TAMPA — Hillsborough County has paid millions of dollars to house homeless people, including veterans, the mentally ill and families with small children, in filthy, crime-ridden slums across the city, a Tampa Bay Times investigation has found.
For years, the poor have lined up at the county's door for help, and county caseworkers have responded by sending them to hazardous and neglected places. There, they were forced to breathe moldy air, step over unmopped puddles of human waste or sleep on mattresses infested with bedbugs.
At one home — a converted 1920s orphanage on Tampa's N Florida Avenue — county officials arranged for children to stay alongside sex offenders, pill addicts and tenants so disturbed they defecated on the floor.
In another, residents lived among roaches that swarmed in every room, skittering across bathroom soap dishes and crawling over toothbrushes.
These conditions have been chronicled for years in government records, which include complaints from appalled tenants and advocates. But instead of demanding repairs or permanently halting payments to negligent landlords, county officials have continued steering public money to owners of barely habitable homes, the Times review found.
During the past five years, Hillsborough County's Homeless Recovery program has paid for space in more than 600 buildings clustered in Central Tampa and along blighted stretches of the city's north side.
To learn what life was like inside these places, the Times identified the 20 landlords who got the most government money and closely examined their properties. Reporters visited each building, interviewed residents and reviewed hundreds of pages of police reports, code enforcement documents and other public records. Among the findings:
• Police or sheriff's deputies have visited the rentals more than 5,500 times since 2009 — the equivalent of once every eight hours, every day, for roughly five years straight.
• They heard reports of more than 300 assaults and 150 thefts and dealt with more than 160 people in the midst of mental breakdowns. They chronicled 22 suicide attempts and eight deaths.
• At least five government agencies recorded serious problems at several homes over the years. But with no prescribed standards, the county continued subsidizing ramshackle rental units across Tampa. Even the most basic safety concerns — including shoddy electrical wiring and failing smoke detectors — have continued with no repercussions for the landlords responsible.
• A quarter of the $4.3 million the county spent in the past five years has gone to landlords whose buildings are hotbeds of crime and drug use, or whose properties repeatedly failed basic health and safety inspections.
A half-dozen landlords contacted by the Times said a certain amount of crime and messiness is inevitable when working with the homeless, who often suffer from addiction or mental health problems.
"I believe that we're doing good work for the community. I really do," said John Watson, owner of the Good Samaritan Inn, formerly a popular destination for Homeless Recovery clients. "We're always trying to improve things here and make them better."
As part of a county program founded in 1989, officials have paid private landlords hundreds of thousands of dollars a year while taking virtually no steps to ensure the rooms provided were safe.
That the county was paying for dangerous housing first came to light last month, when the Times reported that William "Hoe" Brown, the politically connected former chairman of the Tampa Port Authority, had collected more than $600,000 to house the poor in squalid complexes, including an illegal, makeshift trailer park behind his Tampa office.
In response, county leaders fired Sam Walthour, the program's top administrator and last week recommended shutting down Homeless Recovery and outsourcing its programs to local nonprofits.
The county also ordered an in-house audit of the program and sent code enforcement officers to inspect hundreds of buildings that house the homeless on the taxpayer dime.
As of mid October, they had visited 85 properties and encountered many of the same problems uncovered by the Times. One in three of the homes initially failed to meet basic health and safety requirements, officials reported.
County leaders declined to comment for this story, but County Administrator Mike Merrill sent a memo to commissioners Friday ahead of its publication. In it, he noted his staff is "making great headway" to address problems but cautioned they won't be fixed overnight.
"It is important to know that our constituents have the facts surrounding past mismanagement" of the Homeless Recovery program, he wrote. "However, it is equally important that constituents have confidence that current management is taking swift corrective action."
Bedbugs and sex offenders
County officials over the years have paid for hundreds of needy men and women to live in a sprawling, 68-bedroom boarding home on N Florida Avenue.
Private rooms at the place, the Good Samaritan Inn, go for as little as $400 a month. People willing to bunk down with other tenants pay $11 a night.
It's one of the most affordable places to stay in the rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods that surround downtown Tampa.
