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Addicts say recovery program stole their money

Second of two parts

"Come join us in recovery!'' ¶ So urged the Web ads for Peachford House, a halfway house program in Clearwater that promised to help people addicted to drugs and alcohol. Peachford would put them up in nice apartments, find them work and support their recovery with 12-step meetings. ¶ It would turn around their lives. Instead, residents say, Peachford employees stole their money, had sex with clients and turned a blind eye to drugs and drinking as all semblance of "sober living'' dissolved late last year. The only jobs most residents got were dead-end day labor. Two alcoholics say they were put to work selling beer at Raymond James Stadium.

Finally, a few days after Christmas, eviction notices went up. Peachford had been cramming six people to an apartment, charging each $135 a week for rent and "program fees,'' but hadn't paid the apartment complex in months.

"All Peachford did was provide an over-priced roof over my head,'' said Anthony DiGregorio, one of 40 people who found themselves on their own when the Clearwater program shut down in January. "It did absolutely nothing to make me a better life.''

Peachford's parent organization — Sober Living America — continues to run halfway houses in Tampa and Jacksonville. As the Tampa Bay Times reported Sunday, hundreds of halfway houses have sprung up in Florida in the past 10 years but there is almost no regulation of a business that purports to help people but in many cases exploits them and leaves them worse off.

"In America, the choice shouldn't be living under a bridge or being a slave,'' said Christine Allamanno, a legal aid lawyer in Pinellas County.

Peachford was started by James deVarennes, a 55-year-old Georgia man who heads the nonprofit Peachford Ministries.

In 2005, deVarennes incorporated a for-profit company — Peachford House Clearwater — and started a recovery program in the MacArthur Park apartments, off U.S. 19. Among the first clients was DiGregorio.

At first the program seemed good, he said. Though most of the jobs were day labor, requiring clients to be up at 3 a.m., Peachford allowed them to keep their paychecks. It provided meals. It supported clients' recovery by requiring them to attend Alcoholics or Narcotics Anonymous meetings.

DiGregorio, addicted to painkillers, acknowledges he wasn't ready for recovery then. He left the program, spent eight months in state prison for grand theft, then returned to Peachford a year ago.

Things were far different. Clients had to get their own food. They had to sign power-of-attorney forms authorizing Peachford to take their paychecks.

"I thought that was crazy,'' DiGregorio said. " I never had to sign anything like that before.''

He was surprised, too, that one of the male directors was having sex with female clients.

And unlike his first time at Peachford, DiGregorio found virtually no emphasis on recovery.

"The AA meetings were run by the senior (person) in the apartment, who could have been there two weeks,'' he said. "It was supposed to be in the AA format but mostly it was people complaining about Peachford and how they didn't have any money.''

Clients were paying Peachford $172.50 a week — $135 for "program fees,'' which were supposed to cover rent and support group meetings, and $7.50 a day for van rides to the labor pool. But DiGregorio said he and others discovered that not all of their payments were being credited to their accounts.

Complaints that employees were stealing from clients brought deVarennes, Peachford's founder, down from Atlanta in October 2011.

DeVarennes blamed the clients.

"He said we should never have given (the program director) money, we trusted a drug addict with our money,'' DiGregorio said.

DeVarennes fired a director. He was replaced a few days later by the van driver, a man who watched gay pornography in the office and offered male residents "money to have sex,'' DiGregorio said.

Yet Peachford continued to draw clients.

A mental hospital in Pasco County referred 31-year-old Briana Newman to Peachford in November. Within two weeks, she was named "intake coordinator,'' charged with soliciting referrals from detox centers and hospitals that needed some place to send patients after they were discharged.

Once Newman got a discharge planner on the phone, she followed a script that started like this:

Ask this person, 'Have you heard of Peachford Communities?'

If the answer is NO, go into the pitch.

The pitch touted Peachford's "sober clean living, its employment assistance and the most attractive come-on: "Clients without funds are welcomed.''

The pitch brought people from as far away as Maine.

"I took on a lot of guilt for sending people here who didn't know what they were getting into,'' Newman said.

Mass eviction

Three days after Christmas last year, clients were told they had to be out by New Year's Eve.

Peachford was supposed to pay MacArthur Park $1,000 a month per apartment. By putting six people in a unit and charging each $540 a month, Peachford was collecting as much as $3,240 per apartment yet hadn't made its own rent payments in months.

With no place to go, many clients relapsed.

"People were just getting loaded,'' said Jeffry Oliver, a recovering alcoholic who had been at Peachford less than three months. "There was a lot of prescription drug abuse, oxycodone, and people were just running around drunkenly.''

DiGregorio, trying to stay clean, worked long hours at a St. Petersburg sludge incinerator.

"When I got back to Peachford, they wanted those checks,'' he said. In late December, he left the program and moved in with a friend.

Other clients landed in homeless shelters or shabby motels. Some went to other halfway house programs, including This House II in Clearwater. It was run by Mark Samson, a former Peachford manager accused of stealing from clients.

Samson denied wrongdoing. "The only thing I'm guilty of is trying to give people there a better life.''

Allamanno, of the nonprofit Gulfcoast Legal Services, worked with Clearwater detectives to get prosecutors to take action against Peachford. Luring clients to Clearwater with false promises, requiring them to sign over their paychecks — it smacked to Allamanno of human trafficking, but no charges were brought.

DeVarennes, Peachford's founder, did not respond to requests for comment for this story. In a Sept. 5, 2012, letter to Allamanno, he blamed the collapse of Peachford Clearwater on the soured economy and a lender's decision to call in a $550,000 business loan.

"For over six years, we faithfully served almost 5,000 families in the Pinellas/Hillsborough area with no means to pay,'' deVarennes wrote. "Unfortunately, when the economy hit bottom, we were unable to afford to keep these self-supporting facilities in operation.''

In his letter, deVarennes said he and his wife had recently lost their $450,000 suburban Atlanta home to foreclosure. They still have a $350,000 gulf-front condo in Panama City Beach, records show.

DeVarennes' nonprofit ministry, now called Sober Living America, is soliciting donations on its website for programs to help "homeless and destitute'' men in Tampa, Jacksonville and Atlanta.

In Tampa, the program is called How House: Growth in Recovery, and operates out of several apartments in Ashford Place, a run-down complex near the University of South Florida. On a recent day, a man opened the office door, then quickly slammed it when a reporter asked to speak with him.

Outside a few clients milled around the parking lot. They described a familiar-sounding "program:'' Seven men crowded into a three-bedroom apartment. Up at 3 a.m. to catch a ride to the labor pool. How House taking their paychecks, leaving them with little or no money to eventually move out on their own.

The only difference? The program fees. They're now up to $145 a week.

Times staff writer Lane DeGregory contributed to this story. Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at