track and seeing their lives changed, and we believe that's done through the gospel of Jesus Christ."

“We're all about just helping people get back on track and seeing their lives changed”

Ballard says the mission receives no government funding. It does, however, get public support worth millions of dollars. Local companies and organizations donate truckloads of food and supplies, and residents donate old clothes, furniture and household items they don't need anymore. Those donated items are sold at the rescue mission's thrift stores to help pay for the charity's operating expenses and staff salaries -- and to support the homeless.

"We get mounds and mounds of donations that come in," Ballard told WTHR. "We have a lot of community support: people who give to the rescue mission to help us do what we do."

But most donors do not realize what's been happening inside the homeless shelter. They do not know where truckloads of donations and thousands of pounds of food have been going. They are unaware of conditions inside the rescue mission that have caught the attention of local and state inspectors.

"If only someone knew"

“We just want someone to answer for the way things are”

WTHR's investigation began with a single tip. The anonymous e-mail, sent from "a group of concerned citizens in Marion, Indiana," claimed improprieties at the charity, including the misappropriation of donations and terrible conditions inside the shelter.

13 Investigates then spent several weeks talking with current and former GCRM residents. Each of the residents who agreed to speak with WTHR said the e-mailed allegations were true. All of them spoke to Eyewitness News on the condition of anonymity, expressing fear of being kicked out of the rescue mission or being told they can never return.

"I've had a hard time keeping a job and I have no other place to stay," said one of the homeless residents.

"Two days apart, I got laid off from work and my wife passed away, so I just hit bottom," explained another.

"I was just down on my luck and didn't want to bother my family. I was drinking a lot," a third resident admitted.

Their reasons for arriving at the Grant County Rescue Mission are all a little different. But what they found when they arrived was the same.

"Nasty." "Disgusting." "Pitiful." "Shameful." "A nightmare." Those are just some of the words they use to describe the conditions.

"I appreciate we have a place to stay, a bed to sleep in and food," one of the residents said. "We're not being ungrateful. We just want someone to answer for the way things are, and people need to be aware where their donations are going. If only someone knew, I think things would get better."

His hunch was right.

At the same time that Eyewitness News received a tip, the local health department got an anonymous complaint, too.

A nightmare for residents was about to become a nightmare for health inspectors.

A terrible infestation

“The donations aren't even good anymore because they are so infested”

"What we found upstairs was just unreal," said Peggy Bradley, an environmental health specialist at the Grant County Health Department. "I remember walking in and thinking ‘Oh, I just can't believe it.' I couldn't wrap my mind around what I was actually seeing."

Her health department co-worker, Brandy Swanner, felt overwhelmed, as well.

"Yeah, I said ‘Wow! How are we ever gonna get this cleaned up?' Where do you even start with this big of a mess?" she recalls.

The inspectors found filthy conditions, growing mold, and leaking pipes – some broken and showing what inspectors believe to be exposed asbestos. Several toilets had no seats. Showers had no handles and large sections of missing floor tiles.

But the biggest concern inspectors found at the charity's Gallatin Street shelter and headquarters building in downtown Marion was the entire second floor overrun by a massive stockpile of donations.

Undercover video obtained by 13 Investigates shows the unsorted bags of and boxes of donations were piled from floor to ceiling.

"I was astonished at how much stuff there was that was basically just sitting around. Basically nothing was being done with it," explained Swanner. "It had been there for quite a number of years."

Inside the huge piles, inspectors found dead mice, live mice and decaying mouse carcasses. Donated clothing and food were stored together. All of it was covered in droppings and urine from the rodents -- and from several cats the mission had brought in to catch them.

"I got a couple of cats, and I said ‘Let's put some cats up there to help us get rid of the mice,'" explained Ballard. "That was a bad move on my part to put a couple of cats up there … I'm not a cat guy. I'm a dog guy. I've got five Rottweilers. So I didn't realize the problems we'd have from the cats."

"The clothing smelled terrible," said Bradley.

"With piles and piles of clothing and with the mice problem, now we have condominiums for the mice," added Swanner. "At this point, the donations aren't even good anymore because they are so infested. It's a big safety issue. Mice carry a number of diseases, so anytime we have an infestation – especially anywhere close to where food is being stored and used – it's a concern."

