SOUTH BEND, Ind. — A REAL News Michiana investigation has uncovered potential federal benefits fraud being committed by a local “activist” who claims to be helping the homeless.
RNM has received statements from multiple people who say Lori Wright, of Wright Chosen Ministries, was promising homeless families a place to stay in exchange for giving her their food stamp cards. She would then sell the food stamps to a person in Louisiana, according to multiple witnesses.
“I was supposed to give her $350 in food stamps to stay there, which I thought I was just supposed to go grocery shopping and put the food in the house, which is what I did.” One victim who wished not to be named, told RNM. “But, the second that she get (sic) there, she asks me could she send it (my food stamp card) to Louisiana so she could sell the $350 in stamps.”
The victim tells RNM she has been living out of her vehicle with her 8 kids for the past two years. She was first introduced to Lori Wright through another “activist,” Vernado Malone, who runs the non-profit Justice for Michiana. RNM published an investigative story about Malone several months ago regarding his organization taking nude photos of the recently deceased inside of a local funeral home. You can read that story here.
“Basically (Malone told me) what his program was about or whatever, said he didn’t have any space and that’s when he mentioned the Lori Wright lady, saying she had a place for me to stay but I had to give a certain amount of food stamps to her for me to stay there.” The victim stated.
Under the impression she was just supposed to buy groceries for the house, the victim says she agreed to the conditions. However, after she purchased the groceries, Wright still demanded her food stamps.
“She said she still needed my card because that’s how she pays the bills.” The victim said. “I couldn’t do it, because that’s illegal. When I signed up for food stamps, that’s the first thing I signed on my paper was stating that I wouldn’t, you know, buy, sell or trade my food stamps.”
The victim tells RNM she was never asked to leave, but left on her own after only two days. She says another family was also staying in the house and claims that family was paying to stay there by giving Wright their food stamps as well.
“There was another girl and her two kids staying there. They’re not there anymore. But, yeah, it was no fun staying there.” She said.
RNM spoke to Wright over the phone for a short time. When we brought up the potential fraud, she seemed to deny any knowledge.
“Oh that’s some accusations. Uh huh.” She said.
Wright then refused to speak to RNM about the accusations further and hung up the phone. She later sent RNM a text message saying she was going to discuss the issue, but never called back. You can listen to the entire conversation below.
Wright’s cell phone number has a Louisiana area code. As previously stated, Wright is accused of selling food stamps to an individual in that state.
Wright and her organization, Wright Chosen Ministries, received $6,000 in taxpayer money from the South Bend Alive Grant initiative. The grant is in its first year of operation.
According to the city’s website, the “Alive grant program is part of the City’s ongoing efforts to reduce incidents of gun violence in the community and provide constructive initiatives for South Bend’s young people.” The city gave 50 organizations these grants. RNM is currently investigating all of them.
Wright admits to being a criminal in her grant application by stating, “The founder Lori Wright had her own struggles during her youth as an ex-drug dealer, drug addict and prostitute.” Despite those admissions, the city still gave her thousands in taxpayer dollars. It appears the city asked for nothing more from Wright to prove she had changed her criminal past.
Wright’s grant application, award and budget can all be seen below.
The Alive Grant program is run out of the South Bend Office of Community Initiatives, with director Maurice Scott, whose office is located at the O’Brien Center. RNM stopped by the office and spoke with Romona Bethany, the Group Violence Intervention Program Manager.
“This catches me a little off guard.” She said. “I would rather put you on my calendar so that we could really talk about this.”
Bethany gave RNM her card and asked that we send an email to schedule a time to have a formal sit down. RNM sent her that email on Tuesday. We have still not heard back from her. Mayor Mueller’s office has not responded to requests either.
Multiple witnesses tell RNM at least one victim had a sit down with Bethany and what they believed to be a city attorney to discuss the potential fraud. That victim tells RNM she never heard back from the city after the meeting.
RNM has investigated other Alive Grant awardees who have been involved in potential illegal activities and have questionable criminal pasts, including Justice for Michiana and the C.H.O.I.C.E.S. program. Multiple witnesses have implicated the head of Justice for Michiana, Vernado Malone, with the food stamp scheme involving Lori Wright.
RNM reached out to Malone for comment on the story. While he claims he had no clue about the food stamp rent payment scheme before referring homeless folks to Wright’s organization, he did back up nearly every bit of the stories told to RNM from witnesses and the previously mentioned victim.
“I was upset about that myself.” Malone said. “What happened was, people come to us for referrals. We refer them to the Wright Ministries… and for some reason the girl says she gave her food stamp card to the lady and she mailed it (to Louisiana).”
Malone says he referred 3 different families to Wright’s organization. He claims he stopped doing work with Wright when he learned of potential food stamp fraud.
“I did call an emergency meeting about that because nothing should have happened like that.” He said. “She (Wright) supposedly gave the card back.”
“I don’t know how (Malone is saying that) when he’s the one who first mentioned the stamps. It’s just so much. I hate to even talk about it.” The victim said to RNM.
Multiple homeless people who used to live at the old tent city outside of Doulos Chapel on St. Joseph Street in South Bend gave RNM statements claiming Malone attempted to have the homeless give him their food stamps. None of the former tent city residents, who RNM spoke to, say they actually handed over their food stamp card.
Malone denies ever asking for anyone’s food stamps.
Malone’s Justice for Michiana was awarded $7,000 from the South Bend Alive Grant program. RNM is told he is no longer part of the program. However, city officials would not tell RNM if Malone had returned the money or if the money was being used for something else.
The woman who lived at Wright’s home for just a couple of days, is still living out of her car with her 8 children.
“Nobody is getting where I’m coming from. I am homeless. I am begging everybody for help.” She said.