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Home for disabled fights for survival

For decades, Charlottetown Manor has provided a no-frills home to thousands of people wrestling with mental and physical ailments, drug addictions and the trauma brought on by war.

Now, besieged by financial problems and a brewing legal battle, it's fighting to survive.

The aging east Charlotte hotel relies heavily on public money to house about 200 people. Many of them, owners say, might otherwise be homeless or in jail.

Among the challenges confronting the Manor:

Mecklenburg Open Door, a now-disbanded mental health contractor, has failed to pay the Manor more than $200,000 in past-due rent for 75 clients housed there. A 16-bed mental health center that Open Door had planned to build at the Manor never proceeded past demolition. That has left much of the main building unusable.

Monarch, the nonprofit chosen to take over many of Open Door's programs, says it's unsure whether it will continue to house the 75 residents there. Says Monarch CEO Peggy Terhune: "We're evaluating whether this is the best place or if there's a better place."

Thousands of dollars appear to have been embezzled from the business. A police report filed this summer contends that $30,000 was stolen by an unnamed employee. Dr. George Raad, one of the Manor's co-owners, says he's worried much more is missing.

Manor founder and co-owner Mary Rudolph says she fired the embezzlement suspect.

But that, Raad contends, is not enough to keep the Manor solvent. On Wednesday, Raad filed a lawsuit seeking a court-appointed receiver to run the facility. In the lawsuit, he accuses Rudolph of taking money from the business without authorization and attempting to conceal the embezzlement - claims she denies.

Earlier this month, Raad and his attorney called for a police escort as they seized documents from Manor offices. They hope the documents will help prove, among other things, how much was embezzled.

"Let me tell you, we're in a real crisis," said Raad, a Charlotte family practitioner. "... I'm truly concerned it's in jeopardy of being closed down."

Rudolph, meanwhile, has been negotiating to buy Raad's interest in the property. She says it's her mission to keep the place afloat.

"God put me in business 38 years ago because these people need me," Rudolph said recently as she watched residents relaxing in the Manor's weed-filled courtyard. "... It's these people's home. And I don't want to see them lose it."

They call her 'Mama'

The business got its start with a man who thought his wife could use a project to occupy her time. In 1973, the real estate firm where Harry Rudolph worked was looking for someone to manage a 60-unit hotel on Wilkinson Boulevard. As Mary Rudolph recalls, her husband challenged her to run the business - and figure out how to make money with it.

"It never did make money," says Rudolph, now 76.

Instead, the spirited stay-at-home mother transformed it into a place where the elderly and disabled could live independently.

Rudolph says she routinely worked 12-hour days and grew close to the residents, many of whom called her "Mama." A few even asked to have their ashes buried with her after they died - a request she says she plans to honor.

Rudolph says the business became a "family affair." As teenagers, her five children each lent a hand, and some family members later took on administrative jobs.

In 1992, Rudolph's late husband invited Raad to come on as an investor when the Manor moved to a larger site on Kings Drive. Ten years later, the Manor moved again, this time to its current location - a former Holiday Inn along East Independence Boulevard.

Today, that 43-year-old complex is showing its age.

In the main building, a cracked ceiling has been propped up to prevent its collapse. A roof truss is warped. A second-story balcony is off-limits to residents because it's structurally unsound. Roofs are in need of repair.

Jeff Greene, who is working as a financial consultant for Raad, estimates it would take $200,000 to bring the Manor up to "acceptable standards."

'A sense of direction'

Despite the challenges, those who run the Manor say they've helped countless residents find their way.

Several years ago, Michael Smalls was homeless and addicted to crack and alcohol. In 2008, the Army veteran moved into a room at the Manor and later began working in the facility's kitchen.

Now 52, he spends his spare time pursuing a degree in restaurant and hotel management. His goal is to run his own bed-and-breakfast.

"What's different is how I feel about myself," said Smalls, who in September was able to move into his own Charlotte apartment. "It's given me a sense of direction I haven't had in a long time."

For some, the Manor has become a long-term home.

Elmer Buckson was working with a paving crew in Mount Holly about 20 years ago when he fell into a dump truck full of hot asphalt. He lost both legs.

He has lived at the Manor for 15 years and says he appreciates the freedom it provides. He has learned to cook and to shower without help. To supplement his income, he sells cigarettes to other residents.

"(The Manor) helped me to learn I was more independent than I thought I was," said Buckson, now 61.

But residents can get the help they need, owners say. The 35-member staff serves three meals daily, takes residents on shopping trips, provides housekeeping and offers help with medications.

To pay the rent, many residents rely on government help, including federal and state funds intended to help veterans and the mentally ill. Others rely on disability checks from Social Security or workers' compensation payments.

The Manor also received money directly from Mecklenburg Open Door, which in turn got most of its funding from federal, state and local governments.

'Independent living center'

If not for a place like the Manor, some residents might live far tougher lives, Rudolph says. In 2008, the Manor became home to the county's jail-diversion program, which provides treatment and housing to some low-risk inmates who are mentally ill.

The Manor is called an "independent living center" - a designation that has allowed it to avoid most oversight from regulators. Unlike nursing homes and assisted living centers, it's not licensed by the state or the county Department of Social Services.

Rudolph says her people don't need a nursing home. "They need a home," she says. "H-O-M-E."

Keeping that home open has been no small challenge.

The Manor is pleading with the county to provide three months in back rent owed by Open Door, Raad says. County officials say that's not their responsibility.

"Since Mecklenburg County does not have a contractual agreement with Charlottetown Manor, unfortunately the only course of action is for them to seek payment from Mecklenburg Open Door," county General Manager Michelle Lancaster said in a statement.

The county mental health department, which was responsible for funding and monitoring Open Door, recently severed its relationship with the nonprofit following a critical report by a federal housing agency and allegations of misspending by Ed Payton, Open Door's former executive director.

Open Door had been planning to renovate space at the Manor to build a 16-bed crisis center. But after spending more than $500,000, it had little to show for the project but two demolished conference rooms. Now, plans for the center are in limbo, and county officials say it's unclear where and when it will be built.

Friction between the Manor's owners, meanwhile, has begun to affect operations. The owners have been unable to agree on lease terms for the people Monarch currently houses there, Monarch's Terhune said.

Rudolph says she has had to put nearly $400,000 of her own money into the Manor this year. Cindy Wilcox, one of her daughters, credits Rudolph with keeping the business alive.

"We're struggling financially," says Wilcox, an administrator at the Manor. "And we need some stability we don't have right now."

On that much, the owners can agree. Says Raad: "We're trying to right the ship."

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