City forces halfway houses to shut down
By JENNIFER FARRELL AND ROBERT FARLEY
CLEARWATER -- A network of Christian-themed halfway houses in North Greenwood will be forced to shut its doors after city officials ruled Thursday the operation is illegal in a residential neighborhood.
Community Resurrection Inc., a haven for recovering drug addicts and alcoholics, got its start early last year in a small rental house. The mission soon spread up and down Garden Avenue to include 11 properties owned by three landlords.
One of those landlords is a real estate investor and a Scientologist, who, 23 years ago, was involved in one of the darkest chapters of Scientology history. Richard Weigand, 56, was one of nine Scientologists convicted of conspiring to conceal the theft of government documents related to the church.
Weigand, who has assembled dozens of rental properties in Clearwater, said his ownership in the halfway houses is nothing more than a business investment.
Community Resurrection founder Michael Cournaya confirms that, saying his program was not modeled on Scientology methods and has no ties to the Narconon drug treatment program, which is based on the techniques of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.
But Cournaya said he is open to sampling Narconon. He plans to undergo a Narconon program using a sauna meant to sweat out drug residues. He and Weigand have talked about installing a sauna for residents at Community Resurrection.
"I don't mind taking a little bit of whatever it takes to help people," Cournaya said. "Anything that I can do that will help people have a better chance to stay clean and sober."
Cournaya said one the goals of Community Resurrection was to create a clean living environment, with regular Bible study, and urge the residents to find work. Many got jobs as day laborers, he said. Some found work in local call centers owned by Scientologists, he said.
Weigand denied pushing Scientology or the Narconon program. He said he did not find work for Cournaya's clients. His real estate holdings have no relation to Scientology, now or in the future, he said.
"There's no story," Weigand said. "There's no nothing. You're just barking up the wrong tree. There's nothing beyond what you see."
Remaking North Greenwood
The city learned of Community Resurrection last summer when organizers approached police, announcing plans for their mission and asking for help squelching drug activity in the area.
Founder Cournaya, himself a recovering addict, said he wanted to remake North Greenwood, replacing blighted areas with drug-free halfway houses. In an interview last month, he described his vision -- including plans to seek status as a nonprofit, eligible for state and federal grants.
"God can help anybody to get off this stuff," Cournaya said. "I'm praying God will make this a recovery community."
On Thursday, he said he will contest the city's ruling.
"I take people just getting into recovery," he said. "They're not supposed to discriminate against housing for the disabled."
Compact and wiry, Cournaya wears his hair short and keeps a neatly trimmed goatee. He speaks slowly but takes fast steps. At 31, he dresses in the hip hop uniform of baggy jeans, FUBU and Nike, and he adds an oversized cross around his neck.
His passion, he said, stems from a personal bout with drug addiction. He got clean just over a year ago and credits Jesus and This House Inc., a 12-step recovery program a few blocks away on Garden Avenue.
Newly sober, Cournaya began taking in clients early last year. His operation grew steadily, housing as many 46 men and women in rented houses scattered around the Garden Avenue corridor.
Steve Kautz, head of This House, applauds Cournaya's intentions but said he has taken on too much, too soon.
"His is not a recovery house; it's more of a shelter," Kautz said. "It's a very dangerous recipe. What they're doing is winging it. It's scary."
Isay Gulley, executive director of Clearwater Neighborhood Housing Services, said a proliferation of new halfway houses runs counter to her mission of trying to stabilize the neighborhood. She said she's all for people getting help but worries that transient population might discourage potential homeowners from investing in North Greenwood.
But social service agencies that work with Cournaya say he addresses a critical gap in housing for recovering addicts.
"They're like the safety net beneath the safety net," said Jay Lockaby, social service director for the Salvation Army in Upper Pinellas County. "He's filling a void."
One landlord, dozens of units
Weigand moved to Clearwater from Seattle with his wife, Judith, after landing a local consulting job six years ago. He now makes his living in real estate.
His foray into North Greenwood started with a former crack house on N Garden Avenue. He fixed it up, then bought another. And another. He now owns 46 units in more than 18 city properties, many of them situated in rundown neighborhoods near downtown.
"I like to view houses, in a sense, as art," Weigand said. "Every house has an inherent standard to it, and I like to restore that to that standard."
Take the house he bought at 1013 N Garden Ave., which he rents out as a halfway house for women. It is painted in authentic 1920s colors.
"That's where I get my joy," he said.
Last year, Cournaya approached Weigand about renting one of his houses and later pitched his plan to create a network of halfway houses in the North Greenwood area.
Getting city approval was Cournaya's responsibility, Weigand said.
"I just fix them up and then rent them to him," Weigand said.
Almost from the beginning, Cournaya fell behind on the rent. Clients were supposed to work day labor and chip in $100 each per week, he said. But recovering addicts can be unreliable tenants, he said, and recently he had to give up four properties.
He is committed, he said, to carrying on, opening doors to addicts. "It's a constant reminder of where I came from," he said.
Weigand's history also is checkered. In 1979, he was one of nine Scientologists -- another was Mary Sue Hubbard, wife of L. Ron Hubbard -- convicted of various roles in a massive criminal conspiracy to plant church spies in government agencies, burglarize government offices and electronically bug at least one Internal Revenue Service meeting. A judge called Weigand "the central figure in the coverup conspiracy" and sentenced him to four years in prison.
Weigand spent 13 months in a federal prison, followed by four months in a halfway house.
The church subsequently disbanded the Guardian's Office, for which Weigand held the position of Deputy Guardian for Information in the United States. And, along with the other co-conspirators, Weigand was forever banned from future church employment.
But Weigand has remained a member of the church, he said.
Weigands' properties in Clearwater have been purchased in the last three years and most are co-owned with Mark Nickels, a Seattle-based building contractor and major contributor to the Flag Service Building under construction in downtown Clearwater.
Church spokesman Ben Shaw said Thursday Scientology has no ties, or interest in, Weigand's properties.
"Whatever he's doing is his business," Shaw said.
Lately, Weigand said, he has turned his attention toward trying to create an arts district in the area surrounding the Something Fishy art gallery on Fort Harrison Avenue.
"I would dearly love to do that," he said. "I think it's a great area for it.
"I'm an old artist myself, a sculptor," Weigand said.
As for the Community Resurrection properties, Weigand said he'll wait to see what the city does.
On Thursday, Jeff Kronschnabl, city director of development services, said he would try to help Cournaya find a new home for the ministry. The problem in the Garden Avenue corridor was that Cournaya offered transitional housing in a residential area.
For the time being, Cournaya said, he will hang on to the small office building on Garden, where he keeps a desk in the back and holds nondenominational worship.
"We'll regroup and get back on our feet," he said.
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