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Complaints congregate near agency for homeless

Rei Cooper of Mental Health Care Inc. listens as an agency client talks to a reporter recently.

KEN HELLE | Times\uFEFF

Rei Cooper of Mental Health Care Inc. listens as an agency client talks to a reporter recently.

OLD SEMINOLE HEIGHTS—Nebraska Avenue is an ugly spine for a neighborhood so intent on beautification. A major bus route out of downtown, it is home to cheap motels, used car lots and social service agencies.

One has stood out from the rest lately: The Mental Health Care Inc. building at 6220 N Nebraska Ave. Inside, homeless people do laundry, shower, watch TV and talk to caseworkers. Outside, a few linger in the parking lot and wait for 3 p.m., check-in time for downtown shelters.

This is the only drop-in place in the county that specifically treats homeless people with mental disorders.

Rayme Nuckles, CEO of the county's Homeless Coalition, says that in the past few months, half of the homeless people who walked in aren't homeless anymore.

But some neighbors aren't as focused on what goes on inside the building as what they say goes on outside.

• • •

"Homeless go there, hang around the parking lot, and then disappear in the neighborhoods to find a place to congregate or sleep," Old Seminole Heights Neighborhood Association president Susan Long told the City Council last month. "And defecating on the sidewalks has risen immensely."

She also addressed the County Commission.

Long said she had to address the increasing number of complaints from neighbors who say the building's clients are panhandling, shoplifting and intimidating pedestrians.

This is how the federally funded programs inside the building work: Mental Health Care professionals scour neighborhoods for people who look homeless and administer psychological screenings. If the homeless person is deemed to have a behavioral disorder or substance abuse problem, they qualify for a program called the Shop, where they can drop in, have two meals a day, take showers, do laundry, get therapy and use the building as a mailing address.

It's a low-demand way to bring homeless people in, said Jenine LaCoe, program manager of community development. Once people are there, case managers can set them up with services like food stamps and housing.

"Our goal is to keep people off the street," LaCoe said.

But Long said that in the past year, she has noticed an increase in complaints she has gotten from neighbors, and in the amount of people hanging around the building.

• • •

Mental Health Care Inc. spokeswoman Sandra Tabor was caught off guard when she heard what Long said at the hearing. She had never heard these complaints from neighbors in the facility's five-year history in the area.

Long never approached her before talking to the City Council. She said she felt uncomfortable walking into the building to find out who was in charge, and tried contacting Nuckles at the Homeless Coalition while he was on vacation.

The lack of initial communication led to some tension at a meeting this week, in which Long and Nuckles discussed the issue face to face for the first time.

"As an individual who lives in the neighborhood, I am appalled that they would go down this road without even consulting us," Nuckles said. "They went straight to City Council."

Mental Health Care officials say nothing has recently changed about the program to warrant the recent complaints. An average of 50 people use the facility each day, and LaCoe says that number hasn't grown.

The program operates from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, but most clients are gone before 3 p.m., because they need to get to shelters early enough to secure a spot. Some clients are bused by the program; others take public transit or walk.

Robert Lynn, who runs Sundance Automotive down the street, says he often sees homeless people outside his business, asking his clients for cigarettes or quarters for the bus.

"If I tell them to leave, they're gone," Lynn said. "They don't really bother."

Tampa police Capt. John Newman said there's no way to tell whether crimes outside the building are committed by program clients. Or whether homeless people walking along Nebraska are in the program. After all, Newman said, being homeless isn't a crime.

• • •

The homeless people at the building use it to different degrees. One 61-year-old man has been in therapy for more than a year. Caseworkers helped him get a North Tampa apartment.

Then there's Charles Cain, who lingered outside.

He said he doesn't bother getting therapy, and only uses the facility for showers.

Nuckles said that one problem he deals with in the Homeless Coalition is that people don't like to see homeless people in their neighborhoods. Nuckles said he wants neighbors to know the program is finding people homes.

"It's an effective program even though certain individuals in the neighborhood believe that it isn't," Nuckles said. "We need to not attack those in our community that are the most vulnerable. And unfortunately, that's what this neighborhood is doing."

Long said she will contact LaCoe next time she sees a problem. "If we see any homeless people, she will take care of it immediately," Long said. "It's a little bit better now that we've ruffled everybody's feathers."

Alexandra Zayas can be reached at azayas@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3354.

Complaints congregate near agency for homeless 04/24/08 [Last modified: Friday, April 25, 2008 12:57pm]
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