TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – Troubling complaints from a Tampa veteran to 8 On Your Side recently led the city to take a closer look at – and take action on – a taxpayer-funded homeless shelter for veterans.
Army veteran Roger Hartnett recently decided sleeping in his car while he waits for a Department of Veterans Affairs housing voucher was a better option than Tampa’s New Beginnings homeless shelter. Records obtained by 8 On Your Side reveal several violations at New Beginnings after inspections, even though the shelter receives hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayer money to help veterans who have nowhere else to live.
“It’s horrible and I love my fellow veterans but it’s not fair to these guys,” Hartnett said. “It’s depressing and it’s emotional, stressful and these guys got enough issues.”
Hartnett served two years in the Army, but 30 years later, he was one of hundreds left homeless in the Tampa Bay area who turned to the VA for help. He was referred to New Beginnings – one of several local VA-funded shelters.
Pastor Tom Atchison founded the non-profit about 40 years ago. Records show the organization received more than $1 million from the VA during the past three fiscal years to house up to 37 homeless veterans a night.
8 On Your Side was there when Tampa code enforcement responded to complaints and inspected New Beginnings.
We also filed a records request to obtain reports that revealed dozens of alleged problems. According to the documents, there were smoke detector, structural, electrical, plumbing and other violations. Multiple tenants also claim there are bed bugs, the documents show.
“Got the bites right there,” Hartnett said when asked about the pests. “It’s appalling. I just can’t believe veterans are treated this way. And the VA is asleep at the switch.”
Atchison calls the infractions minor.
“We go through cycles where all of a sudden we get all the maintenance done perfect,” Atchison said. “And then we go through a cycle where everything starts breaking down.”
Despite New Beginnings reporting about $1.1 million in revenue in its most recent tax filing, a total that includes VA funds and other monetary sources, Atchison said it’s not enough.
“They’re old buildings built in 1946,” he said. “Our contract, when it comes up this November, I’m going to tell them either I’m not going to do it or I need more money.”
VA spokesperson Kim Antos declined a request for an interview, but said in an email code enforcement violations are reviewed by the agency.
“If the provider does not resolve identified issues within the set timeline, we move veterans and stop payment to the provider,” Antos said.
That did not happen at New Beginnings.
We brought the list of infractions to U.S. Congressman Gus Bilirakis, who called them “terrible.” The Republican representative for Florida’s 12th District said there’s no excuse for the types of issues found at New Beginnings.
“It’s not good enough for anyone, particularly our veterans,” Bilirakis said. “This is unacceptable.”
The VA inspects veteran homeless shelters once a year. A public records request for the last two years of inspections at New Beginnings is still pending.