Halfway to Hell: Unlicensed, unsupervised and unknown group homes raise concerns

When things next door go bad. Very bad.



The voices were louder than normal but normal had nothing to do with what happened on July 1.

"They were telling me to stop him," said Candice Dahl. "Stop him from taking my stuff. Stop him from breaking into my room. Just stop him."

So Dahl listened. She matter-of-factly took out her knife, the serrated one that had protected her for years on the streets of Boise when she was homeless. She walked out of her room, down the hall and into the room of her housemate, Charlie.

She didn't say a word. She said Charlie laughed at her.

So, she stabbed him. Charlie stared at her. So she stabbed him again. That time, he fell to his bed. Dahl stood over him.

"I stabbed him again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. I think I stabbed him 12 times."

Boise Police Department's official report indicated Charlie was stabbed no fewer than 18 times. Police said it's a miracle he survived.

"I don't remember what I did with the knife," said Dahl, "but I do know I wanted my smokes. When I was done, I walked outside. I sat on the curb and lit up a cigarette."

A couple of weeks later, as Dahl told her story, she looked exactly like her mug shot. She didn't blink as she stared right through the double panes of glass that separate her in maximum custody at the Ada County jail from the world that torments her. As chilling as her story is, her words simply don't match her cherubic features. Underneath a bad dye job, her strawberry blond hair and porcelain skin give her the appearance of someone much younger than 29. Who knows what she'll look like when she is released someday from jail or prison or a mental hospital. She expects to be gone for a while.

Dahl still dreams of normalcy. She remembers her combination birthday/Valentine's Day parties (she was born Feb. 14, 1981). She remembers how much she used to love music but can't remember the last time she sang even to herself. Someday, she said, she'd like to go to college or possibly cosmetology school.

"I'd love to learn how to make someone's nails pretty."

Her own are bitten to the quick. Her hands and feet are cuffed at all times in the lockup. She's considered a threat to herself and others.

"Yes, I do have outbursts. I've had to be restrained. I don't remember why."

With the exception of interviews with BW, Dahl hasn't had any visitors at the jail. Not her mother. Not her brother. Not her housemates. No one.

"I think I got along with pretty much everybody there until they started stealing my stuff."

"There" is a house. Some call it a halfway home. Some call it a group home. It's neither. It's simply a private residence. At first glance, and at second for that matter, it's just like any other home in Boise: A couple of cars in the driveway, and the front lawn is more green than brown. Its west Boise neighborhood has a very familiar look: American flags, sprinklers dousing parched lawns and two young girls running a lemonade stand at the end of the block.

But the neighbors know something is up down the street. The yellow crime-scene tape put up on July 1 was just the latest clue.

"One morning, we and our kids woke up, and crime tape had cordoned off our front lawn. I couldn't even pull the car out of the driveway."

The couple next door agreed to talk to BW but asked to remain anonymous to protect their four children.

"We've lived here long before Mr. Bush bought the house next door, and we still don't know what's going on over there."

Mr. Bush is Phil Bush, the owner of the house and absentee landlord.

"I work with the mentally ill," he told BW in a reluctant interview. "I'm a retired [psycho-social rehabilitation] counselor."

But Bush doesn't formally counsel residents. They're responsible for getting their own services.

"But, yes," said Bush, "most of my tenants struggle with mental illness."

Does that mean the house is agroup home?


Is it licensed?


Bush didn't volunteer much of anything.

"Look. It's a private residence, and I'm renting rooms. There's no code or law, federal—state or city—overseeing my homes."

He's right. In 1995, a watershed U.S. Supreme Court ruling was handed down in the case City of Edmonds, Washington v. Oxford House. The high court ruled that recovering addicts, alcoholics and the mentally ill were a protected class under the handicapped provisions of the Federal Fair Housing Act Amendments of 1988.

"The Fair Housing Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act mean that we're hands-off when it comes to zoning," said Bruce Chatterton, Boise's director for Planning and Development Services. "And federal law trumps everything else.

