By Stephen Young
By Stephen Young
By Stephen Young
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
"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.
"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."
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.
"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.
"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.
At age 65, time is beginning to take its toll on Richard Price. A recent stroke, combined with a bad hip, makes the simple task of walking nearly impossible. Instead, he shuffles.
Price inches into the Burger King sandwiched between Trinity Works headquarters and the Prince of Wales apartments, where Price has lived since entering the Managed Care program last January. The restaurant is the only place within walking distance that Price, like other clients who spoke to the Observer, says he feels safe enough to talk about Trinity Works--there are no cameras or staff members here to monitor him.
Dressed in a wrinkled suit coat, a plastic ID tag that reads "OTC" attached to the lapel, Price eases his weary frame into a booth. Price says he doesn't have much time to talk. He's on his lunch break, and soon he'll have to return to his job stuffing envelopes inside the Occupational Training Center on the second floor of Trinity's three-story office building, which the agency moved into last December. The last thing he wants is to be late.
"Just last week everyone was told, if anyone is five minutes late, they will have to spend two hours in overtime," Price says. He clutches his ID tag and adds, "If you don't wear this thing, it's a $5 fine."
Like most of Trinity's long-term clients, Price was in a bad spot when he landed on the agency's doorstep last year. He was homeless and broke. Though he'd rather not discuss it, he admits he was drinking, and the drinking, as it has before, led to minor troubles with the law. When Price checked into Trinity, he was impressed. The agency offered him just what he needed--a safe place to live while he completed his probation, paid off his court fines and put his life back on course. Despite his age, Price was also excited by the promise that he would receive vocational or occupational therapy that would allow him to obtain, in the agency's words, "maximum independence." To Price, that meant a job.
After he was accepted, Price gladly signed whatever paperwork his case manager gave him, including forms that gave the agency control over his Social Security and Supplemental Security Income checks. He also signed a contract in which he agreed, in part, to fully participate in all of Trinity's programs, including OTC. As part of the standard contract, Price agreed to forfeit his personal savings to the agency in the event he breaks the terms of his contract.
Soon, Price was living life according to Trinity's tightly run schedule--a routine he keeps today. Every weekday, he reports to OTC at 8:30 a.m. sharp and stays there until he punches out at 4:30 p.m., using a time clock. He is given an hour off for lunch and two 15-minute breaks. Lunch, like breakfast, is served in the first-floor cafeteria, and it consists of leftover food donated to Trinity from the Anatole Hotel.
For his efforts, Price is given a weekly cash stipend of $30--drawn off of his government checks, which Trinity deposits in a "trust" account it keeps in his name. He also is given a bag of groceries that are supposed to cover his dinners and get him through the weekend. The weekends are his to spend as he wishes, but Price, like all of the 64 tenants who live in the Prince of Wales, must abide by a 12 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew. Price holds up his apartment key. It is actually a plastic swipe card, which Trinity Works controls electronically and can shut off at any time. After midnight, Price says, the card doesn't work.
At first, Price says the regimen served him well. He successfully completed probation, and his life stabilized. As the months dragged on, however, he began to realize that the OTC program was all the job training he was going to get, and his hopes of finding a job and becoming independent began to fade. Eventually, it dawned on him that he could be stuck there for the rest of his life.
Today, Price says he would like to leave Trinity Works, but he can't. Although his contract clearly states that his participation in the program is voluntary, Price says there is nothing voluntary about it.
"They encourage me to sign a contract every month," Price says sarcastically. "They 'encourage' me by threatening to cut my stipend off if I don't sign it."
But there are bigger obstacles that prevent Price from leaving. Currently, Price says he's in the process of trying to remove Trinity Works as the payee on his government disability checks. Until he does so, there's no way he can put together enough money for another apartment. Price roots into his pocket and extracts a wrinkled copy of his most recent trust account transactions. According to it, Price has $49.99 left after the agency deducted his rent, weekly stipends and cleaning fees from his government checks.
"They're not giving me anything--just a piece of my Social Security," Price complains. "I'm not wanting to be a client of theirs, [but] they got my money. They got me hanging by a thread."
With no family to turn to, Price says he has no choice but to continue reporting to his job stuffing envelopes so he can keep his apartment in the Wales.
"I'm a reasonably intelligent person," Price says. "I think I could have a decent life if I got a shot at it."
