1. Opinion

Editorial: Overdue overhaul of services for poor

Published Nov. 29, 2013

For years, Hillsborough County's Homeless Recovery program sent people to Bay Gardens Retirement Village, a place where the mentally ill had access to cutting tools and toxic chemicals, a patient punctured his colostomy bag and smeared himself in excrement, and roaches roamed freely. This facility is another example of the abject failure of the county's troubled housing program to place the homeless in safe, appropriate settings. As the county overhauls the way it handles housing for the poor, it must make sure more controls are in place to put people in appropriate environments and crack down on substandard housing.

The Tampa Bay Times' Michael Laforgia and Will Hobson reported last Sunday that the Homeless Recovery program sent people who were sick, dying and in need of medical care to Bay Gardens. Once an assisted living facility, Bay Gardens lost its license in 2010 after a change in ownership and management began a steep decline in the quality of care. Without the burdens of inspections and other regulations required for ALFs, Bay Gardens increased its number of beds from 81 to 101. It also continued to take in people who needed serious medical attention and should have been sent to facilities that could provide appropriate care.

Since 2011, Hillsborough County sent at least 130 sick tenants to live at Bay Gardens, at a cost to taxpayers of $260,000. Their ailments were many, among them: cancer, liver disease, spinal injuries and bipolar disorder, hardly the kinds of residents who were self-sufficient, as Bay Gardens' management claims.

In the wake of the scandal that has plagued Homeless Recovery, Hillsborough officials are taking appropriate steps to right the considerable wrongs done to the poor and homeless on their watch. They are dismantling the Homeless Recovery office on Dec. 31 and turning over the program's management to nonprofits that specialize in working with this population. Already, county officials are stepping up the inspection of facilities that it pays to house the homeless and meeting weekly to review code enforcement reports. Good.

They also should make sure the new management has acceptable — clean, properly staffed and size-appropriate — options to house the people they will be paid to serve. Accommodations should be made for the ill, rather than cutting corners and trying to find the best deal. Hillsborough County officials also should work with the private sector to build more housing that meets the exacting standards they should set for any vendor who will receive taxpayer dollars to assist the homeless. That will require more money. Hillsborough expects to spend $1.6 million on homeless housing efforts in 2014, with just $619,000 earmarked for direct client assistance. The bulk of the money, $1 million, will go toward staff salaries and other expenditures.

The county will have to keep close watch over its vendors, even those that do this kind of work on a regular basis. A mess in a different provider's hands is still a mess, and the county ultimately will still be accountable.