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Hillsborough official: 200 live in squalor paid for by public

TAMPA — Former Tampa Port Authority Chairman William "Hoe" Brown isn't the only landlord who got county money to house the poor in substandard living conditions.

There still are about 200 people receiving public rental assistance through Hillsborough County's Homeless Recovery agency while living in unacceptable housing, County Administrator Mike Merrill told commissioners Wednesday.

"It's systemic," Merrill said of problems plaguing the county agency.

Commissioners voted to have the county's internal auditor examine Homeless Recovery, which had sent clients and more than $600,000 to Brown since 1998, the Tampa Bay Times reported Sept. 8.

Brown, a prominent Republican fundraiser, resigned as port chairman in July after several Times articles about squalid conditions and criminal activity in a makeshift mobile home park and extended-stay motel next to his Seminole Heights office.

While Homeless Recovery managers denied referring clients to Brown, hundreds of emails showed the agency routinely sent clients to Brown for years.

County officials said they were unable Wednesday to produce a list of the other properties housing Homeless Recovery clients in poor conditions.

"It's not something I want this organization to stand for," Merrill said of the county subsidizing inhumane living conditions. "We will correct this."

That correction could mean farming out the rental assistance program to nonprofits, Merrill said. Monday, he met with representatives from several nonprofits to discuss how to improve operations for Homeless Recovery, which has an annual budget of about $1.2 million, more than $800,000 of it in county money.

"They clearly are turning the ship in the right direction," Tim Marks, president of Metropolitan Ministries, said Wednesday.

Merrill outlined for commissioners other changes made to Homeless Recovery. Its manager, Jim Silverwood, resigned Sept. 9. Silverwood's supervisor, Sam Walthour, submitted a letter of resignation last week, then retracted it. He was fired Friday, county spokeswoman Lori Hudson said.

While Walthour and Silverwood told the Times that Homeless Recovery didn't have the funding to inspect properties where its clients live, Merrill said they never told that to him.

"Prior management had numerous opportunities to tell me they needed additional resources," Merrill said. "We needed a completely different direction."

Commissioners praised Merrill's quick action while assailing the treatment of some of the county's most vulnerable residents.

Commissioner Kevin Beckner called it "indefensible" for county tax dollars to pay for the poor to live in "deplorable conditions."

"This issue is not only troubling, it is to me personally an embarrassment," added Commissioner Al Higginbotham.

Commissioner Sandra Murman said she hopes something good can come from the audit. "I think we have an opportunity to turn this black eye around and be a real shining star," she said.

Wednesday's meeting provided the first public discussion of Homeless Recovery by county officials, several of whom have declined repeated requests for interviews by the Times during the last two weeks. Among those who have not returned calls: Ven Thomas, the department director who formerly oversaw Homeless Recovery; Paula Harvey, the new department director overseeing the agency; commission Chairman Ken Hagan; and Commissioner Mark Sharpe.

Brown's name was not mentioned at the meeting Wednesday. The GOP fundraiser has donated money to all five Republican county commissioners, election records show. He gave Hagan $1,000 combined over two campaigns; $250 to Murman in 2010; $1,500 combined over two campaigns to Higginbotham; $250 to Victor Crist in 2010; and $1,750 over three campaigns to Sharpe.

Before the discussion ended, Murman consoled Thomas, the department director who no longer oversees Homeless Recovery.

"These things happen," she said. "Just look at this as a building block to where we're going to go in the future."

Reach Will Hobson at (813) 226-3400 or whobson@tampabay.com.

Hillsborough official: 200 live in squalor paid for by public 09/18/13 [Last modified: Thursday, September 19, 2013 12:05am]
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