Beyond the question of whether Trinity's policies truly serve the best interests of its clients, there are serious questions concerning their legality, particularly with regard to the occupational therapy program.
At the Observer's request, Schaefer agreed to give a tour of her new office building, including a trip through OTC. For this leg of the tour, Schaefer has enlisted the help of Gregg Davenport, the OTC supervisor, and Sally Schultz, a paid consultant Schaefer hired to help her design the OTC program.The first thing a visitor at OTC notices is the time clock stationed just inside the front door. Beyond it, the room opens up into a warehouse-like setting filled with rows of tables. About a dozen men and women sit quietly at the tables, their heads down and eyes focused on the menial tasks before them.
"It's designed to simulate real work," Schaefer says. "They punch in in the morning. The whole deal."
Schaefer explains that the goal of OTC is to teach Trinity's clients basic job skills, primarily learning how to show up for work on time and follow orders. Because so many Trinity clients are mentally or physically disabled, Schaefer says, the task is not easy.
"Those sound almost so simplistic that they may not have any value, but as an employer, I can tell you those things matter," Schaefer says. "And if you can't do those things, you're not gonna work for me, and you're probably not going to work for anybody. Especially if you have marginal skills to begin with."
Schultz, who says she helped create similar "sheltered workshops" for Texas state hospitals in Vernon and Wichita Falls, says this program is the best one she's ever seen.
"Every person in here is working within their range of expectations," Schultz says, adding, "this is not a quick fix. This is a truly rehabilitative program."
Here in OTC, Davenport says, the clients are divided up into three progressively difficult categories of work, according to their skill level. He points to a woman who is applying address labels to brochures Trinity is mailing out under a contract it has with the Dallas Burn professional soccer team. That task, Davenport says, falls into the "level one" category, the easiest skill level. Next to her, a woman is stamping the labeled brochures with a prepaid postage stamp. Her task is considered a "level two." At another set of tables, a team of men measure strings, which they apply to plastic bags as part of a "bag pack assembly" job Trinity completes for a local company, which Davenport declines to identify. This work is considered a "level three."
Schaefer leads the tour toward the back of the room, where a pair of employees are completing orders for Michaels Arts & Crafts--the retail giant based in Irving that, as Schaefer points out, has more than 300 stores across the United States and Canada. The orders are completed as part of a contract that Trinity Works has had with Michaels for the past two years, Schaefer says.
The way it works, Davenport explains, is a customer goes into any Michaels store and orders a decorative print. Michaels then sends the order here, where OTC clients mount the prints onto a desired background.
"Orders come here from around the country," Davenport says. "We fill the order here and ship it out to that store."
A collection of large cylinder tubes is standing on end in a corner. Schaefer explains that they contain finished prints, which are ready to be picked up by UPS and shipped out to various Michaels stores.
Typically, Schaefer says, Trinity Works has three contracts going with various companies at any given time. The task of convincing these companies to give their business to Trinity is something Schaefer takes very seriously. In its promotional literature, Trinity Works advertises this program as "fast assembly at a fair price." It also states that the nonprofit program offers Trinity's clients "real jobs for real pay."
"We're competing for these contracts with people who are doing that for a profit," Schaefer says. "We believe it is one of our successes."
For Trinity Works, the effort pays off. In 1999, the companies that contract with Trinity paid the agency a total of $120,030, according to the agency's public financial statement, otherwise known as an IRS 990 form.
While the OTC program generates revenues for Trinity Works, Schaefer confirms that she does not pay the clients who perform the work a wage. Schaefer justifies the policies by saying the labor her clients perform is not "work" but "occupational therapy." She also contends that they are "paid" in the form of the services Trinity offers, as well as a $35 cash stipend every week, which Schaefer says is drawn out of Trinity Works' own revenues.
"If you look it up in the dictionary, the term 'stipend' is a term used with education," Schaefer says, adding that absence of wages "is just not an issue." Schultz, who points out that the clients receive medical care, counseling, food and shelter, adds, "The benefit the client gets far exceeds any minimum compensation."
The clients who spoke to the Observer, however, say their stipends are deducted out of their personal trust accounts. For some, that means the money comes directly out of their Social Security checks or, in the case of those who are legally disabled, their SSI checks, according to client interviews and documents of client trust accounts the newspaper obtained.
