When Bertell Brinkley moved into Agape Home Church three months ago, he knew what he signed up for. The house rules called for him to attend church services twice daily, perform household chores and hand over his monthly general relief check and food stamps.
In exchange, the 45-year-old Virginia native received a clean bed, unlimited food and a family that consisted of the several dozen people who live in the South Los Angeles transitional home.
“It’s nice and very organized,” Brinkley said. “Some of the guidelines we have here can be compared to college guidelines -- things that students have to do. It’s just as organized.”
But authorities said Kang Won Lee and his wife, Jung Hwan Lee, the owners of Agape Mission House and Agape Home Church, took advantage of physically and mentally disabled residents by unlawfully confiscating their government allowances and mistreating some of them.
On Tuesday, L.A. City Atty. Mike Feuer announced a lawsuit against the two assisted-care homes for allegedly abusing patients by subjecting them to "deplorable, overcrowded and substandard living conditions."
According to court documents, some of the residents slept on linoleum surfaces with thin pads or mats instead of mattresses. One resident lived in a "storage room" and others in an attic.
As many as 80 residents were sometimes crammed into the two homes, one of which was operating without a license, officials said. The couple surrendered its sole license last year after repeated violations, records show.
The temperature last July during an inspection reached 97 degrees. Some residents were forced to attend religious services twice daily or face sleeping outside at night.
“These residents are among the most vulnerable in our society and they were forced to live a daily nightmare,” said Feuer. “We are bringing that nightmare to a close.”
Hours after the lawsuit was announced, residents stood outside the pale yellow house on South Hobart Street and expressed shock over the allegations.
Many talked lovingly about “Pastor Lee” and his wife, who led worship services mornings and nights.
Henry Beasley, 56, said the strong, Christian emphasis helped deliver him from years of substance abuse. Before he moved into Agape 2 1/2 years ago, he was homeless. But the “pastor’s generosity and loving, kind heart” helped him turn his life around.
Beasley, a praise leader, said he did not experience or see any mistreatment.
“I never witnessed anything that was asked of a client that I wasn’t willing to do,” he said.
But J.J. Thurman, 38, said sometimes Pastor Lee would yell at residents and ignore patients who needed medical attention. But he said he never saw any physical abuse.
The men said they gave Lee and his wife their monthly government relief checks of $221 and their food stamp allowances of about $200. They considered it the cost to live at Agape.
“Everything that we give them, they it gave back to us,” Brinkley said. “There is no way we could survive with what [general relief] gives you.”
Many of the residents said they were homeless, living on skid row, when they were referred to Agape Mission House by social workers. At Agape, they found structure, a family and support.
The owners provided transportation to doctor’s visits, and staffers went to court with residents facing charges and helped residents fill out government paperwork.
The Lees lived in the pale yellow house at 2205 S. Hobart Blvd., where the female residents lived. The men lived on another property two houses down. Every morning at 7:30, Pastor Lee would lead a 45-minute church service that included Scripture reading, the singing of hymns and a sermon.
A second, longer service was held at 7 p.m. Until last year, there were two daily Bible study sessions. But the Lees had not returned to the home in more than a month, residents said.
Authorities have begun helping residents relocate.
“I feel sad because this has become home for me,” Beasley. “I met a lot of people that I’ve become instantly fond of.”