SEMINOLE HEIGHTS — Sister Anne Dougherty was counseling AIDS patients at St. Joseph's Hospital in the late 1980s when a friend died of the disease. The Franciscan nun noticed the emotional and spiritual toll that came with the disease, so in 1990 she opened Francis House in a room at St. Paul Lutheran Church to help others cope with HIV and AIDS.
Within a year, the nonprofit moved into a 5,000-square-foot Seminole Heights garage with concrete floors and bay doors. The place was renovated three years later. At the start, 15 to 20 people relied on the center daily.
Twenty years after the organization began, Francis House remains in that former garage, seeing more than 50 clients a day. It adds up to more than 5,000 client visits a year.
"We're just bursting at the seams," said cook Ann Nash. "The case managers are sitting in each other's lap, literally."
Looking back on two decades of service, leaders of Francis House are both celebrating and pushing forward with expansion plans to meet the HIV population's growing needs, many related to the recession.
Hillsborough saw a 12 percent increase in the number of reported HIV cases from January to May compared with the same time last year, according to the June Florida Division of Disease Control Surveillance Report. There are 5,844 people living with HIV or AIDS in the county, the report shows.
As of Aug. 16, 11,087 Floridians — 104 in Hillsborough — remain on a waiting list to be part of the state's federally funded AIDS Drug Assistance Program, said Jim Roth, HIV-AIDS program coordinator for the Hillsborough County Health Department.
As state and federal funding and grants dry up, nonprofits like Francis House are trying to fill the gaps. Donations are suffering because of the economy. And patients' needs are greater because of unemployment, which severs critical health insurance and prescription coverage for expensive drugs.
Francis House offers meals; drug, alcohol and emotional counseling; support groups; help with housing and medical cases; a food pantry; and grocery vouchers. There are recreational opportunities like bingo, movies and bowling. Many clients are homeless.
"They provide support services that people living with HIV and their families can't get anywhere else," said Michael Ruppal, executive director of the AIDS Institute, a national public policy research advocacy and education group based at the University of South Florida and Washington, D.C. "Probably their biggest contribution to the HIV community is not only their ability to provide (counseling) groups but they also provide meals, and those meals are often some of the only full meals some of these folks get each day."
Inside the small center at 4703 N Florida Ave., a dining room that served about 15 five years ago now feeds 40 regularly and 100 during the holidays. Offices are tripled up — one has the agency's freezer in it, too. Hallways and even a shower stall are used for storage.
"In an economy that is poor, we are busier than ever," said Joy Winheim, the nonprofit's director. "Almost 40 people a day hanging out here. We are having to help more and more people with the same amount of money, in some cases less."
This year, Francis House was awarded a $115,000 city grant to purchase a $59,000 lot next door, where the nonprofit hopes to build an annex. The rest of the money will go toward land clearing, design work and legal fees.
Francis House estimates that it needs to raise more than $500,000 to construct the building, which would house case managers and increase the number of clients Francis House can see.
On Aug. 20, Francis House held a 20th anniversary celebration at the Ritz Ybor theater. Guests paid $40 each and bid on prizes that included a Picasso heliogravure and a vacation to the Mexican Riviera.
"We have to go to the community to raise as much money as possible," said Winheim, who estimated that the event raised $10,000. "I would love to see that building built within the next two years."
Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
To contribute to Francis House, go to francishouse.org or call (813) 237-3066. Francis House is at 4703 N Florida Ave., Tampa, FL 33603.