Forced sexual favors-for-food at Merced shelter, lawsuit claims

MERCED, Calif. (KFSN) -- Disturbing allegations of sex for food and shelter are surfacing in a lawsuit taking aim at a north Valley charity.

Women are claiming they could get help from the Merced Rescue Mission, but only at a high cost. "They're helping fragile, sensitive people that are prime victims for sexual predators and that needs to stop," said attorney Jason Helsel who filed a lawsuit on behalf of one former client.

Another of the mission's clients told Action News it was commonplace for men who worked there -- the guys known as "disciples" -- to make sexual advances towards the women they were supposed to help. With her, it never got them anywhere, but the woman now suing the mission says she was too vulnerable to say no.

The holidays draw big crowds of needy people to the Merced Rescue Mission every year, and the charity provides food, shelter, and clothes year-round to thousands of people every week. But a few of the women who've been there in the last couple years say the men dishing out the help often asked them for sexual favors. "I kind of just shunned it," said Teresa Marks. "I wasn't interested. And I noticed the treatment wasn't as good as it was before."

Lunches, desserts, and clothes were suddenly gone after she refused the advances, she says.

In a lawsuit filed this month, Cheryl Foursha specifically named Elden McDaniel as the one who kept her from getting help unless she did something sexual for him. Her attorney says people might not believe Foursha if she was the only one saying it because she's a homeless drug addict. But he says the chorus of women speaking out is getting louder and harder to deny. "It becomes less of a coincidence and more of a reality when more and more women are coming forward with these same complaints about the same person involving the same time frame," said Helsel.

Merced Rescue Mission director Bruce Metcalf told us he couldn't do an interview, but he said McDaniel isn't an employee anymore and he actually moved out of state. An Action News reporter called McDaniel Thursday, but he never returned my voicemail.

Metcalf said he doesn't know if the allegations are true, but said there's no way he could've done anything about it because he didn't know about it. But Marks says he absolutely did because she personally told him. She thinks people should think twice before donating to the mission. "If they're just going to use your donations to try to extort poor, hungry women into bed then they shouldn't get donations," she said. "I just thought it was really sick and sad."

Police say they haven't taken any sexual assault reports at the mission -- either from clients or the employees.

The attorneys tell us if they win any money fighting this lawsuit, they'll donate every penny of it to the food bank or other homeless shelters.
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