Francis House adds space, expands services in Tampa

By : Daniel Lancaster
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Robert Shelley counts his blessings. As a 44-year-old active member of the LGBT community, the Tampa resident spends a lot of time in the garb of a Tampa Bay Sister of Perpetual Indulgence as Tootie Truly Humble. Out of habit however, he is no less an advocate for human rights and the rights of the HIV-positive community and speaks freely of his 20-year, passionate fight against the virus and the stigma that comes along with it.

But Shelley did not have any such support system in place when he arrived in Tampa five years ago, and it is easy to see why he is so thankful.

“In the beginning after I first moved to Florida,” he explained, “I had a difficult time with my finances.”

The limited resources made available to Shelley all pointed in the direction of a big purple heart on Florida Avenue overlooking The Francis House Charities.

Keeping the faith
Nestled in the heart of Tampa’s Seminole Heights neighborhood, Francis House was founded in 1990 under the teachings of St. Francis of Assisi and provides HIV supportive services, both to the infected and affected. It offers an environment designed to empower clients to become self-sufficient members of the community. Although plenty of faith is needed to operate with this mission in mind, no particular faith is required to receive services.

Under the executive direction of Joy Winheim for the past nine years, the organization is soaring to new heights. However none of this success was easy to achieve. There are some exciting new programs, a new Francis House annex, and a food pantry program in desperate need of a boost.

Winheim says 30-50 clients spend a large portion of their time at the facility daily, and among the many facets of this organization are opportunities for clients’ self development and growth. Along with providing its clients with a daily hot breakfast and lunch, Francis House facilitates individual and group therapy sessions, like relapse prevention, life skills, nutrition, and a spirituality group.

“Our spirituality group does not push religion. It’s more about hope,” Winheim explains. “We’ve taught what Buddhists practice during one group and how to prepare a Seder meal during the next. We ask things like ‘how do you pray?’ We try to cover it all but that’s, of course, hard.”

Because praying isn’t really specific to a religion, a universal method is key to touching on each individual’s spirituality.

“It’s more about something a client can take hold of and leave with,” she says.

Staying stocked: Medical case manager Katie Roders stands in the Francis House pantry. The organization relies on community donations to keep the shelves stocked all year long. Photo by Bruce Hardin

Staying stocked: Medical case manager Katie Roders stands in the Francis House pantry. The organization relies on community donations to keep the shelves stocked all year long. Photo by Bruce Hardin

In a reality where the opportunity to give is frequent, there are many in the LGBT community wary of contributing to religious organizations, and that stigma may have left a mark on agencies like Francis House, often confused with ones whose missions and finances are tied to a church or organized religion.

But as an interfaith agency, Francis House offers a unique message of hope through community. “Even when the founder, Sister Anne Dougherty, was here, we were considered an interfaith agency because it doesn’t matter what faith you are,” Winheim says.

Victoria Fortugno-Oliver, a five-year veteran and director of client services, believes lessons can be gleaned from the parables of many faiths, and no one teaching owns the right to prayer.

Still, in some cases, an interfaith agency can receive more funding by casting a wide net.

“If the grant we are writing accommodates faith based organizations, we include that,” Fortugno-Oliver explains. “If not, we take it out. Both shoes fit.”

Shelley shared the crisis of his own faith during a time of struggle that time, and sought out the help of Francis House’s individual counseling sessions with Teresa Pappas, Francis House’s on-site social worker and counselor.

“It has brought me closure and healing,” offers Shelley, adding that mental well-being is a key element to his treatment plan. “Because of the love, friendship and support from Francis House, I was able to be whole again. I can genuinely say that my faith has been renewed because of this agency.”

Wishes granted
When it comes to grant writing and case management, Oliver is quite an asset to the agency. Case managers and counselors work hand-in-hand to identify and assist clients who might otherwise fall through the gaps in the community’s safety net.

“Tampa AIDS Network was no longer going to be in existence and there was a lot of transition and flux in the community at the time” says Oliver, who found a home at Francis House shortly after TAN closed and helped steer the group towards case management.

As a transplant, Shelley and many others in dire need of medication were lost in the shuffle of candidates.

“Without assistance, HIV treatment and the other programs we offer would cost an individual thousands of dollars a month,” Oliver says. “Nobody can do that alone.”

The number of patients that fall behind on medications or regular doctor visits is staggering. Shelley observed that it is specifically against medical advice to interrupt medication cycles, particularly in HIV medication regimes which could be rendered ineffective with just a few lapses.

Individual attention to clients is paramount to Oliver, who passionately works to obtain whatever resources Francis House cannot assist with in-house.

“You never know what a client will need: a client has a dog, and that dog is their support system, so we call around town to find a vet because it lends to the health and well being of the client,” Oliver says. “It really is tailored to each situation. The client has to engage in it.”

Most case management agencies in Florida have waiting lists, and Oliver encourages those whose needs are not being met to sign up now.

“I think Vicky coming back into the field gave me the confidence to go to the board in pursuit of case management dollars,” Winheim says. “It changed our momentum of growth quite significantly.”

That physical growth comes in the form of the new annex.

