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A whistle blower who found her voice

By ELIJAH GOSIER, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 26, 2002


DUNEDIN -- Helen Somerset was sad to leave her friends behind, but she couldn't stop that smile from sneaking up and fastening itself to her face.

DUNEDIN -- Helen Somerset was sad to leave her friends behind, but she couldn't stop that smile from sneaking up and fastening itself to her face.

She worried that some would suffer when she was no longer there. Many didn't have a driver's license and relied on her to drive them to doctors' appointments and grocery stores. But the smile kept coming.

Given a choice, Mrs. Somerset, 74, would have chosen not to go, but she was not given a choice.

Still, the smile kept coming.

She was going to a better place. It has a heated pool and better landscaping and tidier sidewalks.

"I hate to laugh, but it's a pretty nice place," she said last week as she packed to move out of Palm Lake Village in Dunedin, where she has lived for six years. The manager of the property refused to renew her lease.

"These are dear, dear people and these are my friends, and I love every one of them," Mrs. Somerset said of her Palm Lake neighbors. "I love the neighborhood, I love the people, I love the place. I just can't get past the management."

Management is the Pinellas County Housing Authority, which leases the 475-unit complex and rents to tenants age 55 and older. Many, like Mrs. Somerset, receive rent assistance through the federal subsidy Section 8.

Somerset, who describes herself as a whistle blower, an activist and a pain in the butt, says she was none of those things growing up, nor during her career as a certified nursing assistant. Not until two years ago, as a Meals on Wheels volunteer, did she begin to see a need to start speaking out. She was not pleased with the way many of the elderly people to whom she delivered meals lived and were treated.

"We are older people and we're not exactly rich, but don't treat us like trash," she said.

She suddenly lost her tolerance for things she thought needed to be corrected, whether it was unsightly garbage cans placed below windows, or a disabled man having to pay to have his apartment painted. The housing authority became very familiar with her.

"If I write something, it's never anonymous," she said.

Mrs. Somerset said she was just trying to make the community she loved, her community, a better place. Sometimes, whether by coincidence or consequence, her complaints were followed by results. For example, a beat-up refrigerator was removed after she threatened to photograph it.

When the housing authority didn't respond, she brought problems to the attention of anyone she thought could exert some influence. Several congressmen and lawyers have heard from Mrs. Somerset during her two years of activism.

"From reports that I got, she was really not happy at all," said housing authority director Helen Piloneo. "If she's not happy with us, she's free to go anywhere else (and use her Section 8 assistance)." So the housing authority aided Mrs. Somerset's search for happiness by refusing to let her remain miserable at Palm Lake Village.

But concern for Mrs. Somerset's emotional state -- the housing authority's desire not to see her unhappy -- was not the full reason it refused to renew her lease. Piloneo said that other tenants had also complained about the new activist.

Another likely factor in its decision was the emotional state of the housing authority itself. Bunkered for several years now against an onslaught of negative scrutiny, the authority was probably less patient than it could have been with a 74-year-old woman who has just discovered her voice.

An audit released in 2000 by the U.S. Office of the Inspector General said the authority mishandled about $4.5-million in the previous 10 years, during which time Piloneo was finance director. The authority was barred for a time from filling apartments after it was found to be discriminating against black and disabled tenants.

Piloneo herself became the focus of criticism a year after she became executive director, when the authority's board gave her a 66 percent raise. That made her one of the highest-paid housing authority directors in the nation, even though she manages one of the smaller entities.

Negative publicity, including complaints from tenants, followed the raise for months. None of the acrimony was allayed when one of the board members who voted for the raise -- a longtime friend of Piloneo -- was quoted dismissing residents' concerns. "Of course. They're poor," Rosita Gregorio-Tena said. "If I were poor, I would say, 'That woman's taking that money, and I can't even have one-eighth of that in my pocketbook. ' "

It was a telling comment coming from one of the people charged with protecting the rights of the poor, usually voiceless, tenants.

Concerns of the tenants were treated as if they were mere blips on the authority's weather map, minor squalls that posed no threat of turning into major storms.

At some point, Mrs. Somerset got it into her head that a squall can bring change, if it blows hard enough and long enough. "One person can make a difference," she said, "and I guess I'll be that person. Don't take my freedom of speech away. I'll fight you for that."

Now, Mrs. Somerset is gone from Palm Lake Village. She doesn't want her new address revealed or to have her picture in the newspaper. She wants a fresh start at her new home.

It is a better place, she said, with that smile she couldn't suppress.

If it isn't, when she and her new-found voice get settled in, it will be.

-- To reach Elijah Gosier, call (727) 893-8650 or e-mail gosier@sptimes.com.

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