"We don't even have any real idea where all the group homes are in this city," said Chatterton. "If they're in a single-family neighborhood, we're not going to place any greater restriction on them than any other private residence."

And that makes Chatterton ill at ease.

"It's very uncomfortable for me to have someone call and ask why they weren't told one of these homes was in their neighborhood. And I have to admit we don't know." He paused, "Maybe we should. But we don't."

Chatterton also told BW about a troubling broadcast he heard on a Boise radio station.

"About four years ago, there was a local real estate guy saying, 'Hey, if you have a house that isn't selling, but want to hang on to it, don't just rent it out to one person. Rent it out to a whole group of persons in recovery. You'll make buckets of money.'"

So how much money does Bush charge his tenants? He gave us a stern, "No comment."

When we asked to confirm what two of his residents told us—that he charged between $450 and $550 a month per person—Bush thought for a moment.

"I won't say how much I charge. I will say that I provide a room and utilities."

Bush did confirm that the transactions were cash. One home has six to eight residents at any one time. So, that's an easy $4,000 per month, per home. Residents say Bush is always on time each month to collect the cash.

"By the way, I have four homes," Bush volunteered. "But I don't want you thinking that I do this for the money. I'm retired, but this isn't my only income."

We asked Bush how his tenants pay the rent.

"It's pretty simple," he offered. "Almost all of them get Social Security because of their mental disability."

Take Candice Dahl. She's being held in the medical ward of the Ada County Jail. She said she has multiple diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and schizo-affective disorder. Jail staff administer three separate medications to her daily.

Dahl said she doesn't recall any physical abuse as a child but said that she endured a fair amount of emotional abuse.

"I just got a letter from my mom," Dahl said softly. "She told me she doesn't know what she could have done to help me."

Dahl stared silently for what felt like five minutes. "But if she cared, I wouldn't have ever been homeless."

Dahl said she was a problem teen. She admits to skipping school, running away and even stealing a car. She was sent to the Juvenile Corrections Center in St. Anthony. And then things took a turn for the better.

While incarcerated, Dahl completed her GED. Upon release, she studied and passed an exam to become a certified nursing assistant. She said she worked in a few private senior homes in Montana and Idaho and moved back to Boise to live with her mother. Things did not go well.

"She threw me out. She said I was mentally unstable," Dahl said.

Dahl said she was homeless for a while in Boise, spending time at Interfaith Sanctuary and City Light shelters.

"But they kicked me out, too. They said I'd been fighting and being verbally abusive."

Dahl said she had heard about the "Phil Bush house" for a few years.

"Yeah, a lot of folks on the streets of Boise know about Mr. Bush."

Bush confirmed that saying, "Yeah, everybody on the street has pretty much heard of me."

Well, not everybody.

"Sorry, never heard of him," said Treena Clark, program specialist with the Division of Behavior Health for Idaho Health and Welfare. "But that's not a terrible surprise. There is no obligation in Idaho for any home like his to be certified or licensed. So they're not monitored."

That's not to say that there aren't licensed facilities in Idaho. Since 1995 when federal funding became available, a handful of homes were classified as "staffed, safe and sober."

"What we discovered was that a person just coming out of jail, or in some kind of recovery, usually runs into financial difficulty. And a major barrier to their success is an unsafe environment," said Kathy Skippen, acting program supervisor for Health and Welfare's Substance Abuse Disorder Department.

"These homes really shouldn't be run democratically by the residents. And there really should be a number of requirements, including staffing. And there really should be some accountability to the community and to the state of Idaho."

Clark followed Skippen's thoughts: "A number of homes really stepped up and desired to be licensed. They provide a setting that has a high degree of safety and an expectation of quality that is being provided."

No one BW spoke to could say how many homes or facilities are operating in Idaho. But they all guessed it was in the hundreds. Only 36 are licensed and 22 of those are in Boise.

"The criteria is pretty simple. If the home receives any kind of state funding and it is staffed, then they need to be licensed," said Clark. "And that's a good thing. We've found a great deal of success in many of these licensed homes."

