TAMPA — For the past 64 years, the Edmund Gaines Graham Home in the heart of east Tampa has sheltered the elderly and infirmed. Now, the remnants of the building lie in piles of rubble on the east end of the property, shoved aside to make way for the future: a 90-unit apartment complex that will continue the tradition of housing the poor and disadvantaged, and now, the homeless.
The project, spearheaded by Gracepoint, which is headquartered just to the west of the construction site on Henry Avenue just east of 22nd Street, will offer half of the permanent housing units to the homeless. The other half will be inhabited by Gracepoint clients made up of elderly or people with mental and behavioral issues.
The project, funded with federal money funneled through the state, will cost about $18 million to build and take a little more than a year to finish. There will be 90 units of affordable housing with at least 45 units of permanent housing set aside for homeless individuals.
Everyone who lives there will have access to fully integrated medical and mental-health care, substance treatment services, pharmacy and on-site social services, all offered through Gracepoint.
Ground breaking for the project was held Friday morning next to a large leafless pecan tree that has yet to come out from under its winter sleep.
“The efforts to help the homeless in this community are so much better now than they used to be,” said Guy King, chairman of the board of directors of Gracepoint.
The push to house the homeless before securing services for them began a few years ago and is being hailed by homeless advocates as the main reason the number of people living on the street has dwindled over the past couple of years.
It’s important for someone to have a home address, advocates say, before receiving services and possibly training to land a job. A home, they say, anchors people and gives them self respect and keeps them safe at night.
It also keeps many of them from landing in jail and court on vagrancy or trespassing charges or in the hospital where taxpayers pay the costs of indigent care.
A few years ago, Gracepoint opened Cypress Landing in north Tampa. It was a run-down apartment building that was renovated to provide housing for 17 chronically homeless people. That facility has saved the public $400,000 a year in hospital, jail, court costs and other services typically picked up by taxpayers, according to a University of Tampa study released last year.
Joe Rutherford, CEO of Gracepoint, said the new project, called The Graham at Gracepoint, sits on a site of some historical significance.
“It’s a great story,” he said. “Mrs. Graham died in 1938 and left money for a home for the elderly, to be paid for out of the Graham Trust.” That totaled about $300,000 at the time.
It took more than a decade before the funds were released to build an apartment building to house up to 28 elderly residents. But over the years, the trust dwindled and eventually, trustees approached Gracepoint, then known as Mental Health Care, to take over the management of the building. In 1992, that happened.
Rutherford said eventually, running the home depleted the trust by about $50,000 a year. Last year, Rutherford said, trustees approached Gracepoint to turn the operation over entirely, including management and the land, asking that the facility remain open for at least five years.
“We were hoping for 10,” Rutherford said.
Then, Gracepoint began looking at upgrading the facility and landed a much-sought-after, low income housing tax credit and the funding was secured.
The plans call for a 90-unit, three-story facility. Rent for the homeless residents will be paid for through U.S. Housing and Urban Development vouchers.
Antoinette Hayes-Triplett, director of the Tampa Hillsborough Homeless Initiative, fully backs the Gracepoint project along with several others scheduled to open later this year that provide more housing space for the homeless.
Currently, there are about 1,800 units available for homeless people scattered around Hillsborough County, she said. The goal is to add 500 more over the next five years, and the Gracepoint project is a step in that direction.
“We are definitely behind the project,” she said. “We are working with Gracepoint to make sure services are available and to make sure the homeless population has access to those apartments.
“We’ve already had conversations about units available,” she said. “We are super excited about this.”
She said the Gracepoint project is one of several that are scheduled to come on line this year to provide more housing for homeless people in Hillsborough County.
“We’re taking a proactive approach in this county with regard to decreasing the homeless population,” she said. “The whole system really is starting to come together here.”
Eligible homeless individuals interested in moving into one of the affordable housing facilities should contact the initiative, Hillsborough County Homeless Services or Gracepoint, she said.
The 20 or so residents who were in the building that was demolished are living in another residential facility not far from Gracepoint. When the construction is done, they will return, said Mary Myles, who has managed Graham Home nearly 25 years.
“The Graham Home,” she said, “has always been my baby.”
She has gotten close to some of the residents living there, including Andy Scott, a military veteran who suffers from schizophrenia and who first came to her more than two decades ago. Initially, Scott was kicked out because of behavioral problems. He returned after six months on the street, she said.
“He begged me to come back,” Myles said. “He said, ‘I won’t do nothing no more’ and he did not.”
That was 24 years ago, she said, and Scott hasn’t been in trouble since.
“He wanted to be part of something,” Myles said, “to be part of something productive.”
Scott’s brother, Harold, came to the ground breaking along with his 95-year-old mother, Lucile.
“This place has really helped him,” said Harold Scott, a retired Tampa code enforcement officer. “He hasn’t been in the hospital once since being in the Graham Home.
“He’s been able to stand on his own and take care of himself.”