Homeless people drawn in by promises of food and a place to stay got something a little different: stints of forced labor in which they were made to beg for money for up to nine hours a day, six days a week. That was just one of the allegations mentioned in a federal grand-jury indictment unsealed Tuesday that says a dozen leaders of the nondenominational Imperial Valley Ministries, based in California, not only forced their victims to panhandle, but also to hand over their welfare benefits, CNN reports. It's "an appalling abuse of power by church officials who preyed on vulnerable homeless people with promises of a warm bed and meals," US Attorney Robert Brewer says in a Justice Department release. "These victims were held captive, stripped of their humble financial means, their identification, their freedom, and their dignity."
The indictment details the accusations against the leaders of the ministry, which runs churches and group homes in the US and Mexico. Among them: that leaders brought their victims to these group homes and then locked them in (at some locations, the windows were said to be nailed shut, in addition to deadbolts on the door); took away the victims' driver's licenses, passports, and other forms of ID; and forced them to beg and give up their welfare benefits "for the financial benefit of the church leaders." All identified victims are now free. The defendants, who were arrested in San Diego and El Centro, Calif., as well as in Brownsville, Texas, will face charges of forced labor, conspiracy, benefits fraud, and document servitude. Arraignments started Tuesday. (President Trump wants to address California's homelessness crisis, but not everyone trusts his motives.)