Blind, deaf, possibly homeless soon

Rusty Ackerman's assisted living facility says he is violent and needs to leave. He denies the charges.

Published May 26, 2006

TAMPA - Rusty Ackerman's lease expires in five days.

He is blind and deaf and has difficulty walking. He says he has nowhere else to go if he's forced out of the Bayou Courtyard Apartments, 7545 83rd St. in Seminole.

The owners of the complex, a community for the deaf and hearing-impaired, want Ackerman out. They he is prone to violent outbursts and screams at them using sign language, which scare the other tenants and staff.

Ackerman, 41, said that's not true. He said the complex is retaliating against him for standing up for his rights. He filed a lawsuit this month, hoping to win a reprieve that would allow him to stay in his apartment. During a court hearing Thursday, U.S. District Judge Richard A. Lazzara urged both sides to work out a compromise.

But neither side would budge. And now the clock is ticking.

"If he gets kicked out, he said, he'll wind up behind the garbage bins at the BP gas station," said Ken Dandar, Ackerman's lawyer.

The hearing continues Tuesday, the day before Ackerman's lease expires. Lazzara said he'll make a ruling before the deadline, even if he has to stay all night.

"I've been on the bench for 20 years," Lazzara said in court Thursday. "This is a very unique case with a very unique set of facts."

Ackerman was born deaf. He lost his sight in 2004. People communicate with him through tactile sign language, the method Anne Sullivan used with Helen Keller.

He was born in Indiana, near the Illinois border, and left home at age 18. He moved to Florida, where he graduated from a private high school for the deaf and took a training course as a chef at a Tampa hotel. He worked as a prep cook for the Safety Harbor Resort and Spa and later as a caregiver at an assisted living facility.

Ackerman has lived at Bayou Courtyard since 2002. But his problems with the building's owners, the Deaf & Hearing Connection of Tampa Bay, didn't really start until 2004, after he lost his sight, according to court papers.

In fall of that year, Ackerman's roommate moved out of their apartment after a hospital stay. After the roommate left, staff members at the complex wanted to charge Ackerman the full rent, $610 a month.

Ackerman, who receives about $700 a month in Social Security disability payments and hasn't worked since losing his sight, couldn't afford to pay. In December, 2005, staff members from the complex and representatives from the Department of Children & Families held a meeting with Ackerman to come up with a solution.

At the meeting, the staff agreed to lower Ackerman's rent to $480. They told him it would go back up to $610 when he signed a new lease in May, but he could find a new roommate in the interim, according to court documents.

In March, Ackerman started living with a friend from the complex, Jocelyn Epple, who agreed to be his roommate. But in April, he received a notice from the building owners saying his lease would not be renewed when it expired May 31.

Ackerman called his lawyer, who filed a lawsuit in federal court, accusing the Deaf & Hearing Connection of Tampa Bay of violating the Fair Housing Act and the Rehabilitation Act.

At issue at Thursday's hearing was whether Lazzara should grant an injunction to allow Ackerman to continue living at Bayou Courtyard until a trial could be scheduled.

The proceedings were sometimes slow. In addition to Ackerman, several of the witnesses from the Deaf & Hearing Connection were deaf. More than five sign language interpreters were needed.

Three of them took turns communicating with Ackerman. A fourth translated for the other deaf witnesses. Another translated the witnesses' sign language into spoken English for the rest of the courtroom.

Samuel J. Heller, the lawyer for Deaf & Hearing Connection, argued his clients were not obligated to provide housing for Ackerman because he was abusive to others at the complex, both physically and in the aggressive sign language he used.

Tom Austin, who works at Bayou Courtyard, testified several tenants and staff members complained to him about Ackerman's behavior, among them Ackerman's caseworker, Michael Yelapi.

"Rusty used to go into his office and yell at him," Austin said. "Michael would come into my office, shaking."

But Dandar said his client was never violent.

"Rusty, have you ever in your entire life been arrested?" Dandar asked.

"Never, never," Ackerman answered through a court-appointed interpreter. "I've never been in jail in this state, ever."

Records from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement support Ackerman's claim.

Dandar said Ackerman is very independent and outspoken. He believes Deaf & Hearing Connection is punishing his client for standing up for his rights.

"It's bizarre," Dandar said in an interview this week. "I can't believe they're doing this to him.

Lazzara repeatedly asked Heller for credible, documented proof that Ackerman was physically violent. Heller didn't provide any.

Outside the courthouse Thursday, Heller said he will present more evidence when the hearing continues Tuesday.

"There's a lot of issues," Heller said. "There's a lot of sticking points here."

Carrie Weimar can be reached at 813 226-3416 or cweimar@sptimes.com.