During the past five years, the county — which paid $360 per month for a single person and up to $610 for families of six or more — has sent the property's owner $350,000 to house the homeless there and on four other properties, records show.
Built as an orphanage in 1922, Good Samaritan is one of the few places in the city that accepts all comers, including homeless families with small children.
It's also a magnet for crime calls and a perennial target of health and safety inspectors, who have flagged hazards since the 1980s.
Records show that assaults, fights and violent outbursts from tenants occur there about once every eight days.
The floors are coated in grime, the walls dirty and scuffed, the bathrooms sometimes smeared with excrement.
But the problems haven't stopped Hillsborough County caseworkers from steering people there.
It's where they sent Edward Mullen, 44, last fall when his job as an electrician fell through, and he suddenly had nowhere to sleep with his wife and three small children. "It was the most disgusting, deplorable environment you could imagine," Mullen said, recalling the syringes he saw on the bathroom floor.
It was where they sent Tim Little, 43, who lost his job just as his girlfriend's medical bills were piling up in July. An ex-Marine, Little said he was afraid to sleep there. "I'm a grown man, and I was nervous," he said.
And it was where they sent Julie Clark, 52, an out-of-work gas station cook who moved her family to Tampa to be closer to her parents.
Beginning in December 2011, Clark and her then-13-year-old son, Jacob, spent seven months at the rooming house in a state of mounting unease. One night a few weeks into their stay, Clark said, she watched bedbugs stream in under the door and burrow into their mattresses. She and her son wore long sleeves at night, stuffed newspaper under the door and splashed their beds with poison, but nothing worked. "Jacob and I were eaten alive," Clark said.
More frightening than the bugs, though, were Clark's new neighbors.
One day, as she walked the hallways of the 20,000-square-foot compound, Clark passed a sign staff had taped to a tenant's door.
"We have taken away Miss T's knives," it began, according to Clark.
"But stay away from her. Don't talk to her. Don't knock on her door."
Clark said another resident would urinate in the hallways, and urine would pool on the floor and flow under the doors into people's rooms. On Easter Sunday in 2012, the woman defecated on the ground during a meal served by a local church, Clark said.
Clark began refusing to let her son leave the room alone.
On weekends and when he wasn't in school, they spent long days at the library. Anything to get away, Clark said.
Then she overheard another resident talking about rapists and child molesters. A security guard confirmed that they lived there. He told her she had the right idea in keeping Jacob close.
Records show city police made 14 visits to check on sex offenders who listed Good Samaritan as their home address during the time Clark stayed there with her son.
Clark said nobody with the county had warned her.
Not all former residents had bad things to say about the home.
Sidney Gardner, 59, stayed there for two months in 2011. "There wasn't a complaint I had that wasn't resolved," said Gardner, who regularly returns to the rooming house to lead a Bible study. "There's an adage I once read that said, 'I knew a man who complained he had no shoes until he met a man who didn't have any feet.' Where else are (the homeless) going to go?"
The owner of the Good Samaritan, Watson, bought the property in 1985 and has worked with the county to house the poor there ever since.
A real estate investor and entrepreneur who once owned a chain of waterbed stores, Watson said he runs the home as a spiritual ministry for the poor.
"If I were in this strictly for the money, I would have sold it," Watson said, noting that he has been operating at a loss for the past few years.
In an interview with the Times, he attributed problems at the home to tight margins and to the nature of taking in the homeless.
"We tend to take people that nobody else would take," Watson said.
He acknowledged an ongoing problem with bedbugs and said he spends at least $500 a month on insecticide treatments.
He also acknowledged that sex offenders have lived at the home, but said the Good Samaritan has a policy forbidding pedophiles. If he finds out that a tenant has been convicted of molesting a child, he kicks them out, he said.
Asked about the sign seen on Miss T's door, Watson laughed. "That was a joke," he said.
"She still lives here, but she's harmless," he continued. "She's never stabbed anyone. She's just threatened."
Watson pointed out that some of his tenants have lived at the Good Samaritan for 10 years or longer. One has been there since the '80s, he said.
"If this is such a horrible place," he said, "why do I have so many people who want to live here?"
