The only thing worse than the daily morning sickness that sent Sharmel Troupe shuffling from friends' couches to bathrooms last year was the fear that, when her baby came, the infant would be homeless.
Troupe, then 30, was nine months pregnant when she and her boyfriend, an unemployed construction worker, ran out of friends willing to put them up. They turned to Hillsborough County government for help.
A caseworker for the county's Homeless Recovery agency told them of a place where they could stay while looking for something more permanent.
The place was a bug-infested corner of a converted garage owned by William "Hoe" Brown, 55, a prominent Republican fundraiser and then-chairman of the Tampa Port Authority.
Troupe didn't like the look of it but stayed. After all, the county was paying — $388 for Troupe and her 34-year-old boyfriend, Ryan Gormley, to stay for three weeks.
Their rent check was part of more than $600,000 in public money Homeless Recovery has paid Brown since 1998 to provide housing for the poor, county records show.
Homeless Recovery caseworkers sent clients to the well-connected GOP fundraiser until this summer, when the Tampa Bay Times revealed Brown was housing tenants in squalor, prompting his resignation from the port's board and from several other public posts.
Managers of Homeless Recovery said they do not have the staff to inspect properties where the agency pays to house its clients. Brown is one of dozens of landlords they deal with.
The managers said the agency does not refer clients to specific properties, and they've never gotten a complaint about Brown's property. Neither is true, according to hundreds of emails reviewed by the Times.
County workers routinely sent clients to Brown's Seminole Heights properties, where instances of violence, drug use, prostitution and other crimes have been chronicled in public records since at least 2005.
Last week, Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill agreed to, then canceled, an interview with the Times about Homeless Recovery. Friday evening, he sent a memo to county commissioners informing them of sweeping changes he planned for the agency.
Homeless Recovery will get audited. The agency will be moved to a different county department. And the county will ensure that properties are up to code before approving rent payments.
"My commitment to you and to our citizens is to improve the administration of this program so that we may better help those who depend upon us," he wrote.
• • •
Every weekday, the line starts before dawn outside the squat, yellow building in west Tampa for Homeless Recovery, whose mission is to help people become self-sufficient and find housing they can afford.
As the sunrise illuminates downtown skyscrapers in the distance, the people, many of them just released from shelters, wait to meet with caseworkers who can arrange food vouchers, bus passes and rental assistance. The agency helped 2,600 clients last year, and this year has a $1.2 million budget — $806,500 in county money, the rest in federal grants — and a full-time staff of 12.
Since at least 1998, the agency has provided a steady income for Brown, county records show: an average of $40,000 per year, topping $60,000 in 2001, and dipping to $17,500 last year.
In interviews with the Times, Homeless Recovery manager Jim Silverwood and his supervisor, Sam Walthour, adamantly maintained the agency doesn't refer clients to specific properties.
Clients eligible for help, they say, are told to find places that accept county vouchers. The agency has strict rental limits — from $360 per month for one person to $610 for a family of six or more, plus $125 per month for utilities.
If clients end up living in squalor, they say, it's because that's all that's available for people with credit problems, and sometimes criminal records, who can't afford security deposits.
"There's not enough affordable housing," Silverwood said, "and it's very hard to find landlords who are willing to work with those individuals."
Others in Tampa's social service community agree. The federally funded Tampa Housing Authority has 9,000 families on its waiting list for rental assistance.
"The more programs we have that provide rental assistance, the better," said Margaret Jones, the agency's director of assisted housing. "There's just not enough to go around."
Silverwood acknowledged there may have been a few occasions over the years when caseworkers sent people to Brown's properties at the corner of N Florida Avenue and W Stanley Street.
When caseworker Susan Ketterer made the call last October about openings there, Sharmel Troupe said, she seemed familiar with the man who answered.
"It seemed like she dealt with him a lot," Troupe said. "She knew, right off hand, he would take families."
• • •
Brown and Homeless Recovery employees have exchanged hundreds of emails since Jan. 1, 2010, according to records. Brown routinely emailed them, advertising vacancies. It was not a one-sided conversation.
With subject lines like "any openings, please?" and "sending a family right now," scores of emails show caseworkers repeatedly sent clients to him.
