Oxford House KC’s recovering addicts say they’re being asked to submit to an unexpected higher power
If every recovering addict is a redemption in waiting, a shaky rise after a crushing fall, David Widner will tell you that he descended from a higher altitude than most.
“I had a net worth of $1.4 million in 2001,” Widner told me in February. “Cocaine took it all.”
He had met me for coffee at Crows, south of the Plaza, on a short break from studying at the University of Missouri–Kansas City library for his Series 7 exam, which will allow him to regain his stockbroker’s license. Widner was a retail broker and financial adviser — Paine Webber, UBS — in Kansas City for 20 years. The leftovers of his upper-class lifestyle are still visible in faded traces: Patagonia fleece, North Face backpack, a chipped iPhone 4. His cheeks are pockmarked and scarred. Behind owlish reading glasses, his eyes are those of someone who has lived through nightmares.
Widner’s drug use spiraled out of control around 2002, he says. He lost his job, then his savings, then his marriage. He spent the better part of the next decade in and out of treatment centers. “I did stints at all the big ones: Hazelden, Sierra Tucson, [the] Farley [Center],” Widner said.
He finally got clean at Welcome House, a gritty recovery program for men. There, at 27th Street and the Paseo, he eventually started helping out: preparing food, assisting with administrative tasks, running errands. He went back to school at UMKC to get a degree in chemistry. He found a roommate and an apartment, then a job at UMKC as a lab assistant. He worked at the university from January 2013 to June 2014.
But he lost that job — he says funding cuts at his research lab forced a layoff — and he started drinking again. He got in a bike accident that caused a concussion. A temporary stint late last year as a chemist at Belfonte Ice Cream lasted only a few months.
“I decided, at that point, I was sick of being poor and wanted to go back into brokerage,” Widner said. “And my sponsor stepped in and said, ‘You’re drinking. You’re out of a job. If you want to get back into finance, you should go to a transitional recovery house first and get stable.’ So I started looking for an Oxford House to move into.”
An Oxford House is, essentially, transitional housing: a supportive environment where a recovering addict lives alongside others who are also trying to stay clean, find work and restart their lives.
The first Oxford House was started in Washington, D.C., in 1975 by a man named Paul Molloy, after the halfway house where he was staying lost its funding. He and the other residents kept that house’s lease and made their own rules of sober self-governance.
Today, about 1,800 Oxford Houses operate worldwide. Any group of recovering individuals can start one if they adhere to a few requirements. They must line up a house to rent, set up a house bank account to pay for expenses, and apply to Oxford House Inc. for a charter. The Maryland-based parent organization doesn’t charge for the charter, but each house is encouraged to tithe monthly to OHI.
All Oxford Houses have the same three rules. They must be run democratically (with house members electing a president, a treasurer and a comptroller), they must be financially self-supporting, and they must expel any resident who drinks alcohol or takes drugs.
“Oxford is a name brand in the world of recovery,” Widner tells The Pitch. “I’d stayed at a couple years before, during various attempts to get sober. And given the situation I was in, and being out of money, Oxford was a good alternative. For $85 a week, you get a room, TV, Internet, a place to cook and a safe environment. Supposedly.”
In late January of this year, Widner got online and searched “Missouri Oxford House” and found, on OHI’s website, addresses and phone numbers for Kansas City–area houses with Oxford House charters. He called about a vacancy at Oxford House Swope Park, at 3401 East Meyer Boulevard. A man named Howard Robinson answered.
According to Oxford House bylaws, prospective members are supposed to attend a house meeting with the current residents, who vote to accept or deny the applicant. According to Widner, though, Robinson told Widner that he could stay at the Swope house as long as he had $305: two weeks’ rent, at $85, and $135 for a deposit.
“We had a meeting with the other residents only after I moved in and paid him,” Widner says.
Widner soon learned that the Swope house did not operate like the previous Oxford Houses where he had stayed. The setup, for instance, was not democratic, he says. Instead, Robinson was calling all the shots.
And Robinson didn’t seem to like Widner. His first night at the Swope Oxford House, he says, Robinson yelled at him and said he could throw him out at any time. “Several times, he entered my room without knocking and would turn on the lights and ask me why I wasn’t looking for a job. I’d been there a day.”
