California ministry charged with using homeless people as forced labor

California ministry charged with using homeless people as forced labor
© Greg Nash

Federal prosecutors charged 12 leaders of a California ministry with allegedly using homeless people as forced labor, according to an indictment unsealed Tuesday.

The leaders, including the former pastor of Imperial Valley Ministries, allegedly coerced homeless people into surrendering welfare benefits and panhandling for up to nine hours a day, six days a week, according to the Southern District of California.

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The defendants, arrested in El Centro, Calif., and Brownsville, Texas, were charged with benefits fraud, forced labor and document servitude, and were arraigned in federal court Tuesday afternoon.

The ministry, headquartered in El Centro, has opened about 30 locations throughout the U.S. and Mexico, and claims its mission is to “restore” drug addicts.

But the indictment said the ministry, upon checking homeless people in to faith-based rehabilitation group homes, locked them inside with deadbolt locks, confiscated identification documents to prevent escapes and stole welfare benefits.

The ministry reportedly nailed windows shut at some locations, with one 17-year-old forced to break a window and call the police from a neighboring property, according to the Southern District of California.

The indictment also alleges ministry leaders, including ex-Pastor Victor Gonzalez, refused to return victims’ Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) cards when they asked to leave, and induced them to remain with the program by saying their children would be taken away if they left or that they must stay because their family had rejected them and “only God” loved them.

“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,” U.S. Attorney Robert Brewer said in a statement.

“These victims were held captive, stripped of their humble financial means, their identification, their freedom and their dignity,” Brewer added.

The Hill has reached out to Imperial Valley Ministries for comment.