LEE COUNTY — In an exclusive investigation, Fox 4 has learned at least five people living in supportive housing in Lee County have died in just the last three years.
The organization that owns the homes is called Community Assisted and Supported Living, or CASL. It buys homes in regular neighborhoods to house people struggling with drug addiction, mental illness, or chronic homelessness, but after a series of deaths and other concerning incidents, questions are being asked about how this program is managed. So we took the time to visit several properties to learn more.
We first spoke with Roger Davis, who lives in Cape Coral. He said he has always known that his neighbors have special needs, but it was about three years ago when he became concerned those needs were not being met.
“One of them passed away, and it was about 3 days before anybody found him. And I end up finding him," said Davis.
Davis said the discovery was gruesome.
“Soon as I hit the garage door I could tell he was dead because I could smell him... I picked the lock on the door, I go in, not all the way, but I go in, and he was dead," said Davis.
After that day, Davis said he started keeping a closer eye on the people managing the property, and his concerns got worse.
“Not taking them to the doctor when they’re supposed to, to their appointments. Store, I usually end up having to take them to the store," said Davis.
We tagged along on one of those grocery store trips. Because Davis is retired, he has the time to help, but he feels like if he wasn’t there, his neighbors wouldn’t have anyone looking out for them on a regular basis. One man, who lives in the CASL-owned home next door to Davis, described the problem with his case manager.
“She’s supposed to take you to the appointments, and you give her notice so she can write it down in the book, but then she’ll come back a week later, or sometimes the day before, telling you she can’t do it, you got to find your own way because she’s busy," said the man.
The people living in that house didn’t want to be identified, but we wanted to hear more voices, so we took a trip across Cape Coral to another CASL property. That’s where we met Larry Neelis. He’s been renting from CASL for the past 4 years, and has stories of his own.
“I came up from doing errands, and the police were here, and I of course said come into my house, and I said well what’s going on? And they weren’t going to say anything, and I could tell that something happened bad," said Neelis.
That “something bad” was his neighbor dying. According to police records, two people have died in the past three years in Neelis' duplex. That’s in addition to numerous police calls. Neelis said most of those were for his roommate, who had mental issues.
“One time he went across the neighbor’s and was up on top of the roof of their car jumping up and down," said Neelis.
CASL’s website shows that it offers supportive housing, with dedicated case managers to make sure needs are met. We asked Neelis about his managers.
“A lot of them were just one day you saw them and the next day they were gone. They would quit that quickly," said Neelis.
CASL is based in Sarasota, so we took a road trip to their headquarters to learn more. We met with C.E.O. Scott Eller, and asked about the program. He said CASL offers low rent to people with disabilities, as low as $200 a month, and anyone can apply to live there.
“Their disability should not be a factor. What should be a factor is they want a place to live," said Eller.
And that’s not just Eller’s opinion, it’s the law. We spoke with an attorney who explained how the Fair Housing Act works.
“It protects persons with physical disabilities. It protects persons with mental illnesses. It can protect persons with substance abuse issues. All of those are considered disabilities under the Fair Housing Act, as well as the ADA," said attorney Jack Morgan, with Aloia, Roland, Lubell & Morgan.
And Eller said he’s personally had that tested in court.
“We were in federal court with Sarasota County for 4 years, along with the United States Department of Justice, to advocate for people protected under the federal Fair Housing Act, and fortunately the project is still running," said Eller.
That means CASL can offer housing to these individuals, and it’s not even required to notify the police. We checked, and the Fort Myers Police Department told us they had never heard of CASL. Eller said CASL does offer case management to tenants, but that’s also not required.
"We can offer services, we can advocate for them to accept services, but it’s up to them to say yes I will receive your services," said Eller.
For the people who do accept case management, Eller said his staff are there for them.
“They can spend about an hour and a half per week per individual... It would be no different than a senior citizen with home health, where a home health person comes out once or twice a week," said Eller.
And if a tenant causes serious issues, they can be evicted. That’s what happened to Neelis’ roommate after another incident.
“The police went and looked for him, and he had run off. Run off in his underwear and went up in a tree a couple of blocks from here," said Neelis.
We checked with police, and it turns out Neelis isn’t the only one dealing with regular police visits. In total, CASL owns 19 different properties in Lee County, and over the last three years, police have had to respond to those houses a total of 238 times. That’s an average of more than four times a year per house, but Eller said he still feels everything his case managers are doing at this time is sufficient.
In fact, Eller said he’s so confident the program works, CASL is in the process of building a new, 80-bed facility in Sarasota to house more people. That construction is part of CASL’s plan to expand its operations rapidly. In addition to the building in Sarasota, it also plans to turn land in Fort Myers into a 95 bed residential facility for people with mental illness, disabilities, or chronic homelessness issues.
Back in Davis’s neighborhood, he said he just hopes to see the people already in the program taken better care of.
“I mean it seems like they just stick them over there, here’s a roof over your head, fend for yourself," said Davis.
In all, CASL owns more than 100 properties in 6 different counties, and manages more than 600 people.