When the backers of a local Vincent House received a $250,000 state grant last spring, they had a definite plan for the money:
Start construction on the facility, which is designed to provide programs for mentally ill residents that mirror those available at the original Vincent House in Largo.
But soon after the funds arrived in July, it became clear that spending it was not possible. The money can't be used to build the local version of a Vincent House — to be called Vincent Academy — just to operate it.
"We can't use it for those purposes," said state Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, who helped secure the money during last spring's legislative session.
"But we have language so we can use it for services."
Simpson and David Lambert, the board chairman of the local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said they learned about this situation from Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger, whose office received the grant and who is a founding board member of the original Pinellas County-based operation in 2001.
Dillinger said the restrictions in use came when the funding was switched to his office from its original destination, the state Department of Children and Families.
But the news isn't all bad, Lambert and Simpson said: Because the money can't be used for construction, it will instead be available to fast-track services.
"This is a blessing in disguise," Lambert said.
At a December meeting, the NAMI board agreed to rent temporary office space for Vincent Academy on U.S. 19. Some of the state money will pay to start assembling a staff for the fledgling local organization, which will be affiliated with the original, but operated separately, to serve residents of Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties.
And beginning in February, the grant will pay for residents to travel to the original Vincent House to access services.
The facility serves as a refuge for residents suffering from depression, schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. It offers support groups, counseling and teaches work skills with the goal of helping mentally ill residents return to or enter the labor force.
Vincent House founders Elliott and Diane Steele came out of retirement to guide the formation of the local operation.
"They are looking at renting a home in Hernando County to get it off the ground," Lambert said.
The other good news, Simpson said: He and state Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, a Spring Hill Republican, are committed to securing $1 million during this year's legislative session to start building the facility, planned for a 7.7-acre site on Forest Oaks Boulevard previously donated by Hernando County.
The state construction funds will be matched with at least $700,000 in private local money, the raising of which has strong momentum, Lambert said.
About $100,000 has already been raised, he said, not including in-kind donations from a Tampa architect and Coastal Engineering Associates of Brooksville. Obviously, Lambert said, more contributions are necessary.
"We need donors," Lambert said.
Simpson said he also hopes to secure additional state money in future years to operate the facility.
One reason for the support, Lambert said, is the widespread recognition that the facility is needed in Hernando.
Per-capita spending on services for mentally ill residents in the county ranks near the bottom of Florida counties, and the rate of spending on such services by the state is among the lowest in the country, he said.
"The bottom line is that this is desperately needed by the families in Pasco and Hernando counties," he said.
To see their struggles, he said, "is just tragic," while witnessing the progress made by clients of the original Vincent House shows how much a local facility can help.
"I'll tell you what, it warms your heart," he said.
Contact Dan DeWitt at [email protected]; follow @ddewitttimes.