Before the annex, the Francis House was a single-building entity residing in a re-purposed auto mechanic garage that was last remodeled in 2004. Land was bought for the approval of the annex when it became clear the agency was bursting at its seams.

“As we started to write grants and get money for the building,” explains Winheim, “we were thrilled to have room to grow. Then since the building took as long as it did, we were full and the new building became a necessity for the growth we had already achieved.”

All of which came at no small cost on its own—the cost of time, mostly. It took six years to complete the project because of permitting and building delays.

More private space for case managers became very important, with usable space overlapped by increasing need for client privacy. Now, with the arrival of the annex, everyone has his or her own office and no one is doubled-up, although Winheim mentions, they do not disallow that possibility again should their anticipated growth continue.

Currently, with this new space comes another usable conference and event room, available to any group by donation for evening use.

Growing pains go beyond just the echoing hallway of this sizable two story complex.

“This is the first time in our history that we’ve had a mortgage,” Winheim says. “This building consumed several years of my life. This building could have been done in half the time with more resources.”

Programs for fundraising are gaining momentum. Strike Out for AIDS had a successful showing in its eighth year in August and Go Eat, Tampa Bay! is a yearly event that raises money to help offset the mortgage as well.

This holiday season, there are other fundraisers scheduled, including the Tampa Sisters’ Holiday Ham-It-Up, which benefits the food pantry at Francis House.

Winheim points out that the ear-marking for each project within the fund raising efforts are adhered to, and transparently so.

“Global Giving is a worldwide network with a goal of $50,000 with donations anonymously coming in every day and exclusively benefitting our food pantry,” Winheim explains. Go Fund Me is a program specifically for the annex. We get $10 here and there, and it’s still coming in.”

Meet here: The Francis House's recent expansion gives more space for community gatherings and activities. Photo by Bruce Hardin.

Meet here: The Francis House’s recent expansion gives more space for community gatherings and activities. Photo by Bruce Hardin.

But the goal itself is exponentially higher Links to these donation efforts, along with the facility’s wish list, can be found at FrancisHouse.org. Among the items on Francis House’s wish list are basic office supplies like paper and binders and food and hygiene items for the pantry. “It’s a supplemental food pantry,” Winheim says, “and it is not meant for your weekly food shopping. That being said, of course every item makes a difference.”

Even pricing each item at only $1, (items are provided free to participating clients, who then earn Francis House dollars) these expenses add up quickly, and Francis House receives a mere $500 per month budget for the supplies, making quick use of any surpluses.

“Realistically if you tried to put a retail value to what we give out monthly, it’s probably closer to $6,000,” Winheim says.

Oliver agrees, and says that supply is currently not keeping up with demand. In its history, Francis House has distributed 100,000 pounds of food to more than 400 people.

Shelley is among those who has benefitted and offers a “Pay-it-Forward” philosophy.

“The Francis House was so helpful with the food pantry items I received, and now I strive to donate back at least once a month. If someone gives you something in your time of need, you become family. I love to hold dinners during Go Eat! Tampa Bay and with the Sisters, Francis House is my favored charity. ”

Beyond the holidays
The Francis House sees an influx of donations to its food pantry every holiday season, which is appreciated, Winheim explains, but only covers a part of the organization’s needs.

“Christmas is easy,” says Winheim. “Thanksgiving is easy. But January through October we struggle like everyone else.”

Francis House feeds 80 clients at both its Thanksgiving and Christmas meals. Winheim said the organization also tries to get gifts for those clients as well.

Local grassroots organizations like the Tampa Leather Club and giving trees from a few local churches have been helpful in that regard, and Winheim is grateful for those efforts.

“So many people think that Christmas is just for kids,” she says. “But plenty of our clients haven’t celebrated Christmas or received a gift in years.”

And each client is appreciative, Winheim adds.

New services
As Francis House grows, so do its services. On Nov. 1, it branched into housing services.

“Short Term Rent Mortgage and Utility Assistance is designed to provide up to 21 weeks of assistance with home bills,” says Oliver. “It’s a homeless prevention program. If you are in danger of being homeless, this is a proactive measure to keep that from happening.”

Each case will be handled differently, she says, so funds can be stretched as far as possible.

STRMU differs from the privately funded one-time-only program currently resourced through Francis House, where the monthly budget only allowed assistance to 4-5 people in need a month.

“The wait list is quite long due to this,” Oliver says. “We’re expecting a very large flood of requests for this program.”

But even with expansion, the true mission of Francis House remains the same—and that relates back to the purple heart.

“We have a great group of people that care about the clients here and take pride in their work,” Winheim says. “We’re just an organization that still wants to change lives, even if it’s some soup, a Christmas gift or a ‘hello’ every morning. All those little things make a difference. There’s only so much we can do on our own—and you can only do so much in a day.”

Those “little things” have a special place in Shelly’s memory, and gladly recounts the impact Francis House had on his life.

“I love Joy and Vicky so much for what they do, and for what is in their hearts,” he says. “When people read this, I hope they really consider making a donation, attending a fund raiser or at least recommending [this agency] to a friend in need. Tell ’em Sister Tootie sent you.”

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