PHILADELPHIA - A bare mattress to sleep on, cold air blowing into a bedroom, and hunger. That's what FOX 29 Investigates found when they took an undercover camera inside a city rental to meet a frail, elderly man.
FOX 29 Investigative Reporter Jeff Cole has his story and the controversial history of his former landlord.
Jesse Bowden spends his days in a small room in North Phillly.
Asked what he's sick of, he says, "Particularly, the thing I have been thinking, you know. … I've been contemplating suicide, stuff like that."
Bowden sleeps on a bare mattress. There's a table, a TV, but no bureau. A portable heater stands near an oxygen machine. His belongings ring the floor.
A door leading outside on a cool December day is rimmed in sunlight. It doesn't fit well within its frame, allowing cold air in.
There's a bucket on the floor where this fragile 69-year-old throws up.
He speaks to his social worker about killing himself.
"What makes you want to do it?" she asks.
"I thought I have nowhere to go but up," Bowden said. "I'm ground zero here. This is ground zero."
Bowden lives at 1318-1320 West Cumberland Street. It's a multi-story building where rooms are rented.
But it's also something else – a former state-licensed personal care home with a record so troubled that Pennsylvania shut it down.
"Are you here to take these people's money?" Cole asks the owner, Anthony Shields.
"Hell no," he answers.
"You're not?" Cole asked.
"I am absolutely not," Shields said.
Cole later told Shields, "Your records are horrific."
"That's a false lie," Shields said. "That's a terrible lie."
When Cole asked about an outbreak of tuberculosis, a serious infectious disease attacking the lungs, Shields replied, "People can't contract things? I didn't give it to them. You said it like I gave it to them."
According to state licensing records, inspectors on two dates in November 2011 found "multiple residents of the facility had contracted tuberculosis." The records state Shields was aware of the outbreak but "failed to inform residents or the residents' designee of the potential harm of an active tuberculosis outbreak."
And there's more: Inspectors also found a "severe infestation of bedbugs which Mr. Shields admitted to be uncontrollable despite numerous attempts at eradication."
"A horrific outbreak of bedbugs that you said you couldn't eradicate," Shields said.
"There are bedbugs all over the city," Shields repeated several times.
Shields' personal care home license was revoked for "gross incompetence."
Cole: "Mr. Shields, they shut you down because you had a tuberculosis outbreak in here, right? In 2011?"
Shields: "No. No."
Cole: "There was no tuberculosis outbreak?"
Shields: "There was."
Cole: "And they shut you down."
Shields: "Not because of that."
Cole: "What did they shut you down for?"
Shields: "Um, there was some false accusations made."
But that's not what the records say.
Personal care homes are residences that feed, house and provide services to four or more unrelated individuals. State law requires they provide safe, humane, comfortable and supportive settings for aged, blind, disabled, dependent adults – like Bowden.
The residents often pay for their care with their social security benefits. That's how Bowden pays.
The home at 1318-20 West Cumberland was run for years as Wilson's Personal Care Home by Shields' grandmother, Fannie Wilson, who died in 2011.
Inspection documents show Wilson had an uneven record with regulators, sometimes operating on "provisional licenses" because of violations. She also failed to pay thousands of dollars in real estate taxes to Philadelphia. City solicitors repeatedly placed liens on the property trying to get the money.
Shields took over the home after his grandmother passed and later won back his personal care license after that 2011 revocation. But in January of 2013 the state did an "emergency removal of residents" after conditions represented an "immediate and serious danger." Shields no longer has a state personal care home license, but that doesn't mean he's out of business.
"Are you running a quality facility in here?" Cole asked.
"Of course," Shields answered. "Listen, I'm running an unlicensed home. I'm allowed to have three people under the state."
He's right. Under state law – which critics have argued is open to abuse – if there are fewer than four residents needing personal care services in a home, it doesn't require a license or receive state inspections.
That is what Shields is running.
Cole: "And you went to three people because if you had four or more you'd need a state license."
Shields: "Of course."
Cole: "And you don't have a state license."
Shields: "Yes, that's why I only have three."
Cole: "And you'd get the regulation that comes with it?"
Shields: "That's why I only have three. That's why I only have three."
FOX 29 Investigates was urged to meet Bowden late last year by his social worker. She's asked us not to identify her.
The social worker said he was unkempt and often hungry.
With Bowden's permission, in early December, we entered his room with his social worker and a camera.
There was the bare bed, limited furniture, the ill-fitting back door and the bucket.
Bowden complained he wasn't getting enough to eat.
Bowden: "I'm hungry, too."
Social worker: "You're always hungry."
Bowden: "I can't help that."
Social worker: "I know."
Bowden: "I'm always hungry."
Asked if they don't feed him that much," Bowden said, "No, no, not significant enough."
The social worker gave us these photos of a largely empty, dirty refrigerator. They show a hole in the ceiling of the kitchen with a bucket below. The photos depict an orderly kitchen, but it appeared in need of cleaning, and the sink was clogged.
The social worker says a complaint about Bowden's living conditions was made in early October to Philadelphia's Corporation for Aging, the county advocate for the elderly.
The social worker says she accompanied an inspector with the group in a late-November visit to Bowden when he was pulled out. He later returned on his own but could not explain why to the social worker.
A spokesperson for the corporation said it could not comment due to privacy concerns.
We asked Shields about Bowden.
Shields: "I took very good care of him. I cared for him a lot."
Cole: "His social worker, who we met, said that you did not take good care of him…"
Shields: "Not true."
Cole: "…that you did not give him his money…"
Shields: "Not true."
Cole: "…and that you did not give him his meds?"
On Jan. 28, nearly two months after we visited Bowden, four investigators with the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services completed an inspection of West Cumberland.
They did not meet Bowden. He was found dead of natural causes in his room on Dec. 14.
Investigators say Shields' operation will remain unlicensed. He still has only three personal care residents inside, along with 10 other renters.
The conditions? Adequate, say inspectors, with food, heat and bedding. But they're watching.
Shields says he's proud of his business, but not enough to let us in.
Cole: "Give me a tour."
Shields: "Go take a tour of your car as you drive down the street."
Cole: "Come on. Come on, Anthony, give me a tour.
Shields slammed the door shut. He says he's improving his place to eventually get his state license.
Last month, the property was to be sold off by the Philadelphia sheriff for back taxes. Shields forked over nearly $54,000 to keep it, Cole reported.