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County ignored warning signs about homeless program

TAMPA — As Hillsborough County's Homeless Recovery program was unraveling in September, County Administrator Mike Merrill blamed a pair of misguided middle managers.

They were at fault, he said, for a program that sent the homeless to live in a squalid, illegal trailer park off Florida Avenue.

They no longer worked for the county, Merrill told commissioners on Sept. 18.

But they weren't the only county leaders who were warned of problems and allowed them to continue.

A Tampa Bay Times review of thousands of county emails shows that the county attorney, the deputy county administrator over social services and three department heads received urgent warnings about Homeless Recovery and took no immediate action.

The warnings included graphic descriptions of bad conditions inside a county-funded boarding home and an alert that lax financial controls meant the county might be subsidizing slumlords.

County leaders could have called for health and safety inspections or an audit of the program's finances. Instead, the program continued to operate as it had before.

Merrill said no one told him about the problems. He said he first learned of them on Sept. 8, when a Times story detailed county payments to the politically connected former chairman of the Tampa Port Authority — who housed the homeless in the trailers and in filthy, bug-infested apartments.

Right away, Merrill ordered inspections, launched an audit of the Homeless Recovery program and fired division head Sammie Walthour, who had been on the job about 13 months.

But high level administrators share blame for the program's failures, Walthour told the Times.

"The leadership has to take some responsibility for this," Walthour said. "Instead of throwing those frontline workers and managers under the bus."

Walthour said problems within the county's Homeless Recovery program developed over decades and showed the county's longstanding disregard for helping the homeless.

The county's unwillingness to take on homelessness is especially significant in the Tampa Bay area, advocates say. The region has had some of the highest rates of homelessness in the nation, and the federal government singled it out in 2012 as one of 10 places in America in need of extra money and attention.

In an interview with the Times, Merrill acknowledged that county leaders missed opportunities to head off problems in the housing program. He said internal scrutiny in the run-up to the scandal focused more on the program's finances than on the quality of the places it was sending the homeless.

Merrill has acted as county administrator for the past four years, but he said he only became aware of the area's homelessness problem when the federal government approached the county two years ago. "For the first couple of years, the issue of homelessness was not on my radar at all," he said.

Now it's a priority, he said. In the short term, the county already has rolled out reforms to Homeless Recovery. Officials moved people out of the worst properties identified by the Times. Merrill transferred the program to a different department. And he plans to shutter it by Tuesday and hand it off to nonprofits.

Unheeded warnings

The Times reviewed emails and county records from the months leading up to the housing scandal and found several red flags that went unheeded.

First came a warning from the county's accounting department.

In May, a manager wrote a detailed memo about payments to William "Hoe" Brown, the former Port Authority chairman who ran the makeshift trailer park on Florida Avenue.

Ray Reed sent his memo on May 15 to Debbie Benavidez, head of the county's Fiscal and Support Services department.

The memo cautioned that Brown's property might be just one of many dangerous places the county was sending its homeless.

The county wasn't properly vetting the properties, and it "may be aiding in providing payment for potentially substandard or not properly inspected housing," Reed wrote.

The memo climbed the county ranks until it reached County Attorney Chip Fletcher, emails show.

The county temporarily halted payments to Brown while its lawyers reviewed the memo, but Fletcher's office ultimately gave the go-ahead for them to resume.

Fletcher didn't respond to a request for comment.

Still, after reading Reed's memo, the county ordered no inspections of the scores of other Homeless Recovery properties or additional scrutiny of the program.

Merrill said that was a mistake. "It's clearly not something I'm proud of or happy with, and it was a missed opportunity," he said.

Two months later, the Times published its first story about Brown's squalid trailers, where the living space was cramped, crawling with insects and rank with the smell of human waste.

City code enforcers immediately descended on Brown's property. The top inspector described the conditions as among the worst he had ever seen.

Next came signs that the county's social services division was operating without enough financial oversight.

Earlier this year, the county launched an investigation into Reginald Earl, a county employee who had collected money from Homeless Recovery as a landlord.

On June 25, the final report landed on the desk of Ven Thomas.

As director of the county's Family and Aging Services department, Thomas was in charge of seven divisions ranging from social services to Head Start to the county health plan and veterans affairs.

The report she received showed that two caseworkers had authorized payments to Earl knowing he was a county employee. Both later told an investigator they saw nothing wrong with the arrangement.

In accepting county rent payments of about $1,200, Earl — who managed federal grants in the same division that housed Homeless Recovery — violated the county's conflict of interest policy, the report concluded. He was fired three months later.

Though the caseworkers had signed off on payments that broke county rules, the inquiry didn't lead to changes in how the housing program handled payments to landlords.

A third warning came in on Aug. 18, when a volunteer for the local St. Vincent de Paul Society and an outspoken advocate for the area's poor wrote an urgent email to Thomas.

In it, Michael Doyle called for changes in the way the county handled the homeless. He decried its continued use of the "deplorable" Good Samaritan Inn — a dirty, crime-ridden rooming house profiled by the Times in October.

"Where is Family and Aging Services in all this?" Doyle wrote. "Our vulnerable neighbors deserve far better from us."

Still, the county sent no inspectors to the Good Samaritan. Payments to the home's owner continued.

Thomas told the Times that a review of Homeless Recovery's policies was under way when she got the report on Earl and the email from Doyle.

But it wasn't finished when the housing scandal broke, she said. "Sometimes things aren't as instantaneous as we all would like, but it was all under review," Thomas said.

Other recipients of Doyle's Aug. 18 message included Deputy County Administrator Sharon Subadan and Paula Harvey, head of the county's affordable housing department.

