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Homeless shelter runs unlicensed telemarketing outfit, police say

Touched By An Angel Ministries had two signs in the motel where they operate suggesting their building was still a police substation.

MELISSA LYTTLE | Times

Touched By An Angel Ministries had two signs in the motel where they operate suggesting their building was still a police substation.

In the past five years, hundreds of men, women and children have been helped by Touched By An Angel as it grew into one of Tampa Bay's largest homeless shelters.

But behind a door marked "Pinellas Park Police Substation," the founders of the nonprofit organization have been running an unlicensed telemarketing business that employs some of those residents living at the shelter.

In 2009, police told Touched By An Angel to take down the police substation sign. But the sign remained.

It wasn't until this week that police said they learned that pastors Jeffrey and Vonda Polhill, the shelter's founders, were operating an unlicensed telemarketing outfit in the substation, which had been closed years ago.

"It takes money to remove (the sign) and I'm dealing with homeless people," Jeffrey Polhill said Tuesday before ordering a reporter out of the motel that houses both the call center and his Touched By An Angel Ministries.

The telemarketing business, Fruits of the Spirit, was incorporated in August by the Polhills and two female clients of Touched By An Angel. The Florida Department of Agriculture, which regulates telemarketers, said neither Fruits of the Spirit nor its principals are licensed by the state as required. Failure to register is a third-degree felony.

At first, Polhill said Fruits of the Spirit operates under the license of "someone else" he would not identify. Then he said a state license wasn't needed because callers don't ask for credit card information.

Not true, the department said.

"The use of a credit card is not a factor in whether or not the business must be registered," spokesperson Sterling Ivey said in an email.

In an earlier interview, the Polhills said they are recovered addicts who met while in the Pinellas County Jail. Jeffrey Polhill, 49, also spent time in state prison for offenses that included grand theft and trafficking in stolen property before he started the ministry in 2007.

As Pinellas County's homeless population ballooned, Touched By An Angel was one of the facilities to which social service organizations and Pinellas Park police referred people needing shelter. Many advanced into the organization's transitional and permanent housing programs, paying at least $112.50 a week for rent and program fees.

Touched By An Angel takes a faith-based approach, requiring residents to memorize 85 scriptures and attend five Bible study classes a week. Residents call each other "brother" and "sister," and say "praise the Lord" when answering the phone. The motel, which residents keep scrupulously clean, is dotted with angel statues.

"Physically, it looked good; everybody was required to do something (in order) to stay there," said Sarah Snyder, president and CEO of the Pinellas County Homeless Leadership Network.

But early last year, the network stopped referring people to Touched By An Angel after some former residents complained about the intensely religious atmosphere and lack of privacy. Some also said jobless residents were made to work in a telemarketing operation and that the Polhills took their pay, giving them only a small stipend.

Snyder said she asked to see the organization's financial records "and it wasn't forthcoming. They wouldn't show us the records."

In the earlier interview with the Times, Polhill accused Snyder of "being out to get us" and denied most of the allegations raised by former clients. He acknowledged that residents starting the program turn over their pay to the ministry and receive an allowance until they can show they are financially responsible.

"We had ex-addicts coming in and we was givin' them their whole check and they was going out and getting high," Polhill said.

Polhill said Touched By An Angel relies solely on program fees and donations, including those from "sponsors" like Target, Macy's and Bright House. In January, Bright House's Bay News 9 featured a story in which Polhill said Touched By An Angel needed to raise $50,000 in three weeks or it would close.

This week, Polhill would not discuss his for-profit business, which has tapped into a booming area of telemarketing — gas and electricity sales.

Unlike Florida, more than a dozen states have deregulated energy, allowing customers to choose a power company from among competitors.

When a reporter toured the motel grounds last month, Touched By An Angel's marketing director opened a door marked "Pinellas Park Police Substation." Inside was a two-room call center where more than a dozen people were talking to utility customers in New Jersey.

The callers included shelter residents. Snyder, of the homeless network, questioned if telemarketing is the right kind of job.

"It's a very tricky issue — you have to be careful if you're going to be using your clients as a workforce," Snyder said. "There has to be some kind of long-term benefit to the clients in terms of what they learn to do and whether it can translate into an exterior market."

It is not unusual for nonprofit organizations to create for-profit subsidiaries when they want to engage in activities that might endanger their tax-exempt status with the IRS. Depending on the circumstances, a nonprofit can lose its tax-exempt status if its directors receive personal benefit.

Tuesday afternoon, police went to the motel on 62nd Avenue N just west of 34th Street. Capt. Sanfield Forseth said Polhill agreed to scrape off the substation sign. Still remaining is a sign that says "Police Vehicle Only."

"It's not our sign and it's a generic sign that doesn't say Pinellas Park Police," Forseth said. "It's his prerogative if he wants to put a sign up and designate it for police vehicles. We're not going to take issue with that."

Recently, Forseth added, another officer noticed Polhill by the side of the road selling gulf shrimp to raise money.

"He seems to be into a lot of things," Forseth said.

Susan Taylor Martin can be reached at susan@sptimes.com.

Homeless shelter runs unlicensed telemarketing outfit, police say 03/14/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 14, 2012 11:51pm]

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