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She helped an evicted medical marijuana user get help — then she got fired

Just hours from his eviction, having nowhere but a homeless shelter to go, 78-year-old John Flickner turned to Deb Fuszara for help.

The service coordinator's job was to help solve problems for residents like Flickner at Niagara Towers. She tried to find him a new place to live, without success.

"I said, 'Is there anything else I could do for you?' " Fuszara recalled. "And he said, 'Well, I would like to contact the news.' So in my head I thought, and I said these words to him, just about: 'Great idea, John. You know, when the media gets your story, sometimes you get help, and you need some help.' "

She called The Buffalo News, spoke briefly to an editor and then handed the phone to Flickner, who explained how his medical marijuana use got him evicted from the government-subsidized apartment building in Niagara Falls.

Indeed, after The Buffalo News ran a story about how Flickner spent several nights in a shelter, the ensuing public backlash prompted the Niagara Towers owner to let him back in his apartment.

He got the help he needed.

And Fuszara?

She got fired.

LHP Capital of Knoxville, Tenn., the owner of Niagara Towers, complained Fuszara "brought negative attention" to its property by making the call.

Fuszara, 63, was not an LHP employee. She worked for South Carolina-based NHE Inc., a subcontractor that provides service coordinators for tenants at Niagara Towers, a  201-unit apartment building on Cedar Avenue, and other LHP buildings.

LHP asked NHE to fire Fuszara, and NHE did so.

"This shows me a real dark side of how human services, when corporate gets involved, it's not about humanity any more, it's about the dollars," Fuszara said. "I totally get that, it's business, but it's not right, considering that my role was to advocate and self-advocate for someone."

'Negative attention'

If Flickner is grateful for Fuszara's help, he's unable to say so publicly. The agreement Flickner signed in order to return to his apartment included a provision that forbids him from speaking to the media anymore about his situation, said Kevin M. Quinn, an attorney with the Center for Elder Law and Justice in Buffalo who represented Flickner.

When LHP rescinded its eviction decision, it released a statement saying, "The eviction of Mr. Flickner is not a reflection of who we are or our resident service values."

LHP isn't saying anything about Fuszara, and neither is NHE.

But there's no attempt to conceal the reason for her firing. The separation document, which Fuszara provided to The News, is plain as day:

"Employee contacted the news media and brought negative attention to an LHP managed property where employee worked. (Niagara Towers) Employee failed to notify and consult with Supervisor and or Quality Assurance for recommendation and guidance before acting. At the request of LHP employee to be terminated," the form says.

Fuszara's job description required her to, among many other things, "advise residents and families of community resources, services and service options."

Her job also required her to report any lease violations to the management and "ensure confidentiality of resident files."

Fuszara's firing notice was signed by Vince Viet Nguyen, whom Fuszara described as her supervisor. He works in Washington State.

By email, Nguyen declined to comment on Fuszara's firing.

He's not the only one who declined to discuss what happened to her.

"Our chairman would have to respond to that. I am not able to respond," LHP President Cristy Lockwood said when asked about Fuszara's firing.

LHP executives who did not respond to voicemails Monday were Chairman Phil Lawson and CEO Carey Parker. LHP's media spokeswoman Amy Styles also did not respond.

NHE executives who did not respond were President Taylor Davis, Human Resources Director Caroline Calder and Vice President for Operations Pat Fountain.

How did the companies know Fuszara called The News?

Simple. She told LHP's local managers at Niagara Towers.

"It was an immediate crisis," she said. "They expected me to contact them for permission first. I didn't even think about it, and I contacted them immediately after (calling The News). They told me I made an error and they would have told me not to call."

Fuszara said she was "rattled," but the on-site managers told her she wouldn't lose her job over it. Fuszara said she talked to her own NHE supervisor, who told her the same thing.

"They told me it was an error the first day," she said. "The next day it was 'gross negligence' and I was suspended, unpaid, because they talked to LHP," Fuszara said. "I asked how it went from an error to gross negligence. They said because I made a poor judgment, that out of my own mouth I admitted I called the press. I said, 'Well, he (Flickner) asked, and I'm supposed to help them self-advocate.' "

'Just wanted to help'

LHP went to court seeking to evict Flickner after medical marijuana was discovered during a June 11 inspection of his apartment.

Flickner, who uses a motorized wheelchair to get around, obtained the medical marijuana through a doctor in Canada. Niagara Towers management called Niagara Falls police, who confiscated the pot but did not arrest Flickner. Instead, they urged him to obtain a New York State medical marijuana card, which he did. An Erie County doctor prescribed a marijuana inhaler that creates no smoke, and he's been using that ever since.  Flickner has undergone four surgeries for spinal and hip fractures in the wake of a 1968 skydiving accident. He has five fused vertebrae and suffers muscle spasms that sometimes make it difficult for him to breathe. He said marijuana relaxes his muscles.

Niagara Falls City Judge Danielle M. Restaino signed an eviction notice Nov. 28 allowing Niagara Towers to tape a 72-hour warning notice on the door of the 78-year-old Flickner's apartment on Nov. 30.

He spent three hours at the Niagara County Social Services Department office in Niagara Falls on Dec. 3, trying to obtain an emergency housing voucher. But he didn't get it that day.

Fuszara tried to help Flickner the next day.

"I spent the morning trying to get this voucher for John," Fuszara said. "We weren't getting anywhere, and the time was getting short."

That led to Flickner's idea to call The News.

"I just wanted to help this guy," Fuszara said. "He was going to be out in the cold. The whole thing ended up where John didn't get any help for the rest of the day, because I was cut off from helping him."

The voucher eventually was issued, but Flickner didn't receive it until after he had already been evicted and moved to the shelter.

County Social Services Commissioner Anthony J. Restaino said if the housing voucher had been issued Dec. 3, Flickner probably would have ended up in the homeless shelter anyway, although with an admission slip from the county.

"We could have found him temporary shelter, which probably would have been Community Missions," said Anthony Restaino, who is the evicting judge's uncle.

Through the efforts of Community Missions Executive Director Robyn L. Krueger, Flickner, who sat in the Niagara Towers lobby for more than five hours on a 28-degree day, was admitted for a night to the Niagara Gospel Rescue Mission.

Flickner eventually went to Community Missions' Niagara Falls shelter on Dec. 6, and stayed there for a week until moving back into Niagara Towers Dec. 13.

LHP gave Flickner a waiver from its zero-tolerance drug policy as long as he maintains his medical prescription for the marijuana inhaler.

Fuszara said her former employer treated her unjustly.

"The corporate reputation rose above the need, in my opinion," Fuszara said. "I loved that job. Good work. Hard work, but very good work. I was going to retire from there. I had about five years to go before I'd be ready."

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