Halfway houses are supposed to be a way station for those in society who have stumbled but need help getting back on their feet. But a lack of regulation in Tampa Bay and beyond means that too often in Florida unscrupulous operators — many of them felons themselves — have turned them into cash businesses that exploit the ex-convicts and substance abusers who need them. Some local efforts are underway to address the problem, but true reform will require action by the Legislature.
An investigation into halfway houses in the region by Tampa Bay Times senior correspondent Susan Taylor Martin uncovered a morass of problems. Without a licensing requirement or state regulations setting minimum operating standards, halfway house operators make their own rules. In some homes, residents are housed two or three to a room. This is a lucrative business if each person pays $500 per month, meaning a three-bedroom house with two residents per bedroom can bring in $3,000 per month. But residents too often don't get what they pay for.
Martin found some homes don't provide the promised counseling or 12-step programs. Some were filthy, insect-infested and tolerated drug use and violence. Several homes were run by felons with serious criminal records. And in some of the worst homes, staff confiscated residents' paychecks and demanded drugs or sex. At least three people have died of drug overdoses at unregulated homes in the state.
People land in halfway houses after coming out of detox programs where they have tried to rid themselves of a drug or alcohol addiction, or they are offenders released from jail who are trying to keep from returning to an environment that got them into trouble. While many excellent transitional housing programs are there to help, including places like St. Vincent de Paul in St. Petersburg and New Beginnings of Tampa Inc., too many take advantage of a vulnerable population.
A new regime of licensing, reporting and oversight is needed to protect halfway house residents trying to make a break with their past. Florida's Department of Children and Families should be put in charge. The agency is already responsible for oversight of transitional housing programs that receive money from the federal Access to Recovery grants, and in general DCF is charged with overseeing social service providers. An oversight program of halfway houses that service veterans, run by the federal Veterans Administration, could serve as a model.
In the meantime, area detox facilities, courts and hospitals could weed out bad actors by not making referrals to them. Martin found these institutions will sometimes recommend a halfway house based on a slick yet dishonest brochure, website or sales pitch. A coalition of groups that assist substance abusers and the homeless in Pinellas County is trying to address this by creating a "preferred provider" list of halfway houses that permit inspections and meet certain standards. It's a start.
Regulation and oversight will cost the state money. But without it a housing option that is supposed to give ex-offenders and addicts a chance at a new life will breed social ills instead, costing taxpayers and society more in the long run. State lawmakers need to address this during the 2013 legislative session.