Lewis is tall and lanky, and his arms are tattooed with demons and dragons. State records show that he and several other residents are registered sex offenders.
Owner Ruben Alvarez Jr., took boarders’ Social Security checks and food stamps and gave out a $54 monthly allowance — minus the cost of honey buns and soda from the neighborhood Save-A-Lot, Lewis said. Those who couldn’t make the $900 monthly rent were required to work at the shelter, he said.
“There wasn’t a whole lot I could do about it. At the time, I didn’t have a place to go,” Lewis said.
Alvarez also threatened residents, threw them out and started fights, Lewis said. At six feet and 300 pounds, bald with a full goatee, he was a formidable figure.
Authorities have been dispatched to the home more than 90 times since early 2012, not counting sex offender checks. At least five residents have been hospitalized under the Baker Act, which allows involuntary hospitalization of persons who are mentally ill and a threat to themselves or others. Officers reported that one man was suicidal and hadn’t taken his medication. Another scratched his own arm with a knife. A third drank his own urine out of a two-liter bottle because he “enjoys it.”
Police noted that the home was “unclean” and that raccoons, ducks, chickens, pigeons and doves were kept there.
A former employee of the shelter told authorities in April that bed bugs were climbing out of the walls, residents were forced to reuse paper plates to eat food that had expired two years earlier, and the owner was turning off the air conditioning and water. A mentally ill resident was providing medical care to other residents — some of whom had seizures, schizophrenia or AIDS.
The owner, the former staffer said in a complaint to AHCA, “makes one of the male residents ... perform sexual acts on him.”
When state healthcare inspectors visited the home a week later, they determined it, too, was an unlicensed ALF.
Alvarez, the owner, admitted to inspectors he knew state law required the home to be licensed, but said he never applied because he couldn’t pass the state’s background check. He had a long rap sheet dating back three decades, including multiple battery and assault charges. He was also a registered sex offender, and police records show he had a drug or alcohol addiction. Before opening the shelter, Alvarez had served five prison terms. He is back behind bars now, for failing to report to authorities as a sex offender.
AHCA said it hadn’t received complaints about Tampa’s Touched by the Hand before April. But the Department of Children & Families notified the agency six times that it suspected the shelter was an unlicensed ALF, including four times in the past two years, records show. DCF received 16 abuse reports for the facility, including allegations of asphyxiation, medical neglect, physical and mental injury, and sexual abuse. It didn’t find enough evidence to confirm the reports, but it made referrals to AHCA as early as 2009. Yet, AHCA didn’t send inspectors to the home after getting the notifications.
“What they saw didn’t constitute unlicensed activity, so a complaint investigation wasn’t opened,” said Polly Weaver, AHCA chief of field operations.