Owner of Reynoldsburg sober-housing charity accused of abusing, exploiting vulnerable residents


By Kevin Stankiewicz and Rita Price - The Columbus Dispatch (TNS)



REYNOLDSBURG — The Ohio attorney general’s office obtained a restraining order this week against the operators of a local sober-housing charity, saying the founder exploited residents financially, abused them emotionally and verbally and engaged in activity “wildly inappropriate” for a recovery program.

The Reynoldsburg-based nonprofit organization known as Summer Rays “is and has been a slow-motion crisis on a large scale,” the state said in court documents.

Franklin County Common Pleas Judge David C. Young also granted the attorney general’s request for a court-appointed receiver to take control of Summer Rays’ assets and properties, including 25 houses where 100 or more people live as they try to maintain sobriety from drugs and alcohol.

Recovery-housing operations are largely unregulated in Ohio, with no license or permit required to start a program. That lack of oversight is bumping against soaring demand for housing in a state rife with opioid addiction.

“In many ways, the present case is the first of its kind in Ohio,” the attorney general’s office told the court. “It may not be the last.”

The state conducted a multiyear investigation of Summer Rays, headed for the past 10 years by Reynoldsburg resident Chuck Kirk, 46, his wife and other family members. Kirk also controls Reynoldsburg Revolve Church, the Rev Cafe and a handful of other businesses that, investigators say, depended on Summer Rays residents for labor or as customers. Some residents joked that Summer Rays had “a cult-like environment,” with Kirk wielding absolute authority.

Court documents describe multiple instances of intimidation, including sexual harassment. They say Kirk loudly called one resident a “hillbilly whore” in a public restaurant and threw chairs, cans, water bottles and even hurled “a plastic cup filled with urine, from a drug test, at a Summer Rays resident.”

Many of the residents are in a fragile state, with little money or ability to find somewhere else to live. Kirk kept power by “constantly kicking or threatening to kick Summer Rays residents out of their home,” the court filings said. Most paid between $100 and $150 a week for a room — often shared — in one of the houses, most of which are in the Reynoldsburg area or nearby.

The set-up enriched Kirk and his family members, the state says, and apparently paid for houses for two of his three daughters to live in while in college at Capital University in Bexley and at Kent State University in northeastern Ohio.

Summer Rays often had extremely low account balances when compared with the level of financial activity, the court documents said. During one three-year span, for example, more than $1.7 million was deposited or credited to Summer Rays’ main operating account. Yet the ending balance on monthly statements was often less than $1,000.

Contacted by phone, Kirk said his attorney advised him not to comment.

“I’m an easy target,” Kirk said. “I took something that didn’t have any grants or funding and made it work.” He said he’s trying to keep people from dying “in a state that’s losing people every 13 minutes.”

Several Summer Rays residents who spoke to The Dispatch say the program worked for them and they don’t want to be forced out. They say there aren’t any other area sober houses that allow couples to stay together, or let parents keep children with them.

“I’ll admit Chuck can be colorful sometimes, but he provides that tough love that some people need,” said 40-year-old James Wagy, who said he’s been clean for 18 months. “I know the man has a heart of gold.”

Resident Tera Storts, 31, said those who worked with investigators probably left the program amid gripes about Kirk. “There are so many success stories,” said Storts. Kirk might be strict or yell, she said, “but sometimes we need to be yelled at.”

Some of the houses could use fixing up, she added, “But I wouldn’t say any are not livable.”

Court documents, however, say houses were often overcrowded, with some people living in partly renovated garages. At one point, Kirk had residents in a duplex that lacked heat, air conditioning, running water and, at times, electricity.

The uncertain future is frightening many residents, and at least three have relapsed, Storts said.

Kate Hanson, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Mike DeWine, said the office’s heroin unit, along with area treatment agencies, has been working with residents to help with housing options, food and continued support for their sobriety. Those who wish to stay for now can agree to a month-to-month lease, the judge ruled.

Columbus attorney Pam Makowski said state and local officials should find a way to keep the houses open, with new management if necessary. The community can ill afford the loss, she said.

“I want this to work out for everybody,” said Makowski, who has a client trying to maintain Summer Rays housing as she works to regain custody of her children. “Maybe it isn’t viable, but six months is a worthy investment.”

Advocates have been trying for years to get more central Ohio sober-housing operations to commit to quality standards, said Danielle Gray, executive director of Ohio Recovery Housing, the state affiliate of the National Alliance for Recovery Residences. The nonprofit groups promote nationally endorsed quality standards and certification for recovery housing in Ohio and across the United States.

But participation is voluntary, and so far, the alliance has just two certified associates in Franklin County.

At the same time, the overall number of sober houses is increasing, but a reliable tally isn’t available. “We do know that there are bad operators,” Gray said.

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By Kevin Stankiewicz and Rita Price

The Columbus Dispatch (TNS)

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