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.

"Did you ever work with animals?" Schaefer asks. "You asked such a good question when you said, how do you make these people want to do this. And it's not easy. Even after they make the commitment to [Trinity], you know life goes along and one day this is great and the next day, maybe not. This is a constant, constant challenge. We have to have incentives built in."

But the extent to which Trinity Works succeeds in helping its clients become independent is unknown. Schaefer says Trinity Works achieves an "85 percent success rate" in helping the people who enter into the Family Stabilization Program meet their goals. Similarly, she says the agency has "pert near a 100 percent" success rate in helping people who enter her life-long "Managed Care" program, which is designed for adults who the agency, using primarily IQ tests, determines will never learn how to live independently.

When asked for more specific results, however, Schaefer says success is a relative thing.

After spending more than a year at Trinity Works, David Dickey says Trinity never helped him find work. So he went out and found a job himself. Today he is a "model employee."
Mark Graham
After spending more than a year at Trinity Works, David Dickey says Trinity never helped him find work. So he went out and found a job himself. Today he is a "model employee."
Dallas lawyer Jeff Veazey contends that Trinity Works threatens its clients with illegal lockouts and evictions. To him, Trinity's clients don't give up their rights just because they are poor.
Mark Graham
Dallas lawyer Jeff Veazey contends that Trinity Works threatens its clients with illegal lockouts and evictions. To him, Trinity's clients don't give up their rights just because they are poor.

"We are not rigid statisticians," Schaefer says, adding, "I believe the person who comes here is a whole lot better off."

Rather than provide information that would show how many clients the agency helped find jobs and where they found those jobs, Schaefer instead offered reassurances that her intentions are pure.

"The only way we succeed is if they succeed," Schaefer says. "I tell 'em, 'Hey, look, I like to be a winner. I admit I want to win, and the only way I can win is if you win. So let's win together, OK?'"

At the same time, Schaefer says she is often forced to take on the role of a parent because her clients are often resistant to Trinity's attempts to structure their lives.

"They're constantly testing you, just like a bunch of little children," Schaefer says. "So many people have had such bad or no parenting at all...what we're really doing is we're re-parenting adults."

One way Trinity parents its clients is by requiring them to sign monthly contracts, which contain a set of conditions the client agrees to meet in exchange for a list of services Trinity provides, including medical care, food and housing. Like the parent of a teen-ager, Schaefer says, the agency manages its clients' personal finances via several different types of bank accounts it sets up in the clients' names. While the clients are given Trinity-generated computer printouts that list the deposits and withdrawals from their accounts, Schaefer says the money itself is kept inside an account Trinity Works has opened with a local bank.

For example, Schaefer manages what she calls a "burial fund" on behalf of her clients, including those who have signed over their government disability checks to Trinity Works. A portion of those checks are put into these accounts in the event the client dies.

"Unfortunately, it's something we all need and something that many of them quite frankly have used," Schaefer says.

In addition, Trinity Works also sets up what it calls "emergency funds." These accounts are just like a regular checking account, and they are designed to help the clients save money. The only difference, Schaefer says, is the clients cannot access them directly. If they want to make a withdrawal, they must first get the approval of their case manager.

"It's like one fella wants a recliner chair. That's what he gets his reclining chair with," Schaefer says. "Again, the case manager's job is to always act in the best interest of that client. You know, we're not going to give him, you know, six cases of beer with it."

As part of their monthly contracts, all of the clients agree to forfeit any money left in their emergency fund in the event that they break their contract with the agency. Schaefer emphasizes that these contracts are completely "voluntary." At the same time, she confirms that they are designed to act as an "incentive" to make sure clients adhere to the terms of their contracts and, more important, prevent them from making the mistake of trying to strike out on their own before they are ready to live independently.

"We have to set limits and teach people to accept limits," she says. "If you've got $350 in that emergency fund, you'll think twice about just walking out of here in the middle of the night."

There are other incentives Schaefer says she employs. One of the services Schaefer says she gives her clients is housing, which consists primarily of the 64 units inside the Prince of Wales building. Under Schaefer's rules, clients who are given an apartment in the Wales must fully participate in all of Trinity Works programs, including OTC. If they don't, they will be asked to live elsewhere. As with their personal finances, Schaefer says her clients need to be taught the basic realities about apartment living.

"I'm gonna charge them rent to teach them what the real world is like," Schaefer says. "And if they just keep taking advantage of mama, mom's gonna say, 'Hey, look, you're on your own.'"


Schaefer may view her clients as children, and there's no doubt that some of those clients benefit from having an authority figure in their lives. But some of Trinity's clients say they deserve the dignity of being treated like an adult.

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