First of two parts
Troy Anthony Charles bounced in and out of jail for two decades before he rented a Spanish-style bungalow in St. Petersburg last year and went into the halfway house business.
He called it "Back to Life Outreach Recovery Services'' and for $125 a week, he offered addicts and alcoholics a safe, sober place to stay while he helped them find jobs and get counseling. At least that's what he said.
Residents like John Lees quickly grew skeptical.
"Lees advised the program is a scam (and Charles) is using the money he gets from funding to purchase drugs,'' according to a St. Petersburg police report in February.
Not long after Lees complained to police, Charles confronted another resident, shot him in the head and landed back in jail charged with murder.
How did Troy Charles, a felon with a history of violence, theft and drug dealing, get into the business of housing recovering addicts?
Easy. Almost anyone can open a halfway house in Florida because there's almost no regulation or accountability.
Every day, hundreds of people emerge from jails, detox centers and mental hospitals desperate for a place to stay while they try to remake their lives. Most can't afford a square meal, let alone first and last month's rent and a damage deposit.
Many wind up in transitional houses — often called halfway houses or sober living houses — that give them a bed and promise to help them find jobs and get to 12-step meetings.
The Tampa Bay Times examined dozens of halfway house programs in the Tampa Bay area. Among them are large, professionally managed facilities that generally deliver what they promise. But many others are little more than flophouses that cram residents two or three to a room in dingy quarters with no job assistance, no trained staff and no support.
The Times found:
• Several houses are run by felons with serious criminal records, including robbery, sexual assault and drug trafficking. One operator was permanently barred from a federal housing program because of improper billing, yet started a new halfway house that is getting thousands of dollars from the same program.
• Residents of some halfway houses say drug abuse is rampant, and records show at least three people have overdosed and died at unregulated homes. Though such deaths are not unusual among recovering addicts, they underscore the need for oversight, experts say.
• One halfway house that touted "sober living'' bused recovering alcoholics to sell beer at Raymond James Stadium. Another required residents to get their prescriptions filled at a pharmacy in a store plastered with neon beer signs.
• Residents have few protections under the law. Halfway houses can take their paychecks to cover rent and can kick them out at a moment's notice.
Donna Masucci said she and her two kids were thrown out of a Pinellas County halfway house in the middle of the night. The owner, a pastor, had demanded Masucci attend a church service in Tampa even though she was on probation and couldn't leave the county.
The family was left on the street with no money in an area notorious for drugs and prostitution.
"It was,'' Masucci said, "a horror show."
It is impossible to determine how many others have had similar experiences, or even how many people have died of overdoses at halfway houses. Because there is no licensing, no one even knows how many halfway houses exist in Florida.
State officials say the number may be huge.
"We've been told there are several thousands of those around the state at any one time,'' said Darran Duchene, who helped oversee federally funded halfway houses when he worked for the Florida Department of Children and Families. "They should be regulated from a business standpoint and then from a social service standpoint.''
Troubled past? No problem
You can find halfway houses almost everywhere in Florida. Many are ordinary-looking homes on quiet suburban streets.
There are halfway house programs in apartment complexes, old motels and buildings once used as assisted living facilities for the elderly. Few have signs out front, making it even more difficult to tell how many there are.
But "they keep popping up,'' said Ramona Schaefer, a Pinellas County sheriff's supervisor who helps find housing for ex-inmates. "My concern is, what are their intentions? There are a lot of people who truly want to help. Then there are others whose intentions are not so pure.''
A driving force behind Florida's explosion in halfway houses is the increase in addiction fueled by the prescription drug crisis.
The housing bust played a part, too. Some investors converted regular homes into halfway houses so they could maximize the rent.
On paper at least, transitional housing can be lucrative. With two people per room, each paying $500, a run-down three bedroom house can bring in $3,000 a month.
And in recent years, there has been another reason to convert houses and apartments — government support.
In 2003, at a time when 24 million Americans had a serious problem with drugs or alcohol, President George W. Bush announced a $150 million treatment initiative called Access to Recovery, or ATR.
Since then, $30 million in federal funds has gone to Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and several other Florida counties, much of it for transitional housing. Almost 300 halfway houses initially qualified for the money. Some were run by felons who took advantage of the very people they were supposed to help.