The average cost per client at a licensed, staffed, safe and sober house is about $330 per month. Compare that to $450-$550 residents say they're paying Bush for a room in one of his houses without supervision or services.

But Health and Welfare officials say they don't expect homes like Bush's to be licensed anytime soon.

"Idaho is a conservative state," said Skippen. "And I just don't think you're going to find that much appetite for licensing."

"But the fact remains that the success rate is much higher when residents have received treatment and recovery support services," said Clark.

"Many of the owners of these unlicensed homes still want to be good neighbors," Clark cautioned. "Most don't want to cause trouble. But if there are concerns, I would encourage neighbors to contact the owner directly."

Neighbors said they tried communicating with Bush long before Candice Dahl stabbed her housemate but had no success. So they went to Boise City Hall.

"Yes, I've heard of the house you're referring to," said Boise City Council President Maryanne Jordan.

"The neighbors have contacted me on a few occasions, but there is very little, if anything, we can do."

Jordan also cited the Fair Housing and Americans with Disabilities Acts that prevent discrimination and protect privacy.

"Many of these homes are here for all the right reasons. They provide a stable setting while its residents find a bridge back to society," she said.

But Jordan said maybe the community is asking the wrong questions. Rather than ask whether there is little oversight of those living in the shadows, ask whether there are appropriate systems of care, safety and prevention?

"Especially at a time when we choose to slash funding for social programs and corrections," Jordan said pointedly. "What's happening to the folks who we're so anxious to release from jail or prison? It's ultimately important to address these complex social issues long before incarceration. What's happening to our prevention programs? What are we doing to nurture and protect the fragile hearts and minds of children and young adults?"

Bush said as a landlord, he's not looking to the future or living in the past.

"Look here, I know these people. I used to work with the mentally ill at a couple of private mental-health agencies," Bush said. He wouldn't provide the names of the agencies.

"In many ways, this is the last chance for many of these folks. I've had one resident stay with me for two and a half years."

But Bush didn't want to talk about Dahl, who clearly required supervision.

"Look, I told you. I'm only the landlord. I drop by when I can."

Bush told BW he was heading up to Stanley for a "much-needed vacation." We asked if someone could get a hold of him if another crisis erupted.

"If I let them," he said. Bush definitely received a call on July 1, when Candice Dahl sat outside the home in a blood-soaked shirt.

"Yeah, she was having a bad day. That's all I want to say about that," Bush said.

There's very little, if any, information that law enforcement will say about Dahl's case. Her arrest file has been heavily redacted due to her pending court hearing, scheduled just as BW was going to press. Boise police will confirm that they responded to a report of a knife fight on July 1. When they arrived, the stabbing victim was rushed to a local hospital, where he survived a minimum of 18 stab wounds. Police collected into evidence a bloodied knife. When they went to arrest Dahl, police say she began running toward an officer with a closed fist. They used a taser, not the stun gun shot from a distance but rather a hand-held device that when placed on someone's shoulder instantly incapacitates them. Dahl fell to the ground, was handcuffed and led away.

"I admit I stabbed Charlie. The voices told me to," Dahl said.

Does she still hear the voices?

Dahl didn't have to think about it long. "Yeah. Sometimes I can't make out what they're saying. But they're loud. They're really loud."

Was she hearing some of the voices during our jailhouse visit?

"A little bit."

In the nearly two months of her incarceration, Dahl said she's undergone a couple of mental examinations.

"They reviewed my meds, and they asked me about my outbursts and the voices in my head. I think they want to send me away."

Where's "away?"

"You know, a mental hospital. I think I would do really well there. I know I can get better."

Not once did Dahl crack a smile when BW spoke to her during three hour-long visits. Not when she talked about music, not when she talked about a romance novel she was reading, not when she talked about the future.

"I'm going away for a while, it's just a matter of where."

How about when she's released someday?

Again, Dahl didn't blink.

"I don't know. I really don't have anywhere else to go. I guess I'll go back to a different Phil Bush house. But I don't want to go back to the one I was at. They'll steal my stuff. And that would make me angry."

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