In one case, an employee wrote a letter to Brown about a homeless family of three. Dated April 18, it told Brown the county would cover their rent.
"It is too important we secure this safe haven for them," wrote Sara Pisani, senior case manager.
The family was Aaron Thorn and Kayla Costa and their baby boy, Kaden. The haven Brown provided, according to other tenants and Thorn's mother, was a mobile home behind Brown's office. The county paid Brown $555 for rent and utilities for May.
In July, Tampa code enforcement director Jake Slater called the conditions inside that mobile home and others "deplorable" and "not fit for human habitation."
Thorn and Costa did not reply to phone calls and Facebook messages. They are in New Jersey working for a carnival, according to Samantha Thorn, Aaron's mother. She held 2-year-old Kaden on her hip last month as she discussed her surprise when she visited her son and grandson and found them in the dilapidated mobile home.
"I mean, they had a child for Christ's sake," she said.
Just because caseworkers sent clients there, Silverwood said, it doesn't mean his agency referred them to Brown.
"Ultimately it is the client's choice as to whether they want to stay at a place or not," he wrote in an email to the Times.
• • •
It was a bad pregnancy. Troupe had hyperemesis gravidarum, she said, a condition marked by intractable nausea that sent her to the hospital several times.
She spent much of the time she lived on Brown's property in bed. She needed to stay hydrated, so Gormley ran out regularly for water, juice, whatever she could keep down.
It was a crowded apartment. Nothing separated bedroom from bathroom. When the shower ran, the whole place steamed up. Gormley's head poked above the shower door. As a joke, he sometimes waved to Troupe as he showered.
To combat bugs, he bought caulk. He sealed some of the crevices they crept through at night. He didn't want to use too many pesticides, since Troupe was pregnant.
There was less Gormley could do about the temperature. One of their neighbors controlled the air conditioning for the whole structure. It always seemed too hot or too cold. When the month was up, Gormley and Troupe agreed, they were leaving.
They did not see Brown the first week they lived there. They dealt with Vincent Angel.
Angel lived there rent-free, he told tenants, for the work he did for Brown. Angel drank heavily, tenants said, and often fought with his girlfriend. His name appears in several Tampa police reports. Here's a typical one, for Brown's office on Aug. 4, 2006:
Angel's girlfriend told police she came home to find Angel smoking crack with a prostitute. After the prostitute left, Angel threw a full beer bottle at her (it missed), grabbed her hair and slapped her. Angel was arrested on a battery charge, which was later dropped.
Angel treated Troupe and Gormley well, though. In the middle of the month, Angel introduced them to their landlord, Brown. Brown told Gormley that if the couple were going to stay the next month, they would owe more than Homeless Recovery's voucher. Brown wanted $185 per week.
"It was in no way worth paying $185 a week to live in that box," Gormley said.
• • •
Troupe and Gormley lived in one of three illegal apartments in Brown's converted garage. A few feet away stood five mobile homes split into an additional 10 illegal rentals. Next door is his 13-unit, extended-stay motel.
Since 2005, Tampa police have logged 453 calls for incidents and other activity at Brown's motel and office.
There was one homicide, when a tenant started a fight with a neighbor, who then stabbed him to death and claimed self-defense. Two drug overdoses. Four visits by an officer looking for a registered sex offender or predator, although police records don't show if one was ever found there.
The remaining calls are reports of an array of assaults, thefts, drug crimes, domestic disputes, and disturbances caused by the intoxicated and mentally ill.
Room 9 of Brown's motel is mentioned in a 2005 city code enforcement report.
"Stove shocks you when you try to use it, sewage backing up into the shower, windows will not open throughout the entire hotel, no smoke detectors," an inspector wrote.
The property was brought into compliance a few months later.
In August 2009, a Tampa officer saw a baby in Room 12 and called child protective services.
"She felt the room that the child was living in was unsafe and dirty for the child," the report states.
In September 2011, Brown emailed Homeless Recovery about money he said he was owed for a family that stayed in his motel. A caseworker emailed Silverwood that the family never stayed there. They left because they felt it was not safe.
The family was the Tripletts — Brandon, his pregnant wife, Kemisha, and their 1-year-old daughter, Ameeyah. Reached by phone last week in their new home in DeLand, they instantly remembered the place.
