The state is trying to shut down Carden House, an assisted-living facility for the mentally ill near downtown.
A six-count complaint filed by the Agency for Health Care Administration, which regulates the state's 36,000 health care facilities, seeks to revoke Carden House's license and impose a $4,500 fine. The complaint cites persistent problems at the 2349 Central Ave. facility, among them unsafe and unsanitary conditions, dilapidated property and furnishings, and failure to provide prescribed therapeutic diets.
In an interview this month, Carden House administrator Haresh "Harry'' Hirani said improvements had been made. A lawyer responded to questions about the AHCA's March 11 legal action.
"We adamantly dispute the charges in the complaint,'' said Cathleen O'Dowd of the Tampa office of Shumaker, Loop and Kendrick. "And we will respond to those charges through the administrative law process.''
Carden House can request a hearing before an administrative law judge. The group home is owned by Shrinathji Inc., which has a Seminole mailing address and bought Carden House for $1.4 million in 2007.
Neighbors have complained about the assisted-living facility, saying residents go through garbage bins, beg for food and money, openly buy drugs and create disturbances. One resident, Bonnie Nix, is familiar in St. Petersburg's downtown, where she wanders begging for money. She was arrested seven times last year and once this year. The charges usually have been for panhandling, but on some occasions for carrying an open container.
Closure of Carden House would displace Nix and more than four dozen other residents.
"We don't want them turned out on the street, but they certainly deserve better than what they are getting there,'' said City Council member Jeff Danner, who represents the district where Carden House is located.
Polly Weaver, chief of the bureau of field operations for the AHCA, said the agency will work with the Department of Children and Families and the Department of Elder Affairs' Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program to find new homes for Carden House residents.
That might not be easy, said April Hill, a board-certified elder law attorney with the Hill Law Group in St. Petersburg.
"Probably right now they are scrambling to find homes for the residents. They try not to displace them too much," Hill said. "But, of course, they've got to find facilities to accept those residents, and those are residents with not a lot of money."
The residents "are not going to do much better, but as they close the door to another substandard facility, they are raising the bar ever so slightly.''
In the past two years, the AHCA has closed three assisted-living facilities in a seven-county jurisdiction stretching from Pasco to Polk to Highlands. One, the Verandah, was in St. Petersburg.
During the same time frame, complaints have brought AHCA inspectors to Carden House 18 times, more than any other facility in the seven-county area.
"Some of our most recent concerns have to do with some dietary issues, outdated food, and there were some issues in the kitchen and the Department of Health was notified,'' Weaver said. "We had some concerns in relationship to medication issues.''
She said the recent action against the assisted-living facility stems from a "demonstrated pattern of deficient performance.'' The 24-page complaint tells of "mold visibly growing'' on tubs containing gallons of chicken and red sauce, raw meat sitting on the kitchen counter for hours, dirty floors, walls, doors, doorknobs, linens, and several residents' doors without inside handles.
"The staff bathroom in the common area contained fecal matter in the (toilet) and was without toilet tissue and soap,'' it said.
Carden House is facing the harshest punishment. A hearing requested by the owners would likely take place quickly in Pinellas County, with evidence and witnesses in front of an administrative judge. The facility can appeal an unfavorable ruling to the District Court of Appeal.
Jim Longstreth, president of the Grand Central District Association, whose businesses have complained about Carden House, said he hopes some good comes from the proceedings, regardless of the outcome.
"I'm hoping that these actions are going to spur the owners to actually do what they need to be doing,'' he said. "If they are allowed to continue to operate, they will know that the state is watching them.''
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2283.