Felons, drug dealers run halfway houses for addicts j gastroenterol

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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.

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.

• 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.

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.

"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.”

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.