A dream turns sour for founder
A VA official rates a local program "fair, " but a TV report devastates its leader.
By STEPHEN NOHLGREN
Published July 1, 2007
ST. PETERSBURG - The decrepit old hospital hadn't seen patients for years. It was vacant, riddled with asbestos and about to be demolished. Cars whizzing by on the nearby interstate could practically make it shake.
But Sophie Sampson, board president of the local St. Vincent de Paul Society, looked at it and saw opportunity.
For years, the Catholic charity's soup kitchen had taken care of St. Petersburg's homeless population. Maybe the old hospital on Fifth Avenue N could put a roof over their heads as well.
As Sampson envisioned it, St. Vincent de Paul would buy the hospital, spiff it up, move in the homeless, then get them benefits, health care and jobs.
It was an ambitious undertaking for the old soup-kitchen crew. But seven years later, they are on their way: The Center of Hope houses one of the nation's biggest support programs for homeless veterans.
When tent cities sprang up this year, the center's showers and indoor sleeping areas helped defuse a showdown between city officials and homeless citizens.
But Sophie Sampson, 71, is anything but exhilarated.
She quit last month after 12 years of helping to run St. Vincent de Paul. She stays at home, depressed and as rundown as the old vacant hospital.
She blames a television station.
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St. Vincent de Paul paid $500, 000 to buy Doctor's Hospital, along with a smaller administrative building and adjacent land. That drained the society's bank account, Sampson said.
Renovations boosted the cost to more than $3-million, largely underwritten by contributions from St. Petersburg, the Juvenile Welfare Board and a $949, 215, 000 grant from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Such grants are a common arrangement for helping homeless veterans get back on their feet. The VA has awarded about 350 since 1994. The money goes to buy or renovate temporary housing. After vets move in, the VA kicks in additional daily payments for rent, food, counseling, case management, job training and other services.
The Center of Hope has set aside 50 of its 88 single-person rooms for vets.
To learn about grants, Sampson said, she attended a one-day class at the University of South Florida. Her VA application was loaded with promises the center would provide within 13 months.
One prominent pledge: that 65 percent of the vets, many disabled by substance abuse or mental illness, would get job training. When the center opened in early 2003, Sampson discovered that making promises was the easy part.
For starters, the Center of Hope always has been a money-losing proposition, St. Vincent de Paul officials said, including an $80, 000 loss last year.
The VA's daily payment for vets, based on the center's costs and revenue streams, started at $24.20 a day, then dropped to $11, then bounced back to $14.28.
Most other homeless programs collect the VA maximum of $31.50, said Peter Dougherty, the VA's homeless program director.
But even at $31.50, no one expects VA payments to cover all the services promised in grant applications, Dougherty said. It's up to the programs to pull in extra revenue, including fees from vets who have income.
The Center of Hope did a good job with food, housing and helping vets qualify for VA disability payments, he said. But jobs programs were halfhearted at best.
Bob Yakubisin, a human relations professional, volunteered to teach job skills and resume writing at the center.
"We put some signs up and ... not one person showed up, " Yakubisin said. "We waited a couple weeks and advertised again, and nobody showed up."
Finally, two years after the center opened, Rep. C.W. Bill Young helped Sampson secure a $248, 000 Department of Labor grant to open a job program to train 70 homeless people.
Using Labor Department funds to satisfy promises made to the VA is common practice, Dougherty said. "We were very happy they got the grant."
Yakubisin joined the center as a full-time employee, purchased computers and arranged classes in culinary arts and paralegal services. Vets and other homeless residents began studying.
It was August of 2006, more than three years after Center of Hope had opened its doors.
A month later TV cameras showed up.
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Steve Andrews, 54, has two decades of investigative reporting experience at WFLA-Ch. 8 and six Emmys.
After an unhappy veteran complained about the Center of Hope, Andrews questioned Sampson about the lagging jobs program.
The VA gave Sampson $900, 000 to buy a building to provide shelter and job training, "but she only delivered half the goods, " Andrews said in the first of several broadcasts.
"What happened to the money? Where is the money?" one veteran asks in a clip repeated several times.
St. Vincent de Paul documents show that the $948, 215 was spent on construction. But there's no question that the jobs programs promised in the grant application were late in coming.
Andrews and station attorney Gregg Thomas declined to comment for this story because Sampson has sued, claiming the broadcasts left the impression she misappropriated funds.
"The grandchildren were asking if I was going to jail after the first show, " Sampson said. "All they were hearing was that I took this money."
At one point, the camera focused only on Sampson's hands, which contained four rings given to her by her husband Jack, a 75-year-old Air Force retiree.
Sampson earned $59, 590 last year, according to her income tax return. She and Jack live in a modest Seminole home and are raising three grandchildren.
After the television broadcasts, Sampson removed every ring but her wedding ring.
"She felt people were looking at her, " Jack said this week. "She stopped wearing the rings."
In one broadcast, WFLA also showed tight hand shots of two other people. It's standard camera technique, Andrews said in a deposition.
"We never implied that she defrauded anybody, " Andrews said. "We stated, and she confirmed. She did not fulfill promises made in a contract to the government."
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VA homeless programs often fail to fulfill every promise made on grant applications, said Dougherty. Applicants bite off more than they can chew, and circumstances change.
When that happens, the VA renegotiates contracts, adjusts payments, or both. In 2004, for example, the VA notified the Center of Hope that it had overbilled the agency.
The center has disputed that finding and the two sides are still negotiating.
"It's very, very common for a program to run into a variety of obstacles, " Dougherty said. "We recognize that you are running programs that are costing you more than we are reimbursing."
Dougherty said he would rate the Center of Hope's overall performance as "fair, " and said he expects improvement as the center gains experience.
"They acknowledged they were weak (on jobs) in the beginning, " he said. "They got better."
After WFLA's initial broadcast, Sen. Bill Nelson asked the VA's inspector general's office to investigate. It ended two months ago without any sanctions.
In November, the St. Vincent de Paul board voted to remove Sampson's name from the signs outside the old hospital building.
"The recent negative TV coverage must be addressed with a complete new image improvement program, " according to board minutes.
Still, the board gave Sampson, a former nurse who served as society president or executive director for 12 years, mostly without pay, a $5, 000 raise in December.
About four months ago, Sampson said her health nose-dived. She had a ministroke, thyroid problems, heart problems and depression. She lost 30 pounds, she said, until doctors found polyps in her stomach.
Last week, after four quick hospitalizations, her doctors advised her to quit. She resigned June 19.
At the center, the third jobs class is about to graduate.
So far, 75 homeless people, including 10 vets who live at the center, have completed training as cooks, paralegals, nursing assistants and other jobs, Yakubisin said.
Thirty-six have found full-time jobs.