The Tampa Bay Times won a Pulitzer Prize for local reporting Monday, earning national recognition for stories that exposed a government agency's inhumane treatment of Hillsborough County's homeless population.
The award was given to Times staff writers Will Hobson, 29, and Michael LaForgia, 30, whose reporting on the county's Homeless Recovery program revealed that the agency — created in 1989 to provide transitional housing for the poor — funneled millions of public dollars to slumlords and placed families in unsafe living conditions.
It was the 10th Pulitzer Prize the Times has won and the second since it changed its name from the St. Petersburg Times in 2012. Hobson and LaForgia are the youngest journalists to win in the newspaper's history. Their prize is the first the Times has won in the contest's local reporting category.
"I'm so proud and moved to be here, and be part of an institution like the Tampa Bay Times that so deeply values the importance of journalism locally as well as beyond our borders," Times editor Neil Brown said after the award announcement. "You've got to say this about the tremendous work we've just been honored for: It is making Hillsborough County and the Tampa Bay area a better place to live, and we have a real place in making that so every day."
The Times' coverage of Hillsborough County Homeless Recovery represented a joint effort of the newspaper's Tampa newsroom and its investigative team. Bolstered by sophisticated analysis of government records and vivid, first-hand observation, the stories led to the most significant reform of the county's social-service programs in 20 years.
It began when Hobson, at the time a police reporter working the night shift, looked into a tip from a homeless man who claimed that a prominent Republican fundraiser was operating a squalid trailer park in Tampa inhabited by the homeless.
Working with LaForgia, an investigative reporter, Hobson discovered that fundraiser William "Hoe'' Brown had received $600,000 from Homeless Recovery over 15 years for homeless people he had crammed into properties including the bug-infested trailers and an extended-stay motel outside his Seminole Heights business office.
The Times' reporting led to Brown's resignation as chairman of the Tampa Port Authority. But that was only the beginning, as more revelations involving more landlords followed.
Homeless Recovery, LaForgia and Hobson found, had paid to house clients — including children — in slums alongside sexual predators, drug addicts and mentally unstable residents who used the hallways as a latrine.
The reporters made late-night visits, sometimes at personal risk, to sites where Homeless Recovery had housed clients. They memorably documented the plight of residents who "lived among roaches that swarmed in every room, skittering across bathroom soap dishes and crawling over toothbrushes" or were "forced to breathe moldy air, step over unmopped puddles of human waste or sleep on mattresses infested with bedbugs."
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Several ranking county employees resigned or were fired in the wake of the Times' stories, which eventually led to the permanent dissolution of the Homeless Recovery program and the outsourcing of homeless services to local nonprofit groups.
"The county recognized that change was needed," said Tim Marks, president of Metropolitan Ministries, one of the nonprofits now working to provide safer housing for individuals and families who previously would have been served by Homeless Recovery. Increased access to humane homes for the homeless was "a direct result of this reporting," Marks said.
At an emotional gathering Monday in the Times' Tampa newsroom, Hobson praised LaForgia as "the sharpest, most intelligent, most driven journalist I've ever had the privilege of working alongside." LaForgia said Hobson was "fearless in reporting these stories. He went places that scared me."
Times Publishing Co. chairman and CEO Paul Tash, who is a member of the Pulitzer board, noted in his remarks to the newsroom that four of the newspaper's 10 Pulitzer Prizes have come in the past six years, which he called "a sign of the general standard of excellence and expectation and ambition" that guides the Times' work.
"Everybody comes to work at this outfit knowing when they come into the door that they have a chance to do really, really important work," Tash said. "And that's what really gets us up in the morning."
News researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Peter Jamison can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3337. Follow him on Twitter @petejamison.