William Garrison, a one-time crack user, opened New Birth Abundant Life Ministry in St. Petersburg and collected more than $300,000 in federal funds before being kicked out of the program.
Residents complained that Garrison made them pay $50 a week for food even though he was getting federal money for meals. Clients also said Garrison cursed profusely and touched them against their will with "strong sexual overtones,'' according to a state report.
Garrison, 56, told the Times he did nothing wrong. He said he still helps men find housing and other services but wouldn't say where.
Another halfway house that qualified for federal money was House of Hope in St. Petersburg. It was run by Patrick Jay Banks, who spent eight years in a Texas prison for robbery and forgery before moving to Pinellas and introducing himself as "Pastor'' Banks.
In what investigators called the "most egregious case of fraud, waste and abuse'' by any ATR provider in Florida, Banks submitted bills for residents long before they set foot inside the pair of tiny houses he ran down the street from a Catholic church.
He also billed for job coaching for up to 50 residents at a time even though the meeting room held less than 10.
Banks collected more than $110,000 before he was permanently barred from the federal program in 2007.
Yet in an interview with the Times last week, Banks acknowledged he started a new halfway house, Agape House in St. Petersburg, that has received $55,000 in federal funds in the past year. Banks' name did not appear on Agape's ATR application, but he told police he was the owner when they questioned him about an unrelated matter in October.
"I never kept it a secret I was starting it,'' said Banks, 48, who insisted he has done nothing wrong.
DCF, which oversees the federal program in Florida, said it was unaware of Banks' involvement and will investigate.
To qualify for the federal money, owners and employees of halfway houses must pass criminal background checks. The houses must meet health and safety codes, and are subject to periodic inspections.
But the vast majority of halfway houses in Florida get no government money and are subject to no regulation.
Residents are on their own.
Emily Rifkin had been living in a Tampa halfway house for just three weeks when another resident found her blue in the face and foaming at the mouth.
By the time paramedics got there, Rifkin was cold to the touch, dead at 25 of an accidental overdose of oxycodone.
Rifkin is one of at least three people who have overdosed and died in Tampa Bay halfway houses owned by people who started them as a way to make money in a slow real estate market. They converted regular houses into halfway houses with no licensing and no oversight.
In November 2010, Rifkin, a former college student, was still struggling with the addiction that had sent her to prison for eight months on drug-related charges. Rifkin's family asked the courts for help, and a judge approved her going to a halfway house while she waited for a bed in a residential treatment program.
After Rifkin violated rules at the first house, she was moved to the three-bedroom, one bath house on Okaloosa Street where she was supposed to get more supervision. But the police report shows that obvious signs of trouble were ignored the day she died.
At 2 p.m., one roommate thought Rifkin seemed "kind out of it'' but did nothing.
Six hours later, the house manager, herself an addict, saw Rifkin sitting listlessly on the bathroom floor and left her there.
It wasn't until 35 minutes later, after Rifkin had stopped breathing, that a roommate called 911.
The home's owner, Shelton Jones, said he converted the home into a halfway house with assistance from Linda Walker, who runs the nonprofit Hillsborough House of Hope transitional program for women.
Walker also has a for-profit business that helps people start halfway houses. She and Jones said they were not responsible for Rifkin's death.
"I feel bad she died,'' Walker said, "but a lot of people die in recovery. You have to want recovery.''
As with most other halfway houses, there was no trained staff at Okaloosa Street and no routine testing for drug and alcohol use, Walker and Jones acknowledged. They said it was impossible to keep residents from sneaking in drugs.
A year before Rifkin's death, two men fatally overdosed on methadone in an unregulated house in Seminole. Like Jones, the owner had gone into the halfway house business to increase her rental property income.
Jones kept his place open almost a year after Rifkin died. Resident Collette Turner said the house was dirty and there were blue pills — "Oxies or something'' — in a drawer.
"One girl in my room was selling drugs,'' said Turner, 26. "She told me how much weed and coke she could get.''
Turner paid $500 a month to share the house with up to three other women at a time. But after paying utilities, cable, insurance and the mortgage, Jones decided "it just wasn't a good investment'' and closed the doors late last year.
Referrals are the lifeblood of halfway houses. Few could stay in business without courts, hospitals and detox centers steering people their way.
Yet the Times found that referrals often are made on the basis of glowing descriptions from the houses themselves.
