SOUTH PASADENA — Keith Burke thought he had found the perfect home — canal-side, moderately priced, in a quiet neighborhood.
That is until Pastor Jeffrey Polhill leased the rundown house next door and started renting out rooms for $500 a month.
In the past year, Burke has helped and consoled many of Polhill's tenants, who have complained to him of rats, roaches, electrical shorts, uncollected garbage and rude treatment by Polhill and his wife, Vonda. Burke has even helped some tenants move out before their leases expired because conditions were so bad.
"These folks need to be shut down,'' he said.
Jeffrey Polhill, who had a lengthy criminal record before becoming a pastor, denied taking advantage of people. Any problems are "just like in every house,'' he said before hanging up on a reporter.
Since being evicted from a Pinellas Park motel in 2012, the Polhills have been trying to re-establish their Touched by an Angel Ministry in the Gulfport/South Pasadena area.
Former tenants say Polhill has found a lucrative market — temporarily homeless men and women who get Social Security disability income.
"He preys on people who have nowhere else to go,'' said Patricia Hill, 50. "I've never seen such an abuse of disabled people.''
Hill, who suffers from seizures and heart problems, told the Tampa Bay Times in April that she drove trucks until she was badly hurt in an accident. When living with a relative didn't work out, Hill answered Touched by an Angel's ad on Craigslist.
She said Polhill took her to a Wells Fargo ATM and "had his hand out trying to grab the money'' as she withdrew most of the $721 she gets each month in disability payments. In addition to the $450 rent, he wanted $50 for electricity and $100 for food.
Hill moved into the 1,050-square-foot house, sharing a tiny bedroom with a mattress on the floor, towels for curtains and an electrical outlet that shot out blue flames when she tried to plug in a hair dryer. The clothes dryer didn't work; nor did the vacuum cleaner.
Regardless of their faith, Hill and other tenants were required to attend services every Sunday at an evangelical church in Tampa. The Polhills furnished transportation by van, but the services and travel consumed much of the day.
"He was forcing us to go to church or be evicted,'' Hill said.
After she and her roommate loudly complained one day in April, Polhill threatened to kick them out in four hours, according to Burke, the neighbor. The threat caused Hill to have a seizure, he said, and prompted him to call the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office. A deputy took the women to Safe Harbor, a homeless facility near the county jail, and Burke stored their belongings at his house for a week.
Burke, a job placement recruiter, has helped other tenants, too. He gave $25 to a mother and her teenage daughter for groceries, and $20 each to two women for cab fare so they could go somewhere else.
"I have nothing against transitional housing when it's done right,'' Burke said. "This isn't.''
The Pinellas County Homeless Leadership Board, which stopped referring people to Touched by an Angel more than two years ago, is working on standards for temporary shelter for the homeless and those at risk. But standards would be hard to enforce unless money is forthcoming for site visits and other monitoring, said Rhonda Abbott, the board's chief executive officer.
"We don't have any provisions in place for the protection of this population; that's the crux of the issue,'' she said. "There are so many fly-by-nights that pop up and fly beneath the radar until we get complaints like this.''
Local governments can go after owners of transitional housing for zoning and code violations. But Burke said he has been frustrated in his efforts to get officials to do anything.
Among the tenants who have come and gone is Patty Cox, 47. She left her previous residence because a roommate was using drugs, and the $500 the Polhills charged was all she could afford on her disability income.
"It is what it is. It gave me a place to stay when I needed one,'' she said. But after one month of dealing with rats running across the sofa and appliances that didn't work, she too had had enough and moved on.
Said Cox of the Polhills: "They're all about the money.''
Contact Susan Taylor Martin at [email protected]