Because of incompetence and indifference in Hillsborough County's Homeless Recovery program, entire families were doomed to live in ratty conditions while slumlords raked in huge amounts of public money. It's unfathomable how so many highly paid senior administrators could turn a blind eye or drag their feet as taxpayers paid to warehouse the desperately poor in unsafe, bug-ridden squalor. The county is reacting now that these conditions have been brought to light, but it shouldn't have taken a public shaming to address this problem.
In a series of reports beginning in September, the Tampa Bay Times detailed how the county paid millions over the years to house homeless people — including the mentally ill, veterans and young families — in filthy conditions. As of late last year, several hundred people lived in squalid housing even as their landlords raked in public rental assistance. County caseworkers routinely routed homeless people into little more than boarding rooms where they were forced to cope with mold, step over pools of human waste or sleep on mattresses infested with bedbugs.
The county began cleaning up its act as the Times prepared its reports for publication. But in the latest report last week by the Times' Michael LaForgia and Will Hobson, it is clear senior county administrators were aware of serious problems with the program months before they became public but did little or nothing about them. The report, based largely on county emails, reflects a complete lack of responsibility and a breakdown in the county's chain of command.
The emails and county records show several red flags in the months before the scandal broke. In May, a manager in the accounting department expressed his concerns in a detailed memo that the county was sending its homeless to dangerous places. The county wasn't vetting its properties, he said, and may be subsidizing unfit properties. The memo was sent to the county attorney, yet it triggered no additional scrutiny to the program.
An investigation last year also found that a county employee who worked in the same division that housed Homeless Recovery had collected money through the program as a landlord. County caseworkers signed off on the deal, saying they saw nothing wrong. That disclosure did not lead to reform of the payment process, either. Nor did an email in August from a volunteer for the St. Vincent de Paul Society who decried housing people in a "deplorable" rooming house that was later the subject of a Times report. "Where is Family and Aging Services in all this?" asked the advocate, Michael Doyle, referring to the county agency that oversees social services.
Time and time again, people with detailed knowledge of the homeless program's failures contacted the appropriate superiors within the county but nothing was done. Ven Thomas, one administrator, offered lamely that a review was under way and that "sometimes things aren't as instantaneous as we all would like." That pretty well sums up the county's sense of urgency and the place homeless people have on its priority list.
It's no accident the county has one of the worst homelessness problems in the state. As it shifts the Homeless Recovery program to private nonprofits, the county must play a strong supervisory role and show a commitment to housing and social services that is finally up to the job.