After a suicide attempt in July and 11 days in Windmoor, a private Clearwater mental hospital, Leisha Simpson needed a place to go.
Simpson said Windmoor gave her the names of three halfway houses, and she chose Still Standing of St. Petersburg. Its website touted a "safe haven" with 24-hour staffing, counseling and on-site 12-step meetings.
There was none of that. For $500 a month, Simpson said, all she got was a bed in a roach-ridden house with as many as four other women, one of whom smoked crack and invited men into their shared bedroom for sex at all hours.
In the two months she was there, Simpson twice filed complaints with police. She said her TV, credit cards and safe with medications were stolen. Another resident threw her against a dresser and tried to drown her while she was in the bathtub.
"It was,'' Simpson recalled, "a horrible experience.''
Still Standing's founder, the Rev. Edward Leftwich, 67, said he couldn't maintain a full sober living program as he got older and $240,000 in federal funding ran out. He acknowledged it was a mistake to leave up his website.
Police are investigating Simpson's theft complaint and have turned the assault case over to prosecutors. Simpson, 31, is now living with her mother and grandmother in North Carolina.
"At least I know they won't rob me in the middle of the night,'' she said.
Windmoor officials did not return several calls seeking comment on why they recommended a halfway house that no longer provided any services.
The demand for transitional housing is so great that even new programs easily get referrals.
Last spring, Pamela Dixon made the rounds of detox centers and public agencies in Pinellas promoting her 31-bed halfway house, A New Direction for Women and Men. Public Defender Bob Dillinger began sending chronic drunks there, unaware that A New Direction required residents to get prescriptions filled in a store that also sells beer and wine.
Both the pharmacy building and the converted ALF that houses A New Direction are owned by the same Tampa group. "I do find it questionable,'' Dillinger said when a reporter told him of the connection.
Dillinger checked out the halfway house and said Dixon agreed to stop dealing with the pharmacy. The public defender's office continues to send people to A New Direction.
Is it possible to regulate the thousands of halfway houses now operating without oversight?
"We regulate thousands of child care facilities across the state with no problem,'' said Erin Gillespie, a DCF spokeswoman. "We are certainly up to the task if the law were changed.''
So far there has been no legislative action to ensure that halfway houses deliver what they promise. But in Pinellas County, a coalition of groups that help substance abusers and the homeless is trying to come up with a list of "preferred providers.'' To get on it, halfway houses would have to permit inspections and meet certain standards, among them not exploiting residents.
In the meantime, it is easy for felons like 49-year-old Troy Charles to get into the business.
Charles, born in Phoenix, spent three years in an Arizona prison for aggravated assault before moving to St. Petersburg. He was arrested 16 times — charges ranged from auto theft to burglary to sale of cocaine — before he started his Back to Life ministry, rented a house, set up bunk beds in the living room and began charging clients $450 a month.
One was John Lees, who had done jail time for obtaining oxycodone by fraud.
"At first it was presented to me, like, if you need a place to stay and recover from addiction, you can stay there,'' Lees told the Times. "Then he tried to get me to sell drugs to him."
Lees, 32, said he saw Charles use cocaine and heard him discuss hooking girls on drugs so he could turn them into prostitutes.
Afraid of getting into trouble, Lees moved out in February. When he returned to get a book bag, he said, Charles accused him and a resident, Samuel Harper, of burglary. Prosecutors declined to charge the men, and Charles, upset by the decision, angrily confronted Harper and fatally shot him in the head, police say.
Charles pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial. He landed back in the Pinellas County Jail about the same time as another halfway house operator, Matthew Hauschild.
Until a few years ago, Hauschild, 46, managed halfway houses for others. Then the real estate bust presented an opportunity to strike out on his own.
"I had a lot of owners and developers who had empty properties and I worked out contracts with them,'' Hauschild said earlier this year, boasting "I'm in multiple counties.'' He wouldn't say where.
At Hauschild's House of Hope, a two-story white frame house in Clearwater, clients paid $450 a month for a "recovery'' program that included transportation to 12-step meetings. One problem: Hauschild, who has been convicted of forgery, theft and cocaine possession, had long ago lost his driving privileges.
Last spring, Hauschild was caught a fifth time driving without a license and is now serving a 13-month sentence in state prison. When he gets out, he told the Times, he plans to get back in the halfway house business.
Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.