On his second day there, Widner says, he was threatened with fines for not making his bed. Widner says he asked for a list of rules, and Robinson responded by calling an emergency meeting, at 9 p.m., to evict Widner. “His reasoning was that I was arrogant,” Widner told me. “When the house voted, I was not removed, which caused him to drug-test me. I passed. In the meeting, I was ridiculed and criticized for over an hour by him. He called me a fuckup, an asshole and an arrogant piece of shit.”
The next day, Widner contacted Oxford House headquarters to ask about Robinson and to express concern that some of the Swope residents didn’t fit the Oxford House model. “There were mental patients from treatment centers and people who are not alcoholics or drug addicts,” he says. “We had Ernesto, a sex addict, and David, a schizophrenic patient who we were not capable of helping.”
An Oxford House representative named Mollie Brown replied to Widner in an e-mail:
“We have no field staff in MO to put anything right there — we have never started houses in that state — the houses were started by the State of MO Drug and Alcohol Division who then abandoned the houses and left them without a staff member to take care of problems. No point in calling the state; they will deny that they are at all involved with Oxford House at this time. Their last field staff person was pulled two years ago … You need to look at other programs or other Oxford Houses not started by this man Howard.”
Widner was puzzled. If Robinson’s house wasn’t a sanctioned Oxford House, then why was it listed on the Oxford House website? If Oxford House never chartered any properties in Missouri and had nobody to take care of any problems in the state, as Brown wrote, why were any Oxford Houses operating here? And why did the state of Missouri start and then abandon Oxford Houses?
When Widner arrived home later that day, Robinson confronted him again. “He says, ‘Did you call someone at world [OHI]?’ I said, ‘Yeah, about the deposit.’ He says, ‘Your brain is so fucking fried, you don’t understand how this works. You’re not to call those people ever. You violated the chain of command. You come to me first.’ Then he repeated that his name was on the deed to the house and he could remove me at any time without a democratic vote.”
Robinson’s name is not, in fact, on the deed to the house at 3401 East Meyer. But he tells The Pitch that he has “opened” seven Oxford Houses in Kansas City in the past four years — meaning that he finds homeowners and landlords willing to rent their properties as Oxford Houses, then recruits recovering addicts to live in them. He also says he is the “sole proprietor” on each property’s Oxford House bank account for the first few months, until stable members of the house emerge to take responsibility.
“The last thing to do is give someone control of a house account who has a few weeks of sobriety,” Robinson says. “We’ve had house bank accounts wiped out that way. We need mature people with some clean time under their belt to come forward — people for whom the house’s money is not a temptation.”
But several current and former residents, many of whom have asked to remain anonymous because of embarrassment about their addictions, argue that Robinson’s approach conflicts with the Oxford House ethos of self-governance. They say Robinson has leveraged his position to accrue power and he continues to meddle long after stability has been achieved in the houses. They say he has turned what is supposed to be a democratic recovery environment into an authoritarian regime. And they say there’s no system in place to hold Robinson accountable.
The average time that a person lives in an Oxford House is one year, according to the Oxford House website, though two or three years are not uncommon. Robinson has lived in Oxford Houses in Kansas City for 10 consecutive years. According to several residents, he drives two Mercedes-Benz vehicles.
“Everybody’s afraid of him,” Widner says. “They’re all addicts, and they’re afraid. I’m afraid to go home. You don’t know what he’s going to do.”
Veterans’ treatment programs, professional counseling programs, drug courts, prison re-entry programs, prison treatment centers, homeless shelters, addiction-recovery facilities — people arrive at an Oxford House from a number of places.
One such place in Kansas City is Imani House, at 3950 East 51st Street, a program within Swope Health Services. While addicts are at Imani getting clean, they must also find a safe, healthy place where they can live upon graduation from the program. Sometimes family members step up and open their doors. But transitional housing is necessary for many.
“Howard actually graduated from our program here at Imani years ago,” Adrienne Powell, program manager at Imani House, says of Robinson. “So later, when he got into his position at Oxford House, he came to us and said he wanted to help get Imani clients into supportive housing. So we were a referral source for him, and he would assist in getting our clients into a safe place expeditiously.”