The inspectors expressed concern not only about the health threat inside the rescue mission, but also about the wasted good will of the community.

Courtesy of Grant County Health Department.

"I donate a lot of stuff to the mission, and it's kind of disheartening to see," Swanner said. "I feel when I donate I'm helping somebody out who's less fortunate, and then come to find out … that stuff just piled up on the second floor and was forgotten about."

Bradley, who also donates to the charity, agreed. "It was just horrible to walk in and see that all the stuff people had donated just kept getting tossed on top of the pile. There's a lot of people here who could use that," she said.

Discovering a mountain of rodent-infested donations was just the beginning. Inspectors found the mission was also infested with something else.

"Basically being eaten alive"

“I wouldn't want my dog to sleep in that area, let alone a human being”

As Bradley and Swanner made their way up to the third floor of the rescue mission, they found the sleeping area for homeless residents was also a sleeping area for countless bedbugs.

"The bedbugs were just lined up. It was a really major infestation," Bradley told Eyewitness News.

"We saw actual live bedbugs, skins from bedbugs, droppings from bedbugs with dried blood they had been defecating," Swanner said.

The inspectors saw so many bedbugs, they called in specialists from the Indiana State Department of Health for backup.

An inspection report says the state's foremost bedbug expert found "live bedbugs in every bunk," with bedbugs located in plain sight on mattresses and bedding, and also hiding within the spring holes of the metal bunk bed frames and in the folds of mattress covers.

"These guys are getting chewed on on a nightly basis, and I can't imagine the mental turmoil you're going through when you lay down at night and you're trying to sleep, knowing that you're basically being eaten alive," Swanner told WTHR. "I wouldn't want my dog to sleep in that area, let alone a human being."

Residents who talked with 13 Investigates all confirmed they had been bitten by bedbugs while living at the rescue mission and had complained to charity management to no avail.

During their visit, state health inspectors also noted serious fire hazards, which later resulted in another inspection and formal violations found by the Indiana Department of Homeland Security.

Local and state health inspectors ordered a massive cleanup of the entire building, including those areas infested with mice and bedbugs.

"Based on the general condition of the piles and the rodent/cat urine odor, the affected piles should be completely removed from the building," wrote Michael Mettler, director of the Indiana State Department of Health's Environmental Public Health Division.

"These issues need to be corrected immediately. You and your tenants may be exposed to health problems if these issues are not addressed promptly," Swanner told rescue mission leaders in her report.

Dumped and burned

Undercover video shows donations being taken to a burn pile.

The charity responded with a massive cleanup that's taken weeks to complete. Mission staff instructed homeless residents to load piles of contaminated donations into GCRM trucks.

"I picked up a box and there was like 20 mice jumping out of it while I was trying to carry it. It was all so bad," said one of the residents who participated in the March purge.

Undercover video shows the truckloads of contaminated donations from the rescue mission were taken directly to a landfill in Wabash. 13 Investigates saw trucks from GCRM drive seven miles away from the rescue mission to dump more donations in a large field that sits behind a home. A few days later, the large piles of donations in that field were burned.

[Note: WTHR has learned the home and the field belong to Ballard's mother who, according to the charity's executive director, receives $1200 per year from the rescue mission for allowing items to be dumped and burned on her property. In early March, the Grant County Health Department mailed a letter instructing Mrs. Ballard to "discontinue the open burning immediately." The abatement order explained that open burning is a violation of state law.]

Seeing truckloads of individual donations thrown away and burned is a tough sight for many donors.

"That hurts," said Bone. "I donate because I want to help however I can. My purpose is to make sure somebody else can have something. Seeing that is upsetting because it's not something I would expect from the mission."

It's also difficult to watch for the homeless men and women who live and work at the charity.

"I saw them throw cases and cases and cases of Similac away. Diapers, toys that they burnt instead of giving them to the kids. Two thousand boxes of cereal that the mice got into because it sit there and sit there and sit there. Why not give it away?" wondered one of the residents.

