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Group home closures forcing some into the streets, nonprofits say

More than 100 group homes closed in the last year
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Posted at 4:41 PM, Nov 15, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-16 12:42:50-05

TAMPA, Fla. — Group homes, supporting Floridians with intellectual and developmental disabilities, are struggling to hire staff. Providers are calling it a crisis, with funding from the state among the lowest in the country.

The ABC Action News I-Team found that within the last six months, more than 100 group homes have closed, forcing some residents into the streets.

As advocates and providers push lawmakers for more money to care for some of the state's most vulnerable, the I-Team met with an organization that has served individuals in the Tampa Bay area for nearly 70 years and says its group homes could be next on the list of closures.

The nonprofit PARC, Providing Advocacy and Recognizing Capabilities, in St. Petersburg, provides programs and services to more than 600 children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

'An invisible population'
“Although we are almost an invisible population — we’re still here," Brian Rothey, Assistant Vice President of Adult Community Programs said.

When Rothey first came to work for PARC in 2008, he said it was a seamless transition, given his family upbringing with his younger brother, Charlie. He has Down syndrome, an intellectual disability caused by a genetic disorder.

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“Charlie is — he’s loud, he’s funny, he’s charismatic," Rothey said. “I want people to know that he exists. I want people to know that he should be provided the same opportunities that anyone else should be provided. And I want them to know that he enjoys coming to his program, that he’s loved by his sister and by his brother."

Rothey said it's important for people to understand that the people they serve — matter.

"The programs and services that they receive — they matter. The staff that come in and work with them every single day — the staff matters," he added.

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Funding increase 'absolutely crucial'
And that staff is severely underpaid, Rothey said.

The money Florida provides for the care individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities is among the lowest in the country.

“This point in time, it is absolutely crucial," Rothey said of a funding increase.

Earlier this year, the Florida legislature made a historic investment in what's known as the iBudget Medicaid Waiver, a program that lets individuals receive care in their community, rather than an institution.

The move is projected to allow nearly 2,000 people to come off of the state's years-long, 20,000 person waitlist. But that funding increase doesn't tell the whole story.

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“What we’re seeing, recently in a pandemic and now coupled with a staffing crisis — we’re not able to bring the staffing in or hire on new individuals to provide these programs and services. So, while it’s great that the state received $96 million to remove individuals off of the waitlist and transition them onto the full Medicaid waiver program, we’re questioning — where’s the staff? Where’s the staffing going to come from?" Rothey said.

The typical wage is $11 an hour.

PARC just recently raised that hourly wage to $13 for group home staff, a move Rothey said, "has had a great impact so far, but it’s also put us at almost a $2 million deficit."

Rothey told the I-Team, driving into work seeing "For Hire" and "Employees Wanted" signs across town is "exhausting."

"You see it every day. You pass McDonald's and Wawa, you know, a lot of other big-name stores that are starting folks out at $14, $15 an hour and you basically just want to be able to provide some sort of livable wage for the folks that are providing these services to our most vulnerable population."

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The staffing shortage is a familiar story. But for this one, the stakes are high.

“Statewide, more than 100 group homes have closed. Just in this past year," Rothey said.

The I-Team obtained the numbers from the state's Agency for Persons with Disabilities (APD) and found those closures were between March 1 - Sept. 30, 2021, displacing hundreds of people across the state. The agency reports it had 2,154 active group home facilities at the end of September.

The top reasons for closure were listed as financial, no longer wanting to provide services, and lack of staff.

“That is an absolute possibility," Rothery said, when asked if closing group homes is a possibility for PARC if things don't change. "And it’s in discussions now, to be quite honest.”

'Hidden story': Closures pushing people to jails, psychiatric facilities, and homeless shelters
For nonprofits like Attain in Cetral Florida, it's now the reality.

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“We’ve never closed a residential group home until now. In the last year, we’ve closed four," Attain's executive director Craig Cook told the I-Team, calling it a forced choice that left dozens without a home.

“There was denial, there was anger, there was a lot of tears," he said. “At the time, at discharge, many of them were either in county jail or in psychiatric facilities or homeless kinds of shelters because there was no other place for them to go. And that’s disheartening. But that’s the reality right now with the current crisis we’re in.”

Others have had to move back in with family, requiring a loved one to quit work and become a full-time caregiver.

“It’s this hidden story of the vulnerable and the lives they’re living in our community, when there isn’t appropriate supports available for them," Cook said.

The Florida Association of Rehabilitation Facilities (ARF) said what is happening is not sustainable.

“This is something unprecedented," President and CEO of Florida ARF Tyler Sununu said. “We have members — almost every one of them — closing homes, reducing services, and have been in existence for 20, 30, 40, 50, 60 or more years, that have said they have never experienced anything like this.”

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The association told the I-Team it conducted a survey in June and found, on average, a 41% turnover among staff and 23% of positions are open. Providers are now asking the state legislature for $93 million, which would bring in a $147.5 million match and raise hourly wages to $14.

“I want people to know that the individuals we serve can be active members in our community. They can be contributing members to our community. They're happy, they’re excited every day to come to program or to work out in the community that they work in," Rothey said. "To walk through a program like an adult day training program or to tour a residential facility and just see all of the smiles and all of the great outlooks on life, it’s priceless. And it really changes your attitude, your mindset, and you want to share that with the world.”

Adults with developmental disabilities re-energized with creation of haunted house

Melanie Etters, a spokesperson for the Agency for Persons with Disabilities, told the I-Team:

"Many clients, advocates, and providers have alerted us to the need for provider rate increases. We understand that in order for our clients in the community to receive services that providers must be adequately compensated. While it will take legislative action during the upcoming session to authorize a provider rate increase, the Legislative Budget Commission recently approved more than $1 billion in enhanced funding for Home and Community-Based Services which includes provider stipends and retention payments."

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Florida has submitted a proposal to the federal government, asking for an additional $191 million over the next two years as part of the American Rescue Plan Act stimulus package, to bring more developmentally disabled Floridians off of the iBudget waitlist.

Many of the details are still being worked out, Etters said. The Agency for Health Care Administration (AHCA) is handling the COVID-19 relief funds.

On Monday, the DeSantis administration announced that it is investing $1 billion to support home and community services, including that $191 million to allow more Floridians to receive services through the Agency for Persons with Disabilities.

That agency tells the I-Team in the same period that 100 group homes closed, roughly the same number opened. But the beds in those facilities are not immediately filled and that the process takes time.

Sununu said the fact that there is still not a clear timeline for that 1-time boost in federal funding is a problem because a matter of months could mean the difference between group homes staying open or shutting down.

"We’ve been waiting and waiting and waiting and hoping it would be done quickly, by the holidays," Sununu said. "We have multiple members that have been holding on as much as they can, and now it looks like that money may come in February, and they’re going to let another group home or two close because they can’t hold on until February or maybe March when that comes out.”

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This story came from a tip. If you have something you’d like the I-Team to investigate, email kylie.mcgivern@wfts.com or call 1-866-428-NEWS.