Locked In

Trinity Works says it helps poor people find housing and jobs. But an Observer investigation reveals questionable policies that do little except ensure its clients never leave.

"They're understaffed," Dickey says. "I think they've promised things to people with good intentions but can't fulfill them. They leap too quick."

On this Tuesday afternoon, Dickey is standing in the center of his apartment in the Prince of Wales, a 64-unit government-subsidized housing project that Trinity Works assumed control of in 1998. Dickey's bed and desk consume half the room. On the other half, a toilet separates the sink and refrigerator from a tiny shower. The center area, where Dickey is standing, is just big enough for him to walk a pace or two in either direction.

"I call this the penthouse," says Dickey, who adds that his time here has been a "humbling experience."

Carole Stead entered Trinity Works in 1998 with the hopes of finding a job that would lead to independence. Instead, she found herself trapped in a Trinity job she didn't get paid for. "I thought I was depressed because of my medicine. I was depressed because I couldn't get out of there."
Mark Graham
Carole Stead entered Trinity Works in 1998 with the hopes of finding a job that would lead to independence. Instead, she found herself trapped in a Trinity job she didn't get paid for. "I thought I was depressed because of my medicine. I was depressed because I couldn't get out of there."
Prince of Wales resident Daniel Murphy says he was illegally locked out of his apartment and threatened with eviction because he refuses to work for Trinity Works.
Mark Graham
Prince of Wales resident Daniel Murphy says he was illegally locked out of his apartment and threatened with eviction because he refuses to work for Trinity Works.

How the bespectacled Dickey, a self-described professional student, wound up at Trinity Works is a mystery, even to him. After obtaining multiple college degrees in history and communications, he retreated into the world of stock trading. One day, he says, he realized he was behind on his rent and on the verge of being evicted. He was in his 40s and had never held a job.

Last February, Dickey came to Trinity Works hoping to get an apartment at the Wales. He entered the 10-day Discovery program, in which the agency offers prospective residents the chance to review their lives "from birth to present." Dickey was given an IQ test as well as various psychological tests. He was also given an earful about Trinity's overall programs, which are described in promotional literature. The material informs prospective clients that if they wish to have a "safe home," "career goals" and "secure employment," then Trinity Works is the place for them.

"Each time they told me why I needed to be in the program, rather than the housing," Dickey says. "I remember them saying, 'We like to fit people in where they belong.' That's what I was told. It didn't happen that way, but that's what I was told."

Given his lack of employment, Dickey figured he should take advantage of the opportunity. He entered Trinity's Family Stabilization Program, in which clients are expected to stay anywhere from six months to two years. As part of the arrangement, Dickey accepted Trinity's offer to put some family money into a trust account, which only Trinity employees can directly access.

Once inside Trinity's doors, Dickey was initially assigned to the Occupational Therapy Center, or OTC for short. In time, Dickey began to suspect that Trinity was using him to fill a job for which it would ordinarily have to pay someone. More important, he says he did not receive any job training or help finding employment outside of Trinity. (Dickey's experience mirrors that of others who spoke to the Observer.)

"I was doing work in the grocery room that one would expect staff to do and be paid for. I wasn't paid for any of it," Dickey says. "In terms of building employment, they pretty much left it up to me."

After eight months, Dickey says he became determined to take control of his own future. One day, Dickey was listening to the radio when he heard an advertisement that a local bookstore was hiring. After getting permission to leave OTC for a few hours, Dickey took a bus out to the store and filled out an application. The process of finding work turned out to be easy: The store offered him a full-time job. When Dickey told his case manager, the news didn't go over so well. In fact, he was told he had "responsibilities here to fulfill" and that he couldn't just leave without giving proper "notice." If he did, he was told, Trinity Works would not give him a good recommendation for the prospective job.

"Basically, it was a veiled threat that I better not take the job," says Dickey, who took the job anyway. To him, the idea that he had to give notice to leave the OTC program was absurd. "I told them, I'm not an employee, and you haven't paid me a dime."

Not long after he took the job, Dickey says his new supervisor pulled him aside and asked him if he was a convicted felon or if he suffered from some sort of mental illness. Dickey says he became enraged when he discovered that a Trinity Works employee had called his new boss, identifying himself as Dickey's "case manager" and said he needed to check up on Dickey's performance. The supervisor, who asked that she and the store not be identified, confirms that she was initially startled by the phone call.

"They wanted to know how he was doing on his job, if he was fitting in," the supervisor says. "It made me think parole people, probation people have case workers. So I had to go back and question him on what it was all about."

The supervisor, who says that she and Dickey were able to straighten things out, says she couldn't be more pleased with Dickey's performance. "He's great," she says. "He's a model employee."


When discussing her agency and, in effect, her life-long work on behalf of the poor, Trinity founder Schaefer doesn't hesitate to say that she can be tough. Unless her clients are forced to live by strict rules and face negative consequences if they don't, Schaefer argues that they will continue to lean on the crutch of government handouts. Those rules include the use of written contracts that act as leashes, which Schaefer and her staff use to control her clients' behavior as part of their effort to train them how to live independently.

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