TAMPA - Collette Turner took the first steps on her road to sobriety after losing custody of her two small children. As a way to break her bad habits and recover in a structured setting, Turner sought out transitional housing.
She was told a halfway house would provide caring, support and most importantly -- a drug free environment.
"There wasn't any structure. It was a complete mess. There were several girls that would relapse and have drugs and syringes in the house.
Six women shared the modest stucco house on Okaloosa Street in Tampa. State officials say there could be thousands of similar houses throughout Florida, none of which are regulated or inspected. The difference here was that a young woman, Emily Rifkin, died of a drug overdose inside at the age of 25.
"It was weird when I found out that I moved into that house. I literally moved into the same bed she (Emily Rifkin) had lived in, and the bathroom mirror was still broken where she had fallen, apparently.
Collette is one of several recovering addicts we talked to who felt exploited by halfway houses.
Jeffrey Oliver, who is now living independently in St. Petersburg, says his house manager at a halfway house called Peachford openly watched pornography in his office, sexually harassed the clients, took their food stamps and required them to work day labor and temp jobs.
"I'm a recovering alcoholic, but my first job was going to Raymond James Stadium and pulling beers for people all day long. Not an ideal job," said Oliver.
How do addicts coming out of detox, programs and jails find their way to places like this? Through people like Linda Walker.
Walker is the program director for a respected halfway house for women called Hillsborough House of Hope. But she's also helped other people set up their own halfway houses and refers clients to them.
We asked Walker if she was compensated for that service.
"Some of the programs will say 'Linda, we'll give you an offering or something like that to do that for us. It's a donation for you.' So some of the programs will do that, yes," said Walker.
Walker wouldn't specify how much she made and downplayed her involvement. But Collette Turner claims Walker was very hands-on.
"She made all the big decisions. She always told me it was about the money," said Turner.
And there's money to be made. A house or apartment that costs a halfway house operator $1,000 a month to rent can take in four times that much money from clients.
The house that Emily Rifkin died in and Collette Turner was so anxious to escape eventually closed. But it was just one of several that Linda Walker was involved with.
When asked if she took responsibility for the success or failure of halfway houses she helps to get started, Walker replied, "I don't take responsibility when they don't run them right. I tell them to pull out or do what the have to do, cause I can't continue to help when they're not running them properly."
Jeffrey Oliver has advice for those in need of transitional housing:
"Go there. Boots on the ground. Go and see it."
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