That meant that Robinson would go to Imani, meet with a prospective client, and take him or her on a tour of an Oxford House. When the client was approved, Robinson would then submit a request for the client’s initial Oxford House fees (usually around $200). Imani House would front that money but later be reimbursed by the Missouri Department of Mental Health.
Imani House no longer recommends that its graduates go to Oxford Houses with which Robinson is affiliated.
“Over time, it got to where there were too many complaints,” Powell says. “We’d hear that he would put people out in the middle of the night over a disagreement. He’d cuss people out. He’d make unilateral decisions, which, as I understand it, goes against the rules of Oxford Houses. He would also ask us to write the checks directly to him, rather than the Oxford House bank account. We had to call [OHI] and ask whether that was appropriate, and it wasn’t.”
Powell says Robinson would come to Imani House unannounced and demand checks.
“He’d stand outside my office and say, ‘Is it [the check] ready yet?’ When’s it going to be ready?'” Powell says. “He was very concerned about the money. The last time, I told him about a client who had come in [to Imani House] crying about their experience at one of his houses. He said, ‘You don’t know what I have to deal with. I won’t have anybody mistreating me.’ But there were just too many people, who didn’t know each other, telling us the same kinds of stories. It wasn’t collusion. So we told him we wouldn’t be sending our clients to his houses, and there was no reason for him to continue coming back here to pass out Oxford House information.”
Five years ago, Karen Gibbs first went to Oxford House Karnes, a women’s house in midtown Kansas City, from a VA treatment facility. She was aware that Robinson was involved with Oxford Houses in the area but she didn’t have much interaction with him. “It was a good experience,” Gibbs says. “All the rules were followed. It was what Oxford House is supposed to be.”
She left after eight months but relapsed a year later. After she got out of the VA again, she called to see about again joining an Oxford House. Robinson, who by then was (as he remains) housing-services chairman for Oxford Houses in the Kansas City area, told her that she could stay at one if she had the money.
“You’re supposed to be voted in,” Gibbs says. “He said I didn’t have to worry about that. So I knew something had changed. And I got there, and everything was chaotic.”
In Gibbs’ second week back at Karnes, Robinson told the president of the house that Gibbs would be replacing her as president. “I became president at his say-so,” Gibbs says. “I thought, This isn’t how this is supposed to work. But the Karnes house means a lot to me, and I didn’t want it to fall apart.”
Gibbs tried to turn the house around, to reintroduce the Oxford House rules. Robinson, she says, stood in the way. He attended every house business meeting and kept control of the house’s finances. He required the women to pay him, out of the house bank account, for any work that needed to be done at the house, such as fixing a ceiling fan or mowing the lawn. (Robinson operates a landscaping and snow-removal service.)
“He was running the show,” Gibbs says. “And he would get mad and scream in these women’s faces. I watched him scream at the top of his lungs, ‘Get the fuck out! Pack your shit!’ to a woman. Then, five minutes later, he’s talking about God and sobriety. It was a very volatile environment.”
Gibbs contacted OHI with concerns about Robinson — including word that had come to her from contacts at ReDiscover that some women had complained about Robinson’s sexually harassing them. (ReDiscover declined to comment on Robinson or Oxford Houses in Kansas City.) She says she did not hear much back. She left after a tense seven months and started her own women’s transitional recovery house. “Every woman in the Karnes house except one eventually ended up in my house,” she says. “One by one, they called me and asked to come to my house. It was like they were living in a prison.”
Melissa (not her real name), a woman who until recently lived in the Karnes house, says Robinson would regularly scream “nose to nose” at women in the Karnes house. She also reports that Robinson allowed a woman known to be using drugs to stay in the house “because he [Robinson] liked her.” She says this woman was also allowed to stay at the Karnes house after she had stolen money from the checking account.
Trena Shows lived in the Karnes House at the same time that Melissa did. She also says Robinson was sleeping with the woman who stole from the checking account. “It was a given,” Shows says. “He was sleeping with her. He would pick her up at the house and then drop her off later.” She also says Robinson once grabbed Shows’ phone out of her hand and threatened to “throw my shit on the porch and kick me out of the house” for attempting to call an Oxford House representative regarding Robinson’s flouting Oxford House rules.