"It never should have gotten to that point," said another resident. "When it was donated, it should have been sorted out and put in its right place and taken to the stores – not put upstairs for years on end and forgotten about. That's not what people donate for."

Before and after

Last week, Ballard allowed 13 Investigates to tour the Grant County Rescue Mission to see the progress the organization has made since health inspectors ordered a cleanup.

"When they came in here, it caught us with our guard down. We had let areas go into a shape they shouldn't have been," Ballard said, leading us down a bleach-scented hallway.

Grant County Rescue Mission’s storage room was cleaned and organized before 13 Investigates toured the facility.

After climbing a stairwell to the second floor, the scope of the cleanup project became more clear. The mission's large storage area now sits practically empty. Six weeks earlier, its floor tiles were buried under piles of mouse-infested donations with no room to walk. It is an impressive transformation.

"We went to work and got all of our men up here and got it cleared out," Ballard said. "Sometimes things get out of control and you gotta put it back, and that's what we did."

Filthy toilets are now clean.

Broken showers are repaired.

A suspected asbestos-exposed pipe has not been contained, but Ballard says the health department didn't mention anything about that during a recent inspection.

Bed bug traps are seen at the base of beds in the sleeping area.

We then get to see the sleeping room lined with army-style bunkbeds. Under every leg of every bed is a moat-style insect trap to prevent bedbugs from crawling from one bed to another. We spot two bedbugs in one of the traps – a sign that either the problem continues or the solution is working. Or perhaps both.

With advice and instructions from the state health department – and monthly treatments from a pest control company -- Ballard insists the charity's bedbug attack plan has been a huge success.

"When you have people coming in and out all the time, you're always fighting a challenge with bedbugs … but now we know what we were doing wrong, and we're better off for it," he said.

"Most of the major issues are fixed," Bradley told Eyewitness News after she re-inspected the facility. "They've done a lot, but there's still a lot that needs to be done. And I'm still not sure how things got so bad. That part is hard to explain."

Ballard didn't offer much of an explanation.

"That's something that just got past me," he said. "Someone comes in, as the board of health did, and brought it to our attention, and so we can get that corrected."

But current and former mission residents wonder why it took an order from health inspectors to take action.

“That's my fault as leadership”

"We pointed out all these problems a bunch of times. Now they're wanting to do all this stuff to make it better where before it was like ‘Nah, no, it's OK. Those guys can live with it,'" said a former resident. "Maybe they just think ‘It's just some homeless guys. Who cares what their living conditions are?'"

WTHR pressed Ballard for more answers.

"Your office is right in this building… Why did it take the health department to find this stuff and bring it to your attention when you're here every day?" we asked the charity's executive.

"Yeah, it's just one of those things that just got past me," he repeated. "That's my fault as leadership."

More undercover video, more questions

Now there are more questions about leadership exposed by WTHR's undercover video.

Eyewitness News has been tracking shipments of food to the Grant County Rescue Mission, and not all of the food stays there.

Last month, 13 Investigates followed a truckload of donated food from a nearby Walmart Distribution Center. Rescue mission staff and homeless residents drove to the Walmart warehouse in Gas City to load the food into one of the charity's box trucks, then returned to the rescue mission to unload the boxes into the building.

Donations were unloaded at Grace Community Church.

About ten minutes later, as unloading continued, a pickup truck pulled alongside the larger truck. The man behind the wheel was Tom Mansbarger, president of the GCRM board of directors and head pastor at Grace Community Church, one of the largest churches in Grant County. As WTHR cameras were rolling, Mansbarger directed box after box – more than 40 in all – to be loaded into the pickup.

Once the truck was full, the pastor drove away, and Eyewitness News followed close behind. The destination: Grace Community Church. We watched as church employees and Mansbarger's family members combed through the boxes of food and beverages. They carried some into the church. They carried other boxes to their own vehicles and drove away.

Undercover cameras caught donations being unloaded at Tom Mansbarger's house.

And finally, we saw the pastor drive several of the boxes to his own home. He unloaded some of them into his garage. Then he and his wife carried the rest into their house.

Tom Mansbarger spoke to 13 Investigates.