"The things they say were worth money were paid by my Medicaid," says Carole Stead, who joined the program in 1998 while suffering from severe depression, a condition that made her eligible to receive disability checks from the Social Security Administration.
Similarly, copies of David Dickey's contract with Trinity Works clearly show that his stipend was drawn out of his personal trust account. "It was my own money," Dickey says. "Trinity never paid a dime to me."
When pressed further on the issue, Schaefer and Schultz say they researched all the applicable laws and determined that clients don't need to be paid a wage because the agency doesn't make enough money off of the OTC program to qualify it as a workplace under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of Labor.
On that point, Schaefer appears to be correct. The money Trinity Works reports earning off the OTC program is far less than the minimum amount that would give the Labor department jurisdiction over the agency. However, there are other factors, particularly the presence of interstate commerce, that require nonprofit agencies such as Trinity Works to pay their clients a minimum wage, says Judith Edmondson, a wage specialist at the U.S. Department of Labor's regional office in Houston.
Although Schaefer describes the OTC program as therapy, the Labor department would consider it work if the agency is competing for the business, for example, or generating revenues off of it. In addition, if that work involves interstate commerce, the clients would be individually covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act, which guarantees them the right to be paid a minimum wage, says Edmondson, who was unaware of Trinity's program and who spoke only generally about the law.
The work Trinity does for Michaels, for example, would appear to fall into that category. So, too, could some of the work Carole Stead says she performed as an office assistant inside Trinity's headquarters, where she says she handled out-of-sate mail, faxes and phone calls.
One exception to the rule is that some organizations receive special certification from the Labor department allowing them to pay a "sub-minimum" wage, Edmondson says. Those organizations are typically nonprofit agencies that run sheltered workshops for people who are mentally or physically disabled. Those agencies still must pay their employees a reduced wage, which the Labor department strictly regulates.
The program "is intended for workers whose disabilities impair them so much they cannot work for minimum wage. It gives them an opportunity," Edmondson says.
Although Schultz described Trinity's OTC program as a "sheltered workshop," Edmondson confirms that Trinity Works has received no such certification from her department.
While Schaefer has made a career out of injecting her authority into the lives of people who turn to her in desperation, she grows defensive when her agency is publicly examined. During two interviews that took place inside her headquarters, Schaefer refused to grant the Observer's request for copies of the agency's bylaws. (Under IRS regulations that govern 501C3 nonprofit agencies such as Trinity Works, Schaefer is required to provide a copy of those bylaws when they are requested in writing or in person, according to local IRS officials.)
Schaefer did, however, provide an audited copy of the agency's most recent financial statement, an IRS 990 form, which contained some questionable information. For example, the agency reported having 15 paid staff members, including Schaefer, yet it did not report paying any federal payroll taxes. Local IRS officials say no agency, whether it is for-profit or not, is exempt from paying payroll taxes. Schaefer, who earns an annual salary of $37,200 including benefits, says the omission of taxes must be an oversight.
The statement also includes information that the agency's primary debt consists of a $105,329 loan Schaefer made to the agency in 1997 and later renewed in 1999. Schaefer, who made the loan at an 8.5 percent interest rate, collected a total of $17,468 in interest off the loan in 1998 and 1999. When asked to explain what the loan was for, Schaefer said she originally made the loan back in 1989 or 1990, and it has been sitting there ever since.
"Let me put it this way, [Trinity Works] can't pay me back," she said. "It draws interest. I'm not a wealthy person. That's my retirement."
Schaefer declined to say whether her board of directors is aware of the loan and stopped answering further questions about it. "Everybody in the world," she says, "doesn't need to know that."
Wage considerations are not the only source of questions surrounding the legality of Trinity's programs. Another troublesome area involves the way in which the agency manages the Prince of Wales apartments.
Contrary to Schaefer's claim, the apartments in the Prince of Wales do not constitute a service that Trinity Works offers. In fact, the building, like the OTC program, actually generates revenues for the agency. Specifically, Trinity Works is paid an annual fee to manage the building on behalf of its owners, an entity called Prince of Wales Partnership, Ltd. In 1999, Trinity Works earned $61,061 under the arrangement, according to the agency's IRS 990 form.
What's more, Schaefer's policy of making her clients' housing contingent upon their participation in her program appears to violate the terms of a contract that governs the operation of the building.
