By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
"It all begins here," says Pam Schaefer, the founder and executive director of Trinity Works, a nonprofit agency also known as Trinity Ministry to the Poor. "Here" is the lobby of Trinity's year-old, custom-built headquarters, located on Bryan Street in Old East Dallas. The headquarters are a spotless testament to Schaefer's success in turning what began in 1988 as a feeding program for the homeless into a $1.5 million agency unique in Dallas for its "holistic" approach to battling poverty. The best evidence of that is a sign above the front desk. It says, "Triage." Schaefer chose the word because Trinity's clients, many of whom suffer from severe physical and mental disabilities, can comprehend its meaning.
"Clients know triage means where you go to get it fixed," Schaefer says.
On this Friday afternoon, the lobby is packed with men and women waiting for triage. Once admitted, Trinity staff members will "stabilize" them, sending some to the third-floor medical clinic if need be or, in the case of the homeless, out to one of the city's homeless shelters. Many will be invited to return to Trinity's 10-day Discovery program, where they will undergo psychological testing designed to identify the root causes of their poverty and determine their ability to re-enter the workplace.
Once the clients graduate from Discovery, they are invited to join the Trinity family. Unlike other agencies that treat the symptoms of homelessness with giveaway clothes and meals, Trinity expects its clients to make a long-term commitment to the program. In return, clients who qualify are given their own apartment and the promise that the agency will help them build careers and land full-time jobs.
Trinity Works is not a hospital, but Schaefer says it operates like one. It is a place where the poor come to repair their lives. Typically, Trinity's clients are trapped by a cycle of poverty that has left them jobless, homeless and, often times, in need of psychiatric and medical care. When they get here they are, in a word, desperate.
Today, Trinity Works enjoys a spot on The Dallas Morning News' list of favorite charities, and its annual fund-raiser, the Gallopin' Gala, is a popular social mixer attended by the likes of real estate agent Ebby Halliday and radio personality Ron Chapman. Additionally, some of the city's most influential philanthropic organizations, including the Communities Foundation of Texas and the Meadows Foundation, have recently donated money to Schaefer's cause.
Despite Trinity's sterling public image, there is another side to this 13-year-old agency that the public knows little about. A Dallas Observer investigation into Trinity's operations, in fact, has uncovered troublesome practices that raise serious questions about the legality of the agency's programs and cast doubt on the success Schaefer publicly claims in carrying out her life-long charitable mission: to help impoverished men and women become truly independent.
There is no evidence suggesting Trinity Works is illegally profiting from its programs and clients, or that its employees are engaged in any criminal activity. But the Observer has found that:
··· The agency's occupational therapy program in effect requires some clients to work jobs for which they must be paid a minimum wage under federal law.
··· It threatens to lock out or evict clients who don't show up for work.
··· In some cases, the agency has violated their tenants' rights by improperly locking them out and evicting them.
As part of its investigation, the Observer has also found that people who enter into Trinity's long-term rehabilitation programs are forced to sign contracts that effectively give Schaefer and her staff rigid control over their daily lives, including their personal finances. Clients, some of whom allowed Trinity to accept their government disability checks for them, must agree to forfeit a portion of their personal savings to the agency if they break their contracts.
Some current and former clients say they happily agreed to the conditions because they believed the agency would help them find work and ultimately become independent. In hindsight, they say, Trinity didn't live up to its promises. Ultimately, Trinity appears to have undermined its own mission by actually increasing the clients' dependence on the agency.
Schaefer confirms that she enforces a set of strict policies, including the use of "lock-outs," as tools to teach her clients basic living skills they need if they ever hope to become independent. If the policies sound harsh, she says, it's because the clients need structure in their lives or else they wouldn't wind up at Trinity Works in the first place.
"Tough love" polices, such as those Schaefer says she enforces at Trinity Works, are a constant source of debate among advocates for the homeless, says Nan Roman, president of the Washington-based National Alliance to End Homelessness. There is no single philosophy that governs how these agencies should function, but Roman says there is one way to determine whether their policies are appropriate.
"There are moral issues, and there are legal issues," Roman says. "The bottom line is, is it legal what's happening?"
After spending more than a year at Trinity Works, David Dickey says he doesn't have a grudge against the place, even though he, like other clients who spoke to the Observer, says the agency didn't live up to its promise to help him find employment and, instead, expected him to work at the agency without pay. In fact, he is surprised by the possibility some of its programs are controversial. If there is a problem, he says, he can only guess that the agency has grown too big, too fast.