He met with WTHR to explain what we captured on camera.

"People will believe what they want to believe," Mansbarger told 13 Investigates. "Somebody's looking for a story where there is none."

He explained his church "accepts" food from the rescue mission because there is way too much for the charity.

"If it's something we can use as a church … we'll do that," the pastor said. "The mission takes the things they feel they can use. The things they can't use, they take to the [mission thrift] stores to give away. I guess we're the last in line in the food chain if there's food they can't get rid of it."

Contrary to Mansbarger's comment, the pastor did not appear to be "last in line" to get the food, but rather took it directly off the delivery truck before it was unloaded to the rescue mission or offered to needy families who shop at the charity's thrift stores.

He pointed out some items, like ice cream, cannot go to the thrift stores and cannot be offered directly to the homeless. "How many homeless people have a freezer?" he asked.

But many of the items WTHR saw unloaded at the pastor's church and at his home were non-perishable items such as canned goods, soda and bottled water that need no refrigeration and have a long shelf life.

"Some of the food was taken by folks in the fellowship, and some of the bottled water came here. It will be used for the choir," Mansbarger explained. "Some of the bottled water that we took, I took over to my house, and the reason I took it to my house is because one of my projects is I furnish water for the choir room. That's just something that I do personally."

"This food is supposed to be feeding the homeless, and it's ending up in your garage and in your house. Why is that happening?" asked WTHR, prompting the following exchange:

MANSBARGER: "I don't know where you got the idea of feeding the homeless. We'll feed anybody. It's not just the homeless… For what I've personally taken, and I have taken things, you know..."

13 INVESTIGATES: "You and your family are eating some of that food?"

MANSBARGER: "Sure. Because it's there to take. If I thought I were doing something wrong, I would have never done it in the beginning."

13 INVESTIGATES: "You're the board president. Can you understand why some people might look at this and say 'This stuff should be going to the disadvantaged of the community and not the individuals who sit on the board of this organization?'"

MANSBARGER: "Ok, I can see that completely. I'm not saying I necessarily agree with it, but I understand what you're saying."

13 INVESTIGATES: "Do you see anything wrong with this situation at all?"

MANSBARGER: "Not until, if we see as a board we need to change something, we'll change it."

A matter of trust

“I would not believe he'd be taking that food for his own personal use”

"He sees nothing wrong with it? That's scary. That's just wrong," said Bradley, who viewed WTHR's video at the county health department. "That food was to go to people that needed it."

WTHR offered to show the undercover video at Mansbarger's home to the charity's executive director, but Ballard said he did not need to see it.

"You'd have to talk to Pastor Mansbarger about that," Ballard said. "I would not believe he'd be taking that food for his own personal use. He's a very respected pastor in this community. We give to him believing it is appropriately used, and we've never had a reason to doubt that."

Ballard said he authorizes excess food donations to the rescue mission to be sent to three churches in Marion: Grace Community Church, Sunnycrest United Methodist Church and Brookhaven Wesleyan Church.

"Those are churches that run food banks and they can distribute that food," Ballard told WTHR.

13 Investigates contacted each of the churches mentioned by Ballard to inquire about their food banks.

Brookhaven Wesleyan offers a weekly food pantry. The church told WTHR the mission occasionally receives food from the Grant County Rescue Mission, but most of its food comes from corporate donors and church members.

Sunnycrest United Methodist Church collects items for a food pantry offered once every 90 days. "To the best of our knowledge, [the mission] has not donated to our facility," a church representative told WTHR.

The longtime receptionist at Grace Community Church told Eyewitness News that Mansbarger's church does not have a food pantry. "We do try to help our own church members," she said.

"That kind of surprises me because [Mansbarger] takes a lot of food over there," said a rescue mission resident. "We've been doing that for years."

Employees at the Walmart Distribution Center said they are surprised to learn some of the food donated to GCRM is not going to the needy.

"We're under the impression that's going directly to feed the homeless of Grant County," said a Walmart manager, who requested anonymity because the employee is not authorized to speak on behalf of the company.

