When his Touched By an Angel halfway house and homeless shelter were evicted from a Pinellas Park motel in June, Pastor Jeffrey Polhill wouldn't say where his tenants would go.
It's no longer a mystery — they're scattered in houses in Gulfport and St. Petersburg, where Polhill has charged some people $112 a week to sleep on a filthy floor with no mattresses, one former resident says.
"I believe they are running some type of scam,'' says 26-year-old Craig Renfro.
Polhill declined to comment last week when a reporter approached him and his wife, Vonda, at the three-bedroom home in Pinellas Park where they are staying. "You can go ahead and go now,'' Polhill angrily said.
The Polhills' Touched By an Angel Ministries has long been controversial, with former tenants accusing the couple of exploiting people who sought their help in finding jobs and staying off drugs. But as the Tampa Bay Times reported last fall, Touched By an Angel is just one of thousands of unregulated "sober living" operations in Florida, some of them run by felons, drug dealers and unscrupulous entrepreneurs.
More than three dozen people were left on their own last year when Peachford House, a sober living program in Clearwater, abruptly closed right after Christmas. The operator of a St. Petersburg halfway house is due to go on trial next month for shooting to death a former resident.
Faced with horror stories like those, Florida lawmakers instructed the Department of Children and Families to tally the number of sober living facilities statewide and recommend if and how they should be regulated. A report to the House speaker and Senate president is due Oct. 1
"There are good sober homes and there also are very bad sober homes that do nothing but rip people off and leave them homeless,'' said Sarah Snyder, executive director of Pinellas County's Homeless Leadership Board.
Some regulation is clearly needed, Snyder added, though not so onerous as to drive good facilities out of business.
Pinellas County alone has dozens of sober living places, with Touched By an Angel one of the largest.
Polhill, now 50, spent three years in state prison in the 1990s for grand theft, burglary and sale of cocaine. He then became a pastor and in 2007 started the ministry with his wife.
Faced with eviction from its original site in St. Petersburg, Touched By an Angel moved to a former motel on 62nd Avenue N in Pinellas Park in 2009. The ministry has provided temporary shelter for the homeless but also runs a faith-based sober living program that requires residents to memorize scriptures and attend Bible study classes.
Touched By an Angel initially belonged to the Tampa Bay Management Information System, which tracks people receiving public assistance. But the ministry was kicked out of the system a few years ago for allowing one resident to input personal information, including Social Security numbers, about other residents.
"You're not supposed to be entering data on people you know,'' said Snyder of the homeless leadership board.
In 2011, the board stopped referring people to Touched By an Angel after some former residents complained about the intensely religious atmosphere, lack of privacy and problems getting access to their money. Snyder says she asked to see the ministry's financial records but was refused.
For a time, the Polhills also ran an illegal telemarketing operation on the premises.
Last October, Cadence Bank, which owns the motel, sued the Polhills for $64,000 in delinquent rents. According to the suit, the bank also lost a $1.2 million sale when the Polhills blocked prospective buyers from doing a walkthrough of the motel.
The bank got a writ of possession but agreed to let the Polhills stay for a few more months while they tried to raise money to buy the motel themselves. They couldn't, and on June 14, some 40 men, women and children were ordered to pack their things and get out.
Renfro says he and several other men wound up on the top floor of a rundown house on 17th Street S in St. Petersburg. Because there were no beds, his parents bought him an air mattress.
Other clients, Renfro said, were resettled in a nearby house and a home in the Gulfport/South Pasadena area.
Unlike many Touched By an Angel clients, Renfro has no criminal record and says he's never used drugs. He had a hard time holding a steady job, though, and was verging on homelessness in March when he saw Touched By an Angel's website and was impressed by the ministry's focus on helping people become "self-sustaining members of society.''
Renfro says the Polhills received substantial donations of food but were stingy about passing it on to residents and told them to apply for food stamps. Polhill also required tenants to give him power of attorney so he could pick up their paychecks.
The only work Renfro says he could find was day labor jobs, which all but evaporated in June and early July because of heavy rains. Still, he says, Polhill demanded he pay the $112 weekly rent by July 5 or leave. His parents picked him up on July 4 and he is staying with his grandmother while looking for work.
"I thought it was an okay place because it said on its website it was a nonprofit organization,'' Renfro said. "But I guarantee they are making a lot of money off people who stay there.''
Susan Taylor Martin can be reached at [email protected]