Harvey took over Homeless Recovery in September after Merrill moved the program to her department.

Steps not taken

A half dozen homeless advocates and former county employees contacted by the Times said it's not surprising that concerns about the homeless program went unaddressed in Hillsborough County.

"I don't think we have a very good record on homelessness," said Candy Olson, a Hillsborough County School Board member and former head of the county's Homeless Coalition. "I think it's time and past time that we get this cleaned up."

Hillsborough is the largest county in a region where rates of homelessness have soared. But Hillsborough's leaders — including county commissioners — have yet to take the concrete steps to fight homelessness that officials in other counties have taken.

They haven't helped to open a homeless shelter or commissioned a study to find solutions.

For years, the Homeless Recovery program has reflected that neglect, advocates and former county employees said.

Frontline caseworkers generally were unqualified, poorly trained and overburdened, emails and county records show. None was a licensed social worker. One spent weeks asking for basic instruction in how to do his job but never got it, he complained in an email in 2010.

The rates the county paid for rentals were so low that they practically guaranteed homeless clients would live in slums, and they hadn't been raised in at least 10 years, Walthour said.

The county has trimmed funding for its social services division in three of the past four years, devoting only a fraction of the minimum amount experts say is required to run an effective housing program.

And aside from the efforts of the Homeless Recovery office, the county in recent years has offered only one other major initiative to house the homeless: a "housing first" strategy that shelters the indigent in clean, safe apartments. But of the roughly 11,000 homeless people in the Tampa Bay area, the program can serve only 24.

Meanwhile, the county's other major action on homelessness was to push an anti-panhandling measure that critics said criminalized the poor and put them even further out of sight.

It was just another sign that leaders within Hillsborough County have refused to acknowledge a crisis, said Robert Marbut, a paid consultant who has drawn up strategies for addressing homelessness in Pinellas and other Florida counties.

"The approach has been to put your head in the sand and don't deal with the problem, whereas in every other county around — Sarasota, Manatee, Charlotte, Pinellas, Pasco — there are honest and sincere efforts being made to work on the problem," Marbut said. "It is just sad to see what it's come to be, when so many people have reached out to try to talk to the leadership within the county and within the city."

A damaged system

When Sammie Walthour started as head of social services for Hillsborough County, in July 2012, he found the division in total disrepair.

Homeless Recovery and the other programs had no written policies or strategic goals, and many of their workers were misguided, Walthour told the Times.

Case managers largely followed their own rules. They didn't have a good grasp of their jobs, and they were more concerned with spending the money in their budget than on finding ways to help the homeless so they didn't end up back on the streets.

Disabled people got rent money for months and sometimes years, with no clear plan to help them become self-sufficient.

Walthour said Ven Thomas and other leaders knew of the problems.

He said they acknowledged them when they hired him. "Certainly, they pointed to some areas of concern," Walthour said.

"When you see a system as damaged as the division, it took a long time for that to happen," he added. "That didn't happen overnight. It took a lot of neglect."

Walthour, a 24-year veteran of Miami-Dade County government, said he planned to rebuild the division from the ground up. He started by creating the division's first written mission statement, policies and procedures. He said he sought to enroll case managers in a certification course and cut back on the number of disabled homeless people whose rent the county would cover month after month. He said he wanted to launch scholarship and family counseling programs to target the roots of homelessness.

Despite what he saw as early progress, county leaders held Walthour responsible when the Times story on county payments to Hoe Brown broke.

Days later, he was called out of a meeting and told to see his boss, Thomas, on the 26th floor of the county building.

Walthour was told to resign or be fired.

Nowhere to turn

It's unclear what form Hillsborough County's homeless program will take in the coming months.

The county is shuttering Homeless Recovery and plans to hire nonprofit organizations to run a new version of the program.

Merrill, the county administrator, said he's watching the process closely. In the past two months, he has met with advocates and joined the board of the Tampa Hillsborough Homeless Initiative, a collaboration between government and businesses aimed at ending homelessness.

Merrill said the county has renewed focus, and he's hopeful about what it can accomplish.

Nonprofits are supposed to take over Homeless Recovery by Jan. 23.

In the interim, people on the streets are struggling to find help.

On sagging stretches of Nebraska Avenue and up and down Florida Avenue, some of them are suffering more than usual. They say they aren't sure where to go now that Homeless Recovery is closing.

Among them is Richard Walsh, 58, who has lung disease, hepatitis C and bipolar disorder. Homeless Recovery turned him away a few weeks ago, he said, and now he's sleeping in a tent in the woods by the Gandy Bridge.

Another is Tara Thomas, who called Homeless Recovery earlier this month and was told it couldn't help her. On the nights that followed, the pregnant, 30-year-old mother of three loaded her children into a Chrysler Pacifica minivan and drove until she found a well-lighted parking lot. She laid a blanket over the back seat, settled down with a cup of coffee and kept watch over her sleeping kids, ages 4, 3 and 1. Her fourth child is due in March.

Chris Anderson, 38, did two tours in Iraq with the U.S. Army's 1st Cavalry Division. The single father of twin 8-year-old girls lost his job this summer as a cook at Lee Roy Selmon's on W Boy Scout Boulevard, and, facing homelessness, was put up temporarily in a house owned by his church. Anderson said he called county officials for help and was told they were out of money.

He said he never has been homeless before, but the experience for him has revealed something telling about this community: To be penniless and desperate here is to be at the mercy of a broken way of doing things.

"I don't know how to fix it," Anderson said. "I just know there has to be a better way."

County ignored warning signs about homeless program 12/27/13 [Last modified: Friday, January 3, 2014 11:37am]
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