By Steve Wilson | Mississippi Watchdog

A group of taxpayer-funded halfway houses in Mississippi for recovering addicts — including many ex-convicts — receives minimal supervision from the state agency responsible for them.

With Oxford House International admitting that 76 percent of residents have served prison time and 16.7 percent of their residents have relapsed, one would think the Mississippi Department of Mental Health would provide rigorous supervision for the homes and the outreach coordinators who fill vacancies for them.

But detailed oversight isn’t part of the bargain, according to the monthly reports filed with the MDMH by Oxford House employees paid from a grant from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

The reports are repetitive and lacking the most important details, with cheerleading praise such as “residents are stepping up and holding each other accountable,” without any documentation.

State Sen. Will Longwitz, R-Madison, told Mississippi Watchdog he’s concerned with the perceived lack of oversight by MDMH.

“The state department of mental health chose Oxford House to spend this federal grant money in Mississippi,” Longwitz said. “That gives me and anybody else in this state the right to ask these kinds of questions. The one thing that is a real concern is the recruitment by paid recruiters — paid with federal grant money — from jails. They’re proud of it.”

In the chain of monthly reports dating from August 2014 to March 2015, not once is there a mention of recovery, attendance of members at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings or any inspections for property damage or cleanliness.

The outreach coordinators mentioned 26 times that Oxford House residents “are working hard to try to get into local jails” to recruit new residents.

What the reports do contain is minutiae. One house had a “luau-themed chapter meeting.” Twice.

Each monthly report details the comings and goings from each house’s roster of residents, which are plentiful. In nine months, 62 residents at the state’s Oxford Houses have been kicked out for relapses, and 16 were booted for what are described only as “other” reasons. In the nine months covered by the reports, about 30.4 percent of the residents left the houses each month.

There were some inexplicable numbers that didn’t add up. Some examples include: In January, the Big Lake home in Biloxi listed one voluntary departure, one relapse, but none in the total departure column.

The Big Lake home in Biloxi on the August report listed no voluntary, relapse or other departures, yet it listed one departure in the total departures column.

According to Oxford House rules, each home’s residents vote on house officers such as president and treasurer, and residents can only be kicked out for a relapse or by a vote of the other residents.

The MDMH didn’t respond to a series of emailed questions asking about its supervision of Oxford House outreach coordinators.

Oxford House International — a 501(c)3 nonprofit that acts as an umbrella organization for a chain of halfway houses nationwide — has 15 houses in the state for recovering addicts. Mississippi received $1,189,391 last year from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to kickstart the Mississippi Housing 4 Recovery initiative, designed to provide housing and support services for chronically homeless who have substance abuse problems, mental illness or both. In addition, the state supplied $364,000 this fiscal year and will add $1.8 million starting in July for fiscal 2016 for the initiative, which is designed to serve about 500 potential clients.

Local attorney and resident Crymes M. Pittman — who lives near one of the Oxford Houses owned by Anna Fiser Stephens and Neal Stephens in Jackson — told Mississippi Watchdog the Mississippi Department of Mental Health and Stephens’ lack of transparency has added to his and his neighbors’ concerns.

“As a resident and father, I’m potentially concerned about anything out of the ordinary affecting the neighborhood,” Pittman said. “It has been extremely frustrating trying to obtain information about this particular Oxford House and the Stephens’ plans for putting such a house in a single-family neighborhood.

“We’ve had to resort to making an official request for information from the Mississippi Department of Mental Health because the owners and Oxford House have taken a combative stance. Their secrecy has escalated concern.”

The homes are acquired by local landlords — like the Stephens, who buy the property with the help of a revolving fund administered by the Oxford House organization — and rent it to a group of recovering addicts for big profits. The homes, which can accommodate up to six or seven residents and are independently chartered, are run democratically by the addicts with little or no supervision, which, Oxford House says, teaches self-governance.

Each resident of the Jackson-based Oxford Houses pays anywhere from $100 to $125 per week that goes toward rent, utilities, food and other expenses and pays a sobriety deposit when they are voted in by the other house members. In a house with seven recovering addicts living there, that can add up to $3,500 per month in rent.