- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 11, 2019

A dozen church leaders in Southern California are accused of taking advantage of homeless people by stealing their welfare benefits, falsely imprisoning them rooms and subjugating them to forced labor.

In an unsealed indictment Tuesday, U.S. Attorney Robert Brewer said leaders in El Centro-based Imperial Valley Ministries are now facing charges of “conspiracy, forced labor, document servitude and benefits fraud,” according to CNN.

“The indictment alleges an appalling abuse of power by church officials who preyed on vulnerable homeless people with promises of a warm bed and meals,” Mr. Brewer said. “These victims were held captive, stripped of their humble financial means, their identification, their freedom and their dignity.”

The indictment describes homeless people being offered food and shelter with the nondenominational ministry, but once inside they would have their identification papers and belongings taken away and were forced to sleep in a room locked from the outside so no one could escape that was closely monitored.

The residents were required to panhandle 54 hours a week and would have welfare benefits like food cards taken away “for the financial benefit of the church leaders.”

They were threatened with punishment for violating the rules and refused medical treatment as well.

Mr. Brewer said a 17-year-old girl ended up breaking a window so she could flee the ministry and notify police.

Assistant U.S. District Attorney Chris Tenorio said that “dozens of victims have alleged the same thing” about the shelter.

“Once they were inside the group homes, the IVM had become a venture designed to keep as many as people as possible for as long as possible,” he said.

Authorities arrested defendants in El Centro, California as well as in Brownsville, Texas and San Diego, California. Arraignments against the accused will begin Tuesday.

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