The Karnes house, open since 1989, closed last year. Robinson has since opened another women’s house in the Westport area.
Robinson declined to discuss his personal relationships. He denied the accusations of Widner, Gibbs and the others. But he did offer some general thoughts on recovery-house peacekeeping.
“It’s not always peaches and cream. Women can be very vindictive, especially when they’re dealing with addiction. Talk to anybody in the world of recovery and they’ll tell you women are especially hard to manage.
“I can’t force people into recovery,” he says. “Sometimes, if people don’t get their way or are voted out of their house, they’ll try a campaign to smear us. I’ve heard all types of allegations the last 10 years. As housing services chairman, I’m trying to get the Oxford atmosphere right. It’s not for everyone. But we’re the most relaxed transitional living program on the planet.”
He adds that addicts are often experts at manipulation and lying.
“I always say that you could load up a van with a bunch of addicts, bus them into Universal Studios, and replace the real actors with addicts, and the studios wouldn’t lose a dime,” he says.
It is conceivable that Widner, Gibbs, Shows and Melissa — and the other half-dozen former and current residents of Robinson’s Oxford Houses whom I spoke with for this story — were all bad fits for an Oxford House environment.
But in a traditional halfway house or transitional living situation, there would be a governing body to investigate their claims. In other states where Oxford Houses are located, procedures are in place to address complaints.
Not in Missouri.
That hasn’t always been the case. Missouri was one of the first states to work with Oxford House Inc. Kansas City received a $25,000 state grant in 1990 to bring two experienced Oxford House residents to the city and start the first two Missouri Oxford Houses. For a time, the state worked with OHI, assisting in its expansion and supervision. Later, the state hired its own people to help set up and monitor Oxford Houses.
That’s not how Oxford House Inc. likes to operate, though. It prefers to avoid bureaucracy. As a 2009 Oxford House report on Missouri notes, “Beginning in 1995, [Missouri] decided to directly hire outreach workers. This practice, coupled with pre-clearance of house location with the state legislator for a particular area, has slowed expansion. [It is] a less effective way to provide necessary outreach support to start new houses and to keep existing houses on track than the system used by many other states that relies upon a direct contract with Oxford House, Inc.”
That report also notes that arrangements such as Missouri’s are at the mercy of fluctuating state budgets. There were five Oxford House outreach workers in Missouri in the 1990s but only two by 2009. “The state is simply too large to enable them to … help the houses to stay on track through mutual support organization such as chapters and state associations,” the report reads.
In 2010, budget cuts “forced the reassignment of Oxford House staff and the termination of the [Oxford House] contract,” according to Debra Walker, of the Missouri Department of Mental Health.
Molloy, founder of Oxford House Inc., tells The Pitch: “This is conjecture on my part, but my gut tells me that the state employees were getting calls from Oxford Houses in Missouri every time there was a little problem, and the state director got sick of having to take all those calls. Whereas in 20 other states we operate in, the arrangement would be such that the state hires us to manage and supervise the houses. And those state agencies don’t have to hear the complaints because we take care of it ourselves.”
For the past four years, the state of Missouri has had nothing to do with monitoring Oxford Houses. But state money still finds its way into Oxford Houses.
“A few Oxford Houses have received funds from treatment providers,” Walker says in an e-mail. “However, it is infrequent and not a permanent financial commitment. From July 2013 to present, a total of $1,616 in state funds have been used to purchase Oxford Housing for individuals in treatment.”
That doesn’t include funds that have reached Oxford Houses indirectly, as in the example of Imani House, where the state repays treatment centers after they front the costs for individuals to join. Walker says the state keeps track only of the money it sends the original treatment centers, not where that money ultimately ends up.
“An annual allocation is given to Swope [Health Services] from the DMH Division of Behavioral Health,” she says. “The Division of Behavioral Health tracks the allocation expenditures by services provided, rather than by the providers’ sites.”
One might assume that Oxford House Inc. would have stepped up to supervise its Missouri houses following the loss of funding in the state. But, as Widner’s e-mail response from OHI indicates, OHI doesn’t have anybody monitoring Missouri, either.