Food going to dogs and fish – not homeless people

13 Investigates saw donated pizzas being taken into the mission, but residents say they are rarely served pizza.

Eyewitness also watched staff at the rescue mission pick up dozens of pizzas donated from a local restaurant. Little Caesar's donates stacks of pizzas to the homeless shelter each week --- but mission residents say those pizzas rarely go to the homeless.

"Most of that pizza goes to Tom Ballard," a resident told 13 Investigates. "He'll say ‘Go into the kitchen, grab stacks of pizzas – as much as you can -- and put it in my car.' He takes it to his house."

Several other residents told WTHR they, too, saw stacks of pizzas being loaded into the executive director's personal vehicle.

Asked if the reports are true, Ballard confirmed they are accurate.

"We get a lot of pizzas, and when they sit in the freezer at the mission for a long time, they get freezer burned. So in that situation, I'll just take them home and give them to my dogs and my fish," Ballard explained, adding that Little Caesar's "is well aware" of what he does with the pizzas.

"That's absolutely not true. We were not aware of that," said Little Caesar's store manager Josh Patterson. "Everybody here is really surprised to hear that. There are so many other charities in town that can use donations."

WTHR asked Pastor Ballard about food intended for the homeless mission not going to the homeless.

"Yeah, I can see how that could look odd," he said. "Sometimes perception is wrong. I'm not taking food so others can't have it."

The director said he hopes Grant County residents will focus on the tremendous good accomplished by the rescue mission.

"Their donations really do go to help change lives. I think our donors trust us. I think there's a level of integrity that this rescue mission has," Ballard said. "You can question that now because of the things being seen and talked about here. The bottom line is: this is a rescue mission that's run by individuals who are flawed, and I'm one of them."

Other people see the bottom line differently.

"It's wrong and it's not fair," said Bone, whose confidence in the charity is now shaken. "I'm so glad people are going to know because they need to."

"Yes, what they're doing is wrong, and it's awful to think that's going on here in Grant County," agreed Bradley. "I'd like to see a different board of directors and I'd like it to be more transparent to the community."

Where's the money?

“It's an outrage that they're not reporting any in-kind donations to the IRS”

Transparency is not an area where the Grant County Rescue Mission excels.

Its tax forms show the organization has no conflict of interest policy prohibiting staff and board members from benefiting privately by using the charity's public donations.

And the rescue mission has not commissioned an independent financial audit in at least a decade, according to tax returns and Ballard.

During that time, an analysis by 13 Investigates reveals the Grant County Rescue Mission has received more than $7 million in public support. But information submitted to the IRS is spotty at best, according to one of the nation's most respected charity watchdogs.

"It's an outrage that they're not reporting any in-kind donations to the IRS. It looks like they're trying to hide something," said Daniel Borochoff, president of Chicago-based CharityWatch. "They're not saying they received any goods or gave out any goods. Their tax form is totally lacking and ridiculous because it doesn't reflect what's really happening in the organization. It's really shoddy and incomplete reporting."

Borochoff says some of the activity exposed by WTHR might draw the attention of the Internal Revenue Service if corporations are claiming tax deductions for food donations to the needy that are not truly going to help those in need.

"Board members taking any of this food for themselves – let alone their dogs and fish – is a bad practice, and the IRS would be concerned about this because companies are getting tax benefits on their donated items. If the donations aren't going where they're supposed to, it's ripping off the tax system. [Donated items] should be targeted first for the people with the greatest need. If a charity does not have a criteria and policies in place to determine who's most deserving, that's a problem."

Following investigations by WTHR and health inspectors, donors will presumably have higher expectations and more skepticism moving forward. But longtime supporters say the solution is not to stop donating to help the homeless, but rather to demand better leadership from the charity.

In the meantime, the Grant County Health Department says it will be keeping a much closer eye on the rescue mission with more frequent inspections.

"A lot of the people who stay there were afraid to say anything, worried about retaliation against them and getting kicked out," Swanner told WTHR. "It's really good that someone spoke up. I don't even want to think what it would still look like if they hadn't."

If you have information to share about the Grant County Rescue Mission or another charity, contact 13 Investigates reporter Bob Segall at bsegall@wthr.com.