Barbara Reed says she has reached out to 20 assisted living centers and nursing homes in the past week since being told that Westchester Plaza, the state’s largest assisted-living facility for Medicaid recipients, will close next month.
So far, the 67-year-old woman hasn’t been able to find anything suitable and may end up staying with a friend until she can find a new place to live. Reed suffers from anxiety, a congestive heart condition, depression, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and high blood pressure.
But she feels sorry for some of her neighbors who can barely see, are partially paralyzed or have no family.
“There are plenty of people here who are worse off than me,” Reed said.
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Reed is among the 117 residents of Westchester Plaza who have been scrambling to find a place to live since being told last week that the facility, at 554 Summit Ave., will close its doors Aug 10. As of Wednesday, 77 people were still living in the building, according to the Texas Department of Aging and Disability Services (DADS).
Westchester, which has operated at the site since 1998, has a long and troubled history in Fort Worth, enduring financial hardship and complaints from residents over the years concerning inadequate staffing and other issues. Its owners said they are shutting the facility because it was too hard to operate in the current regulatory environment and with changes to Medicaid.
Amidst the turmoil of the shutdown, an employee found a 61-year-old resident dead outside the building on Monday evening, slumped over in his wheelchair. The Tarrant County Medical Examiner has not yet posted a cause of death. The state is also investigating.
Case workers with DADS are working at the complex to help residents transition to a new home.
“After we learned Westchester Plaza opted to close its doors, our staff visited the facility and continues to be on-site to monitor closure activities,” said Kelli Weldon, a spokeswoman for the Texas Health & Human Services Commission. “We are assisting with ensuring residents are provided choice in their selection of a new facility.”
She said case workers could not speak with the Star-Telegram about the process, “given the regulatory nature of their work.”
The United Way of Tarrant County’s Area Agency on Aging has also been on site, said David Frederick, the group’s vice president of marketing and communications.
The agency reports that while some residents have found places and are waiting to move, others are refusing to leave, Frederick said, telling workers they’ve “already picked a place under a bridge.”
The agency is intervening to ensure residents don’t fall into homelessness, Frederick said.
“They don’t know where to go,” Frederick said. “Tarrant County has a lot of assisted-living spaces, but most are filled. Temporary places are also filled, and they can’t afford many places.”
Westchester’s on-site operations manager, Jeff Bryant, declined to comment. Doug Sweeney, president of Westchester Prime Management, the group that owns the property, said he would not speak until the facility is closed.
“We’re trying to do something that we’ve never done and I don’t have time to talk about the details,” Sweeney said.
In April, Fort Worth-based E Capital Partners bought the note on Westchester Plaza in a bulk sale of Housing and Urban Development loans, the firm said. Erich Holmsten, a firm principal, said they learned of the closure after the sale.
‘Public health crisis’
Once it closes, Westchester Plaza will join a long list of facilities that once housed the aged and infirm in Texas that have ceased to operate.
Those running an assisted living center have little room for error, said Susan Hodges, a consultant and a former nursing home administrator. Medicaid, which is funded partly by state governments, does not set reimbursement rates high enough to pay fines or hire high-priced corporate employees, Hodges said.
“You have to keep the state happy and you have to keep the feds happy and those are hard things to do,” Hodges said. “A lot of homes stopped taking Medicaid because it became too much of a hassle. They became private.”
Some Westchester residents, who asked not to be identified because they fear retaliation, say they are angry that they only received 30-day notice before they have to move.
But Dennis Borel, executive director of the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities, said their anger is misplaced and should be directed toward state and federal lawmakers, who have kept Medicaid reimbursement rates in Texas so low that it’s difficult for assisted living centers to make it.
Strained finances have made it difficult for the industry to hire enough people to attend to a growing elderly population in need, Borel said. Meanwhile, government funding for long-term care remains stagnant or is decreasing, he said, and legislators in Austin and Washington are doing little to help.
“The Legislature addressed mental health and child protective services because these were systems in crisis and the Legislature responded with more money,” Borel said. “This will be the next big public health crisis in Texas and then it’ll get addressed.”
Fort Worth City Councilwoman Ann Zadeh, whose District 9 includes Westchester Plaza, said Thursday that her office has not heard directly from any residents who need help. But she said the city’s Community Action Partners program and Neighborhood Services Department are coordinating staff to see how they can help.
“I know it is a difficult task,” Zadeh said of the relocation process.
Some assistance could come from a recently awarded $300,000 grant from the Texas Veterans Commission to implement a Forward Home veteran assistance program, that can provide Tarrant County veterans with housing help.
Meanwhile, the United Way issued a community plea for moving supplies, such as boxes, bubble wrap and tape, as well as volunteers to help residents move once they have found a new spot. Volunteers must fill out a background check on the United Way website.
Already, moving supplies have come in from DADS and The Moving Factor moving business in Fort Worth, as well as individual cash donations to help pay for supplies, Frederick said.
Officials with two of three businesses in a strip center behind the Westchester say they have also been given unofficial notice to leave, but not yet a deadline. They are each leasing on month-to-month contracts.
Grant Pittard, vice president with Scrubs Etc., said his landlord declined to renew when his last lease ran out in October. He said Scrubs would like to stay downtown and is looking for a space where it can continue selling medical uniforms.
“It would take at least two months for us to move,” Pittard said. “But with all the permitting, three months is probably closer. It’s really a disruption to change places, but we understand the situation and have to go along with it.”
Reed said she could live with one of her daughters in Houston, but she will likely stay with a friend in Fort Worth until she can find a new permanent home.
She said she wants to stay in Fort Worth because her doctors and pharmacy are here, and because she really hates Houston.
Reed, who just moved into Westchester in late May, said there were hints that changes were afoot. Employees who were regularly at work stopped coming. Food service that once offered multiple menu choices drastically trimmed offerings, Reed said. Insects were multiplying, and she said she was bitten by bedbugs.
None of this helped her anxiety and depression, she said.
“We are all nervous wrecks,” Reed said. “I don’t even know why they let me move in here and now I have to turn around and leave. I could have used that $1,200 somewhere else. Now I don’t have any idea where I’m supposed to go.”
Reed’s daughter, Meshar Embers, 45, of Houston, said her mom was happy at Westchester when she initially moved in.
“To be able to have her own space and her own apartment was perfect for her,” Embers said. “She liked it there. Now she’s back to being sad again. To watch her be sad again is horrible for her, it’s horrible for me. She asked me why she didn’t die when she had her stroke back in 2012.”
Ben Heath, 53, who said he suffers from lupus and arthritis, said he was ready to leave before he got notice that he was being told to leave. Westchester residents fear retaliation should they break any of the center’s rules, Heath said.
“They’ll put you out like that,” Heath said. “I have relatives who have told me they’ll be up to get me so don’t worry about it. So I’m not worried about it.”