Tampa residents with mental health issues could be homeless after nonprofit group sells housing complex

Project Return says it was forced to sell Friendship Palms after losing federal grant for subsidized apartment complex on Waters Avenue.
Published July 22

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TAMPA — In the past 10 years, Don Thompson lost his job, faced major heart surgery and suffered a mental breakdown.

His lifeline was being able to live independently at Friendship Palms, a government-subsidized apartment complex for people battling mental health issues. As well as cheap housing — Thompson pays about $280 per month — residents receive in-home mental health services.

Soon, though, Thompson, 55, could be homeless along with about 20 other Friendship Palm residents suffering from bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and other illnesses.

Project Return, the nonprofit that owns the complex, learned in February that it lost a federal grant that helped pay for the housing. Officials waited until June 6 to notify tenants of plans to sell the complex and that they must move out by the end of July.

Scared and bewildered residents have been critical of the nonprofit for not doing enough to help them find a new home. Many of them live on disability and can only afford subsidized housing. Most do not own a car. Some don't even own a computer.

Their plight has led Disability Rights Florida, a group appointed by the state to advocate for disabled people, to question Project Return's handling of the crisis.

"We’re extremely concerned about the prospects for residents who don’t have housing arranged,” said Katherine Hanson, a senior staff attorney. “It’s unclear whether or not things are actually happening to getting them closer to having a place to live.”

Project Return officials say they are working to get alternative housing for every tenant.

Staffers have met with residents and helped fill out housing applications, said attorney Daniel Drake. Project Return also arranged for staffers from Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services to come onsite to give tenants advice about their options. And the group reached out to government agencies and other nonprofits, which resulted in the Tampa Housing Authority providing 10 housing vouchers.

Drake said the complex is already under contract and the onus is on residents to find a new place to live.

"If someone doesn't qualify for housing or no other agency has an open door, yes, ultimately they're on their own," he said. "They could become homeless."

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Project Return received about $156,000 from a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, grant in 2018. The money went toward rent subsidies, maintenance and part of the cost of staff salaries, Drake said.

But it got no funding this year, leaving a gaping hole in the nonprofit's finances.

That was likely because the group was ranked last on a priority list produced by a panel of officials from local government agencies and nonprofits, said Antoinette Hayes-Triplett, CEO of the Tampa-Hillsborough Homeless Initiative, which coordinates the county's application to HUD. Also, this year's awards included a couple of new recipients.

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Project Return delayed informing residents because it was working to find alternative funding, Drake said.

Officials reached out to agencies including the Tampa Housing Authority, the city of Tampa, and Hillsborough County without success, he said. Project Return would have needed a similar award to keep the housing, one of the few that caters to people with mental health issues, open for another year. Officials also tried to find a company willing to buy the complex and continue its current mission.

Residents were first told about the funding crisis May 9, but the letter only said that the nonprofit was "exploring options." It wasn't until June 6 that residents learned the complex was being sold. It and an adjacent lot are estimated to bring in about $2 million.

A notice of termination of leases followed June 24. Drake said that if people still have not found a home when the property transfers ownership, it may be possible for them to stay an additional 15 days.

The 23-apartment complex on Waters Avenue opened in the mid 1990s. Residents are assigned a roommate in each two-bedroom apartment and share a bathroom, kitchen and living area. The complex is within walking distance from a Project Return facility where services and support are on hand.

Drake said 17 residents are still living in Friendship Palms. Seven of them may have a lead on new housing, he said.

Those left at Friendship Palms are anxiously glancing at the calendar.

Thompson, a resident since 2006, fears he will end up in an assisted-living facility.

"I am going to be losing most of this," he said, gesturing at his furniture. "It's like I'm going to be packing up my mom and dad's picture and out the door."

Cynthia McTier, 59, lives with anxiety, depression and PTSD. She moved to Friendship Palms a little over a year ago with her service dog.

One Project Return employee has helped her look for housing online, she said. But, she said the nonprofit has told its staffers they're not permitted to take tenants in their cars to view housing.

"We've had to do most of the leg work ourselves," she said.

Jaclyn Dancy struggles with a learning disability in addition to depression and bipolar disorder. Her mother typically helps her organize her life but is unable to put up her daughter in her retirement community in Sun City Center.

“I'm just scared that I'm going to be homeless," said Dancy, 48. "I'm a woman. I don't want to be on the street.”

Contact Christopher O'Donnell at codonnell@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_times.

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