Possible misuse of an electronic system called EBT, which delivers welfare benefits to low-income recipients, is under question, after NBC 7 Investigates found thousands of dollars of food benefits being debited at a local church.
The recipients of those taxpayer-funded food benefits say they didn’t receive food for the exchange, but rather traded their food stamps for shelter provided by the outreach ministry of Pastor David Barrett.
Barrett was previously featured in an NBC 7 Investigates piece about how Immigration and Customs Enforcement released three immigrant families to his Santee shelter, which was kept in crowded and deplorable conditions.
In response to questions about that story, Barrett said care at the sober living home began to deteriorate when some in the home started drinking and using drugs again.
“The household was just a place to help people get off the streets and get a better way of life,” Barrett said. “And I really didn’t have to do that.”
But Shawn Gigger, who stayed for a year in Barrett’s Santee “House of Hope” shelter, says she doesn’t know what Barrett was doing with the food stamp money because he wasn’t providing food at the house with it.
“He gets people who are already between a rock and a hard place, to where you really have no choice but to say, ‘Okay, I’ll do this and this to have this,” said Shawn Gigger, who stayed for a year in Barrett’s Santee shelter, called the “House of Hope.”
Gigger and another past shelter resident provided NBC 7 with their EBT transaction history that showed a total of $5,451 in food benefits being debited from the New Ark of the Covenant Church on University Avenue, a church where Barrett preaches. A third former shelter resident came forward with a similar story – that all of her food stamps benefits had been debited by the pastor but no food was ever provided at her shelter.
Pastor James E. Wright, the head pastor at New Ark, where Barrett preaches and rents space, said the church is allowed to access parishioners’ food stamps benefits because they have a license to run a “share” program.
When asked what a “share” program is and if NBC 7 Investigates could see that license, the pastor hung up the phone.
A state spokesman for the Department of Social Services said he was not familiar with the “share” program. The spokesman added that the department’s program integrity team is looking into the situation.
Crystal Powell, who lived in another of Barrett’s shelters called the “House of Joy,” said Barrett approached her outside of the San Diego Rescue Mission, where she had just spent the night with her four children.
“He said, ‘Well, that’s no place for children.’ And I said, ‘Well, I don’t have a choice.’ And that’s when he told me, ‘Well, I have a better solution,’” Powell recalled.
Barrett’s better solution was for Crystal to hand over her EBT card and pin number so that he could access $650 of her food stamp benefits per month and $350 of her cash aid every month. In exchange, Barrett told Crystal she would have her own room in a house, with access to a kitchen and a backyard for her children to play.
Instead, Crystal moved into a crowded room with a cement floor in an El Cajon house stuffed with people. Sharing the room with four other families, she agreed to give Barrett $1,000 in “rent” from her welfare benefits for a corner of that room and a mattress on the floor for herself and her four children.
A few months later she was informed the shelter residents were being evicted.
“And he brought me back my card with $50 left on it for me and my kids to buy snacks and stuff, but he never brought any food to the house,” Powell said.
Barrett says he’s a man of God, and a drug and alcohol counselor with a degree from City College. He says he’s helping people because that is what is in his heart.
“You are allowed to use their EBT to provide food,” Barrett said of his shelter residents. “We don’t take their EBT for rent. Let’s get it clear. We only use it for food purposes to provide food because we provide the meals at the house.”
At least eight past residents of Barrett’s House of Hope shelter tell us he didn’t provide food at the shelter. Some provided us with photos of locks on the refrigerators and cabinets at the “House of Hope.”
NBC 7 Investigates checked with local and state authorities for CalFresh guidelines.
A Department of Social Services spokesman said it is not uncommon for a shelter to collect and pool social security benefits in order to provide room and board for the residents. But, it is not legal for a provider to confiscate CalFresh benefits to provide food to an entire shelter, he said.
“The intent of that food is to feed a specific family, not everybody in a congregate care environment,” said Michael Weston, a spokesman for the Department of Social Services.
CalFresh Program Specialist Matthew Heffernan, from the County’s Health and Human Services Agency says group homes are not typically permitted to collect food stamp benefits, unless they have a rare and special license from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has not yet responded to NBC 7’s question on whether New Ark or any of Barrett’s shelters have that license.
Heffernan said the County does not conduct investigations or keep track of where benefits are being spent. Those cases are usually handled by the District Attorney’s office. No one checks what type of food or how much is being provided in rare cases where a facility is allowed to access residents’ EBT cards.
Heffernan stressed that welfare recipients should never hand over their card.
“It’s advice. It’s really to let them know that we don’t want someone to take advantage of them, and be able to take their benefits away,” Heffernan said.
Gigger, who managed Barrett’s “House of Hope” shelter, said Barrett collects EBT cards from most of the people he moves into his shelters.
“I mean, at this point, he’s not who I believed him to be,” she said.