"It looked like a crack and prostitute house," said Brandon Triplett, 25.
The room smelled of mold, marijuana and a chemical Triplett couldn't place. It burned his eyes. The mattress was seeped in dirt and human filth. They found a nearby church where they could stay. Triplett never doubted his decision to leave that day, even though his family was homeless.
"I had a baby," he said. "I wouldn't dare let my child be in that environment."
Thursday, Brown released a statement through his spokeswoman. "I have provided stable housing … to folks struggling with very serious personal issues who would have otherwise ended up sleeping on street corners or under bridges," it said. "Once aware of property maintenance matters, I attended to them as quickly as possible."
Brown's name appears in some police reports. In January 2008, a woman angry at being evicted chased him around the property with a gardening tool. After Brown retreated to his office, a witness told police, the woman carved deep scratches in his Jeep.
The woman made an interesting choice in the weapon she used to attack Brown, who had acquired his unique nickname when, as a youngster, he had trouble saying "hold" or "hold me." She had chased Brown around with a hoe.
• • •
In December 2011, Brown noticed something odd.
"I have not heard from you or anyone at Homeless Recovery for awhile," he wrote a caseworker. "Just thought I would check and see if there were any problems?"
"Bill, we have had some complaints by potential clients that the units were not properly cleaned."
In interviews, Silverwood repeatedly said his agency never received complaints about Brown's properties. When provided a copy of this exchange with Brown, Silverwood said he had forgotten about it.
A few weeks after that email, Silverwood visited the property. "I had seen better and I had seen worse," he said of its condition.
In May, Silverwood emailed employees to stop making "placements" at Brown's property. Someone in another county department thought Brown's motel was not zoned properly.
A few weeks later, the County Attorney's Office found there was no zoning issue. Homeless Recovery was approved to resume paying Brown.
In the midst of this, Brown emailed a caseworker.
"After 30 years the zoning now becomes a problem," he wrote. "Sometimes dealing with government is too hard — as if the county has people knocking the doors down to lease apartments. Oh well we will see."
Caseworker Ketterer replied: "hope you can get it straightened out … we need you guys!"
A month later, Ketterer emailed Brown again.
"Bill, so glad you are back!!!!" she wrote June 21. "I asked about it and they gave me official word yesterday and do you have any openings right now??? thank you for hanging in there."
Three weeks later, after an inquiry from the Times, Tampa's code enforcement office condemned the five mobile homes behind Brown's office. Four days later, Brown quit the port board.
The day Brown resigned, all seven Hillsborough County commissioners received an email about Homeless Recovery's relationship with him.
It was sent by Ven Thomas, director of the Family and Aging Services department, which included Homeless Recovery.
"Clients were NOT referred," the email said. "Clients eligible for rent assistance seek their own living accommodations."
Thomas told commissioners her department was revising procedures and might require landlords to "attest that their properties are up to code."
A few days later, an aide to Commissioner Kevin Beckner replied: "Rather than have slumlords 'attest' that their properties are up to code, why not have them pay for an annual inspection and have our people determine that? Just a thought."
In his memo Friday, Merrill said Homeless Recovery would be moved to a different department, no longer under Thomas' oversight.
• • •
Troupe's water broke on a bus, Oct. 20. A few hours later, Jada Gormley was born. At 6 pounds, 8 ounces, she cried at first, then quieted when she saw her father. Her parents brought Jada home to Brown's garage for about a week, then moved to a better apartment.
Gormley had gotten a job at a mechanic's shop, and Homeless Recovery had found them a better apartment a few miles away.
A few months later, the shop closed. Gormley was again out of work. He has been in and out of homeless shelters this year. Troupe and Jada have stayed with relatives until recently, when Gormley got a job landscaping. He can afford $185 per week, enough for a room in a small motel on Nebraska Avenue, not far from Brown's motel.
Gormley and Troupe didn't know until this summer who Brown was. They thought the man who had haggled with them over rent lived in the building he called his office. When told her former landlord was a member of Tampa's political elite, a man who helped host black-tie dinners for the state's top Republican lawmakers, Troupe was surprised.
"That's how the world works," he said. "That's how the rich stay rich."
Times staff writer Michael LaForgia and news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Will Hobson can be reached at (813) 226-3400 or [email protected]