Molloy offers little specific information about how OHI handles governance of Oxford Houses in states where there are no supervisory boots on the ground.
“We try to help long distance. We’ll call the landlord if we have to,” Molloy says. “We try to get the offending house to shape up and fly right — through patience, tolerance, education, a little bit of Irish guilt. You know, ‘Here you are in recovery, and you’re being an asshole.'”
He adds: “Our first instinct is, people can solve their own problems.”
After the state funding was eliminated, members of Missouri Oxford Houses, including Robinson, put together a state board of their own. But it disbanded last year.
“It was supposed to serve as oversight over the chapters in each of the Missouri cities: Kansas City, St. Louis, St. Charles, Columbia, Springfield,” Robinson says. “Each city was required to send a chapter chairman to a meeting every other month. We held them in Columbia because it’s centrally located. But there was a lack of participation. People didn’t want to make the drive. It just fizzled out.”
Two weeks ago, OHI sent an outreach worker to Missouri to look into the claims against Robinson. Powell, at Imani House, also says an Oxford House representative came this past December to investigate similar allegations.
The most recent report, obtained by The Pitch, says the following about Kansas City, Missouri, Oxford Houses:
• Robinson has been distributing a business card that falsely identifies him as being affiliated with Oxford House Inc.
• Robinson was the signer on most checking accounts. “No other house members had access to them, as far as I could ascertain,” the outreach worker writes. “The members I talked to had not a clue how much money was in their account.”
• Houses “had a lack of democracy when approving new members and overall operation of the house.”
• There was “no information concerning a charter or its requirements except in three houses.”
• Houses were “not in good neighborhoods.” (An Oxford House tenet is that the houses are supposed to be rented in low-crime neighborhoods, providing both distance from bad old habits and an opportunity to acclimate to a positive lifestyle.)
• Robinson “has access to most houses, leading to visits that may change houses’ ability to achieve autonomy.”
The report also contains what it labels “good facts,” including high occupancy rates, good furnishings, bills paid on time, and Robinson’s “leadership ability.”
It concludes with the recommendation that a committee be formed to “repair the damage done by neglect, rumors, and misunderstandings.”
Robinson is to be a member of the committee.
Ron Harris is reluctant to speak ill of Oxford House. He credits it with his four and a half years of sobriety.
“Oxford House is one of the best entities out there for a person in recovery,” he told me in February, sitting in the living room of Oxford House Holmes, at 2741 Holmes.
The Holmes house is clean, in a good neighborhood and runs on a democratic basis — a model of the Oxford House ethos. But it is an outlier in Kansas City, Missouri — it applied for its charter across the state line.
“We were recently accepted into the Kansas chapter,” Harris said. “There’s unity and camaraderie over there. We were welcomed. Everybody had input. It wasn’t a thing where only one person talked. It ran the way Oxford is supposed to run. Missouri Oxford Houses — or the ones in Kansas City, at least — are sick. They need help, and it’s been a long time since anybody provided it.”
Harris said the Holmes house has succeeded because its members have kept Robinson at a distance. He said Robinson is no longer welcome at the Holmes house. The locks have been changed.
“Howard used to come into this house for meetings and threaten to throw people out based on them being five days late on a payment,” Harris said. “Based on that, he wants to throw a guy out then and there. It was diametrically opposed to what we wanted. He didn’t even live here.”
He added: “I think with Howard, it started as a passion, but now it’s turned into a business. He has the gift of gab, and he meets with landlords and gets them to put him in a position as property manager or house manager. He tells them he’ll make sure the property is clean and make sure everybody pays rent on time. And he does. But he also abuses that power. He’s always positioning himself to control these houses. It’s like a chess game to him.”
Robinson says Harris is carrying a grudge over losing to Robinson in an election for housing-services chairman when the Missouri state board was still up and running. He says he has recently been offered a job as an outreach worker with Oxford House Inc. They’re flying him out to Washington, D.C., to talk about it. He thinks the message is pretty clear.
“If Oxford House didn’t like what I’m doing here in Kansas City,” he says, “then why are they trying to hire me?”