Other places, other problems
Many of the same problems at Good Samaritan have plagued other rentals paid for by the county, according to the Times' review of the 20 top-paid landlords.
Police have visited each of a dozen of their buildings 100 times or more since 2009, records show.
Code enforcement officers flagged a third of the properties at least once in the past five years for unhealthy conditions, including outbreaks of mold and infestations of bedbugs, cockroaches or rats.
Eight of the buildings were found to be dangerously crowded, to have leaky ceilings or crumbling walls, faulty wiring or malfunctioning plumbing.
At FSJ Rooming House on N Nebraska Avenue, where the owners have collected $10,000 a month from the county over the past five years, tenants have sold drugs and beaten one another with bricks and heavy plastic lawn chairs.
At Hoe Brown's converted motel on N Florida Avenue, an elderly resident died and lay decomposing for two weeks. He was noticed missing only because his rent check was late.
Noraima Torres said mold spores hung so heavy in the air at 13711 Inoma St., a few miles north of Brown's property, that it sickened her and her teenage son, who has asthma. It prompted trips to the emergency room, she said. "I had to move because we were constantly sick," she said. "I am still sick to this day due to that apartment."
A combination of factors has kept county clients living in bad conditions year after year.
The money paid by Homeless Recovery has lagged far behind subsidized housing rates set by the federal government. In 2013, the United States paid $582 in subsidies for an efficiency apartment in Hillsborough County, compared with $360 paid by the county to house a single person.
What's more, rent checks from the county often have arrived late, landlords and advocates said.
At the same time, Homeless Recovery didn't have the money to inspect every property it rented, and county leaders say the program's managers never asked for a funding increase.
And the government agencies that documented problems in the homes, including Tampa police, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office and city code enforcement, didn't regularly share information with Homeless Recovery workers.
From the start, the county's Homeless Recovery program had no policies requiring homes to meet standards.
As a result, the county never made a practice of reviewing police reports or health and safety records before cutting checks.
The county's handling of the Good Samaritan illustrates the hands-off approach it took.
City of Tampa code enforcement officers have been called to the rooming house 13 times in the past five years. They recorded complaints of leaky ceilings, mold, feral cats, roaches and, within the past two years, bedbugs and biting flies.
But the county had no arrangement to review results of inspections done by city code enforcers.
Meanwhile, Good Samaritan's landlord, Watson, wasn't paying his property taxes — something an employee of another arm of county government pointed out to Homeless Recovery in July. Still, the county kept renting from the home until last month, when it ordered caseworkers to move any clients they had housed there.
Payments continued even in the face of urgent complaints from advocates and tenants.
Michael Doyle was volunteering for the local St. Vincent de Paul Society in July 2012 when he first voiced concerns about Good Samaritan.
He told officials he had watched as parents screamed or wept because they couldn't bear to keep their children there — but had no place else to go. He described the bedbugs and scenes of families going to sleep with insecticide dripping down the walls.
He said he even met with county officials, including Ven Thomas, the director of the county's Family and Aging Services department, in July 2012. Nothing ever came of it, he said.
This summer, a representative of the Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County sent a note to Jim Silverwood, who then was head of the Homeless Recovery program. It noted concerns about the rooming house.
"I realize that Good Samaritan Inn is not the greatest place in the world but they do house an awful lot of individuals that otherwise would be homeless," Silverwood replied in a July 17 email to a manager at the coalition. He added that if coalition officials had concerns, they should inform the city of Tampa, where the rooming house is located.
Silverwood, who resigned in September, declined to comment.
Even concerns voiced by the tenants that the county was supposed to be helping went unaddressed.
Clark, who stayed at the Good Samaritan with her son last year, said she complained to the county. So did Edward Mullen and his wife, Helena, after their children — ages 6, 4 and 3 — woke up at the boarding home covered in angry red bedbug bites.
Nothing ever came of their complaints, they said.
"One night is too long to be in a place like that," Helena Mullen said. "That should not be an option for a family. There's no way the county should be putting people there.
"They should burn the Samaritan down," she added. "You've got nothing but bad in there."