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Investigation: Officials sent sick, dying homeless people to unlicensed facility Date: 03/19/14

Michael LaForgia
Michael LaForgia

Will Hobson
Will Hobson

By Will Hobson and Michael LaForgia

"A home, but no help" was the fifth story in our seven-part investigative series on Hillsborough County's Homeless Recovery program. Earlier in 2013, we had been tipped off that the chairman of the Tampa Port Authority was running an illegal slum trailer park. That story turned into an investigative project when we learned some of the people living there had been sent there by Homeless Recovery, a government agency which paid their rent with public money. As we started to amass records, it became clear the Port chairman's slum was one of dozens the county had subsidized for years with a steady stream of homeless people, including families with children and veterans, and tax dollars.

One of the most important choices we had to make in framing our stories was selecting which properties to focus on. Bay Gardens Retirement Village stuck out as an obvious choice for two reasons: 1) It got a lot of money (it was third on our list of private landlords to get Homeless Recovery money) and 2) A search of investigative reports and orders issued by the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration showed the place had been a nightmare of an assisted-living facility before the state stripped its license.

Throughout the series, we had two major challenges:

  1. Obtaining clean, accurate records from the county, and

  2. Tracking down former Homeless Recovery clients, who rarely keep the same phone number for more than a few weeks at a time.

Making a records request for all people sent to Bay Gardens was a nonstarter; the county already had established its inability to fill requests like this because of an arcane records system and caseworkers who rarely kept thorough records.

We instead made a records request of emails by Homeless Recovery employees mentioning "Bay Gardens Retirement Village," hoping to turn up something. Attached to one of those emails was a spreadsheet of client payment records. Bingo. We had a list of names of clients we knew had stayed there on the county's dime. Now we just needed to track them down.

This we did through Accurint searches and cold-calling potential phone numbers of clients and relatives. We ran names through databases of voter registration information and local jails for arrest records. We found 12 former residents and, as we talked to these people, we realized they all had something in common: They needed medical care when Homeless Recovery sent them to Bay Gardens.

Then we started coming across Homeless Recovery clients who had died at Bay Gardens. We requested autopsy reports from the medical examiner's office for that address, which gave us a list of deaths with detailed reports of conditions around the bodies and medical ailments of the dead, as well as contact information for relatives. We called medical experts and read them the list of ailments one of those who died at Bay Gardens suffered from, to get an idea of what kind of assistance he could have gotten if Homeless Recovery sent him somewhere better.

In the aftermath of losing their assisted-living facility license, the management at Bay Gardens made an ethically questionable decision. Rather than close, they decided to stay open and only take people who, according to them, didn't need urgent medical care. They picked up Homeless Recovery as a regular client. But, according to residents we talked to and our observations from a few visits, there were still indications Bay Gardens acted as a de facto assisted-living facility. Some residents said employees gave them medication. One showed us a form that indicated a doctor discharging her from a hospital thought he was sending her to an assisted-living facility when he sent her to Bay Gardens. The doctor listed the day-to-day activities she needed assistance doing, like taking her medication and bathing.

By the time we got there for interviews with management, they had done a decent job of cleaning the place up. County code enforcement had started inspecting all properties getting Homeless Recovery money after a previous story and, after failing an inspection, Bay Gardens management had invested in some cleaning supplies. They refuted allegations they were still operating as an assisted-living facility, but admitted they primarily took in "medically needy" clients.

Six weeks after the story ran, Homeless Recovery officially closed. In early 2014, the county started the process of outsourcing the agency's services to several local nonprofits.

Michael LaForgia is an investigative reporter for the Tampa Bay Times. He joined the newspaper in 2012. Will Hobson covers Hillsborough County government for the Tampa Bay Times. He joined the newspaper in 2011.