TAMPA — Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill continued his shake up of the county’s Homeless Recovery Program this week in the wake of a scandal that saw hundreds of homeless clients referred to substandard housing.
Merrill told county commissioners Wednesday he had fired Sam Walthour, director of the county’s social services division, which included Homeless Recovery. Last week, the homeless program’s manager, James Silverwood, resigned under pressure.
Walthour, who was making $100,651 a year, could not be reached for comment.
The men’s departure followed the disclosure earlier this month that the county had paid more than $625,000 to Republican fundraiser and former Tampa Port Authority chairman William “Hoe” Brown to house homeless clients in rundown apartments.
Though the program is still being investigated, Merrill said it was apparent “most clients were being placed in substandard housing.” He blamed poor leadership and a lack of effective policies and procedures for the suffering endured by many county clients.
“That clearly was not something that I approve of; it’s not something that I want this organization to stand for,” Merrill said. “So I do apologize to those clients and to the community for that.”
Merrill said he has ordered the county’s internal auditor to investigate Homeless Recovery and other rental assistance programs for fraud and other abuses. Meantime, code enforcement officers are checking rental properties the program used to ensure they are up to code.
“We’ll have a good clean list to start from,” Merrill said after the meeting.
The county also doubled the amount of money that will go toward a month’s rent for a family of four to $1,200. Most of the money comes from county property taxes.
The Homeless Recovery Program is now operating under the Affordable Housing department, but Merrill said he’d like to see the county quit operating the program altogether. On Monday, he met with representatives of some of the county’s largest social service providers, including Metropolitan Ministries, Salvation Army, and the Homeless Coalition.
At some point, Merrill said, he will bring commissioners a plan to contract out homeless services to the private, nonprofit providers. As it does with other nonprofit organizations, the county would perform yearly audits of the agencies chosen to handle housing for the homeless.
Ideally, temporary housing would be one component of getting homeless people on their feet, said Commissioner Sandy Murman, who supports Merrill’s outsourcing plan. It should be incorporated with food, clothing, job training and other assistance, Murman said.
“This is the time for us to break out of our shell and go talk to these other people,” Murman said. “They’re the experts.”
Commissioners generally supported Merrill’s plans and complimented him for taking quick action to revamp the troubled homeless program. However, Commissioner Kevin Beckner said he wanted the internal auditor to widen the scope of her inquiry to include other county programs.