Play To Stay 

Homeless advocacy group alleges sexual harassment at a service provider.

In the fall of 2011, Lolita Baker was staying in a local homeless shelter at night and spending her days at the Beers Van Gogh Center of Excellence on Madison, where she received mental-health services. But Baker chose to quit attending support groups at the center after employee Hervelle Williams allegedly sent her a cell phone picture of his penis.

"I stopped going there because I couldn't handle his attention," Baker said. "That was my place to go every day until time to go back to the shelter. But once he did that, I was just outside every day in the cold. I didn't have anywhere else to go."

The Beers Van Gogh Center offers housing, support, and Medicaid services to people with severe mental illnesses.

Baker filed a formal complaint, and Williams was investigated. But the Tennessee Mental Health Consumer's Association (TMHCA), the Nashville agency that runs the Memphis center, chose not to terminate him.

Since then, more and more women and men have come forward with complaints of alleged sexual harassment and assault stemming from Williams.

Last Thursday, H.O.P.E. (Homeless Organizing for Power and Equality), an advocacy group made up of homeless and formerly homeless members and run under the Mid-South Peace & Justice Center's umbrella, launched a weekly protest campaign against the Beers Van Gogh Center.

H.O.P.E. will protest the center every Thursday at noon, chanting phrases like "Do not grope. We are H.O.P.E." and holding signs that read "Play To Stay Is Not Okay" or "We Condemn Sexual Harassment," until TMHCA addresses their concerns.

One former Beers Van Gogh employee, who asked to remain anonymous, said Williams sexually harassed her on multiple occasions.

"One day, I couldn't get a cabinet open, so I asked him to open it. He grabbed me and kissed me. Another time, I was going into the kitchen, and he walked up behind me and put a hand on my right buttock and a hand on my left breast," she said.

Another former employee, Tracy Curry, who is male, didn't personally experience harassment from Williams. But he obtained video of an alleged assault on a homeless client by a man he identified as Williams. Curry shared this video with the Flyer. It shows two male employees shoving another man out of the front door and both men following him outside and beating him with their fists.

"It was just like Rodney King with no sticks," said Curry, who has been advocating on the homeless client's behalf.

Another former client, Ronald Kent, alleges Williams called him "a punk-ass bitch" and shoved him after Kent returned from lunch to retrieve his bags that were left at the center.

"TMHCA has in place processes and procedures for accountability and oversight of its staff and its residents and policies for reporting and investigating complaints," said Anthony Fox, executive director of TMHCA. "I will not fire someone based on allegations of claims that have not been reported to TMHCA and properly investigated. If [the Mid-South Peace & Justice Center] presents credible evidence of wrongdoing, then I will investigate it pursuant to TMHCA policy."

Members of the Peace & Justice Center and H.O.P.E. have a meeting scheduled with Fox this week.

Fox said he isn't pleased about the planned weekly protests: "I am concerned about the effects that protest will have on the people we serve. A protest in front of anyone's home is disturbing, but for the individuals we serve, it is especially stressful. I am hopeful that [the Peace & Justice Center] will see the benefit in communicating its concerns with us through meaningful dialogue and that it will refrain from disrupting the environment of the residents and constituents at the center."

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