If you live anywhere in the NYC area, you’ve probably seen a “United Homeless Organization” table on the sidewalk, staffed by a volunteer who looks homeless himself. (If you don’t live here, imagine a year-round, homeless Salvation Army Santa.) If you thought the set-ups looked a little sketchy, you were right: the UHO is a “sham,” according to NY Attorney General Andrew Cuomo.
Back in 2001, the New York Times pointed out that the people working the table are themselves homeless and keep whatever they collect, minus a $15 fee. That makes the phrase “donate money for the homeless” a little weird, since really you’re donating to one particular person and not to the organization on the plastic jug. The New York Times let the issue drop, while the New York Post agitated for an investigation.
Attorney General Cuomo has now filed a complaint that says his office has determined the UHO isn’t a charitable organization at all–it’s basically just a couple of people who rent out equipment and a brand identity to homeless people, and then make a profit off of their panhandling:
UHO is a sham. All of the money dropped into the UHO jugs is pocketed by the UHO table workers, [UHO founder and president, Stephen Riley, and its director, Myra Walker], and other insiders, or is used by Riley and Walker to perpetuate a scheme to defraud the public. Riley and Walker run UHO in total disregard ofthe legal and fiduciary requirements that bona fide charitable corporations must follow, resulting in hundreds of thousands of dollars of charitable assets being unaccounted for or misused annually.
As to what Riley and Walker spend the money on, the complaint lists things like fees at Weightwatchers.com, purchases at Toys R Us and Bed Bath & Beyond, and cable bills. The New York Post adds to that list: a $3,000 bill for “Xmas,” and $42,000 in “stipends” to volunteers, including a person who lives with Riley.
If you want to help the homeless but don’t want to line the pockets of some less-than-forthright entrepreneur, try looking for local homeless organizations that you can donate time, money, or goods to. Here’s a sample list of New York City groups, but you can probably find a similar list in any large town.
“Homeless Organization Is Called a Fraud” [New York Times] (Thanks to PecanPi!)