ST. PETERSBURG — The painters had been brought in. Tiles repaired. An exterminator hired.
Hilcrest Retirement Residence, closed by emergency order because of an invasion of bedbugs that had left bite marks and scabs on its mentally ill residents and blood on sheets, pillows and walls, was preparing to reopen.
Or so owner Ilfrenise Charlemagne thought.
Last week, the Agency for Health Care Administration, which regulates the state's 36,000 health care facilities, began action to revoke Hilcrest's license and impose a $29,500 fine.
The ALF "failed to maintain and provide a safe and decent living environment, free from abuse and neglect'' for six of 13 residents sampled in the 32-bed facility, according to AHCA's eight-count complaint.
AHCA isn't the only state agency that found problems with Hilcrest, which occupies a three-story building with a large shaded porch at 220 Fifth Ave. N.
The Department of Elder Affairs' Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program, which works to ensure residents' rights, has been trying to track down the belongings of many of the 27 Hilcrest residents sent to new ALFs after the facility was closed abruptly on May 18.
"The residents reported that they are still missing some of their personal property, clothing, identification and other personal property," said Natalie Clanzy, district manager for the ombudsman program.
"We attempted to coordinate with the Hilcrest administration to get it back. We unfortunately were told that there was no more property for those residents. So it's very disappointing that we have to tell the residents it is gone.''
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Barbara Brown, 61, remembers what happened the day she had to leave Hilcrest.
"They said leave everything and they'll get everything to you. They kept rushing us out,'' she recalled, adding that she is missing her earrings, necklaces, a gold cross and "a lot of slacks and tops."
It was nice of her new ALF, Cozy Care Manor, at 302 11th Ave. NE, to buy her new clothes, she said, "But I want my things back. My nightgowns."
Ramon Ortiz, 55, also was moved to Cozy Care Manor. He's lost his black file cabinet.
"My sister gave it to me for Christmas,'' he said.
In the file cabinet were underwear, socks, a radio, winter jacket, winter outfit and prescription glasses, he said.
His brother, Angel Ortiz, a retiree who lives in Spring Hill and is Ramon's legal guardian, is upset.
"Had somebody told me, I would have gone down and picked up the stuff for him, but Ramon told me that he was going to get his stuff, that somebody was going to bring it to him,'' he said.
There may be an answer to where some of the property went. Clanzy discovered a Dumpster at the back of Hilcrest overflowing with what she said appeared to be residents' belongings.
"I saw family pictures from a photo album, we saw Bibles, we saw personal clothing, some of it was in garbage bags, some of it was loose. We saw Christmas decorations, we saw greeting cards people had received from family,'' she said.
"We had a resident tell us he hoped to get back his Christmas decorations. They meant the world to him.''
Clanzy delivered the Christmas decorations — encased in large Ziploc bags — to the man last Tuesday.
"That's mine,'' he said quietly.
The ALFs that accepted Hilcrest residents didn't want the bedbug infestation spreading. Veronica Martin, administrator of Cozy Care Manor, which is licensed for 11 residents, took in six from Hilcrest.
"Basically, prior to the residents coming to the facility, they were taken to another location where they were thoroughly cleaned,'' Martin said.
The clothes they wore were thrown out and new outfits provided, she said. The men and women from Hilcrest had nothing else. "They were told not to take any items with them,'' she said.
Charlemagne, the owner of Hilcrest, denied throwing out her former residents' property. The Dumpster in the alley behind the building, piled high with black trash bags spilling their contents, held nothing from Hilcrest, she said.
Charlemagne said everyone took their property, except for two people and she was keeping it for them. Meanwhile, inside the building, painters were busy. She was hoping to reopen in a couple of weeks.
"I love my people. I love what I'm doing. I'm hoping to do a good cleanup and make them come in fresh. Most of the residents want to come back. They call me every day,'' she said.
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Angel Ortiz is glad his brother is no longer there.
"I did not like the building. I thought that it did need better care,'' he said, adding that there had been no central heat and residents used space heaters.
"I don't think I ever saw a competent person giving out the medication. It was always another resident who lived there, especially on weekends. … Sometimes, there was no one in the ALF and the ALF was left with a resident in charge."
The Spring Hill man said his brother had told him about the bedbugs late last year. He and his sisters offered to buy a new mattress for Ramon, but were told that the facility had plans to replace mattresses "down the road.''
AHCA said Hilcrest's troubles went beyond rampaging bedbugs. The agency's complaint said the facility was also "heavily infested … with live roaches and termites,'' was unsanitary, stingy with meals and a fire hazard.
Hilcrest has 21 days to ask for a hearing contesting the complaint, or face a final order that would shut it down for good.
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2283.