In 1994, the building owners, led by Dallas architect Graham Greene, entered into a standard Housing Assistance Payments or "HAP" contract with the Dallas Housing Authority in which the building was designated as single-room housing for homeless people, whose rent would partially be paid by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
That contract, which is still in effect between DHA and the original owners, requires the owners to provide residents some social services. It does not, however, require residents to accept those services, says Dallas attorney Jeff Veazey, who specializes in tenants' rights and is a former staff attorney at Legal Services of North Texas.
"They've twisted this," says Veazey, who is holding a copy of the contract. "Trinity Works views the Wales as their property. They illegally changed the rules."
Conversely, Trinity Works cannot deny its clients access to their apartments simply because they failed to participate in the agency's programs. Indeed, the contract clearly states that the landlord, or in this case Trinity Works, must follow state law when it comes to evicting tenants. Generally, that means that Trinity Works cannot evict a tenant unless it has a court order to do so. Moreover, unless tenants are behind in rent, they can never be arbitrarily denied access to or "locked out" of their apartments.
Veazey is representing Daniel Murphy, a Prince of Wales resident since 1994 who has resisted Trinity's efforts to enroll him in their program. Last year, when Murphy failed to show up for OTC, he says his electronic swipe card was shut off and he was locked out of his apartment--a move that forced him to stay temporarily at a homeless shelter.
Murphy, who has been able to obtain employment on his own, says he doesn't see any benefit in participating in the OTC program and adds that he is repelled by Trinity's attempts to gain control over his life, particularly his finances.
"They said, 'We'll put it in a trust fund and manage your money for you.' I said, 'I don't need anyone to manage my money,'" Murphy says. "They wanted to control all the aspects of my finances, and they wanted me to work for them."
Murphy, who has not filed a lawsuit against the agency, isn't the only one who has been threatened with losing access to his housing because he failed to show up for OTC, documents show. For example, in 1998, one Wales resident signed a form in which he agreed to return to OTC.
"I understand...that all residents must participate in this program to maintain their residency," states the form, which is signed by the tenant, his case manager and Schaefer. "I understand that if I do not comply with the above plan, then I will be given notice to vacate the apartment. I will have five days to vacate the premises."
Another memo, sent to a female resident last September, was more threatening in its tone.
"The Trinity Works team expects you to come in today," the memo states. "You have a choice--if you come in, we will pick up where we left off. If you choose not to come in, you will be locked out of Wales for the weekend. The choice is yours."
One woman, who spoke to the Observer on the condition that she not be identified, says Trinity Works illegally evicted her shortly after it took over the Wales in 1998. The woman, who was 56 years old at the time, says she came home one night to discover that the locks on her door had been changed. A week earlier, Trinity Works gave her notice to vacate the apartment because she refused to participate in a substance abuse program. The woman, who lived in the Wales before Trinity took it over, says she was left on the street with no way to access her clothing, her medication or any of her personal belongings, which Trinity staff members packed up and put in storage.
"Where in the heck does she [Schaefer] think she can do this stuff and get away with it?" says the woman, who is still homeless. "Does she think she's God, saying you can't have a place to stay?"
Pat Canning, a former volunteer at Legal Services of North Texas, confirmed the woman's story, adding that she helped the woman regain her personal belongings after she turned to the agency for assistance.
"That was the worst thing I ever saw. How can you do a human that way?" Canning says. "I don't care if she is a drunk. She has legal rights. You don't just throw her out on the streets just because she didn't want to go into that rehab program."
Schaefer confirms that clients who refuse to participate in her program will be asked to give up their apartments, though she says she's uncomfortable with the word eviction.
"It's not a question of eviction," Schaefer says. "It's a question of this facility is part of a program, and that's what you do if you're gonna live there. It's not a question of evicting or not evicting. You know, it's a choice."
Schaefer also confirms that unruly clients are occasionally "locked out" of their apartments on a temporary basis and expected to sleep in a homeless shelter.
"It's to get their attention. It's to say, 'Wake up. You're really going down the wrong path, and we've gotta resolve this. Come on, let's work it out.' I find that it is no different than many, many things that are done in basic parenting and certainly in any type of well-run program," says Schaefer.
"When you're in a war zone," she says, "when you're trying to save someone's life, you do a lot of things."