The Help-the-Homeless Problem

It turns out that I was helping pay someone’s cable bill when I thought I was helping the homeless. Here, the story of a scam — and a roundup of very real organizations that will use your cash to make real change.

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When I arrived in the New York City in 2002 to attend graduate school, I was consistently amazed and dismayed to see how many homeless people there were — on the subways, on the streets, and, for an interesting spell, in a small tent community that I could see from the window of my apartment on Avenue D. When I first moved, I always gave money to people on the streets. But there was one man, who actively panhandled every day on the same corner near my eventual apartment in Inwood, who ultimately made me change my mind about this process. He seemed pleasant, sad, and genuinely hard-up, so I gave him several dollars a week. One day it dawned on me that I had been giving him small change for a year — and obviously, not a thing had changed.

So that’s why, a few years back, I was thrilled to regularly begin seeing the tables of the United Homeless Organization. I worked for a few years in Times Square, and there was always a table with a jug on it, staffed by a couple homeless men. They shouted over the crowds that if you gave “a penny, even just a penny,” that money would “help the homeless,” “feed the homeless,” and go toward institutional efforts combating the problem. I ate it up. I routinely gave them five, ten and even twenty dollars, happy to help a “professional” effort, happy for the convenience of on-the-street giving — and, of course, happy to alleviate my own guilt the next time I passed a panhandler. For two years now, I’ve lived in Philly, a city with a significant homelessness problem of its own, and often wished there was something like the UHO here.

It turns out that I should have let my usual cynicism dictate my behavior: According to New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, the UHO is a sham. In November, his office filed a lawsuit against the group, alleging that its president, Stephen Walker, and its director, Myra Walker, spent most of the money on themselves and next to nothing on the homeless.

From the New York Times:

The expenses, the lawsuit said, included premium cable television service at Mr. Riley’s apartment; restaurant meals; trips to Cleveland, Mr. Riley’s hometown; and shopping purchases from GameStop, the Home Shopping Network and the Web site for Weight Watchers.

The table workers pay Mr. Riley and Ms. Walker a $15-per-shift fee to use the group’s tables and materials, and keep the rest of what they collect, according to the lawsuit. It said that Mr. Riley and Ms. Walker used the fees as “their personal kitty,” routinely flouted nonprofit and charitable solicitation laws and failed to maintain accurate records of revenue and expenses.

So, I’ve fumed, I’ve felt like an idiot, I’ve told everyone to never give a dime to anyone on the street ever again. Of course, none of this actually helps the homeless. So, I figured it was a good time to do a quick roundup of organizations that ACTUALLY help the homeless in New York and Philly.

If you want to get moving ASAP and you live in New York, you can join up with the Rescue Alliance for outreach programs this month. From organizer Nia Shepherd:

Over the five weekends, our volunteers will walk every single street and subway station in Manhattan offering any homeless men, women and children an alternative to homelessness. There are five different zones and within each zone, there are several different sub-zones that a team of volunteers are assigned. The volunteers engage homeless persons within their assigned zone and invite them back to the anchor site. Homeless person who accept the invitation are given a ride back to the anchor site and homeless persons who turn down the invite are given a resource card with information for where they can go to get a hot meal, shower or enter a program. The homeless persons who accept our invitation are welcome to the anchor site where they have the opportunity to get a hot meal, pick up a new coat, sleeping bag and care kit. The homeless persons also have the opportunity to speak with a doctor, get the traditional flu shot, H1N1 flu shot and get tested for TB. Homeless persons who come back to the site also have the opportunity to speak with representatives from various different programs — detox, job training and overall rehabilitation.

Here’s the schedule:
Saturday, January 16, 2010 – Midtown Manhattan
Saturday, January 23, 2010 – Lower Manhattan
Saturday, January 30, 2010 – Upper East Side
Saturday, February 6, 2010 – Harlem/Upper Manhattan

Other homeless outreach organizations:

New York

The Bowery Mission. Faith-based non-profit that provides shelter, meals and other services to the homeless. Routinely in need of donations and also volunteers for outreach efforts.

The Partnership for the Homeless. Offers direct services to three major client constituencies, families with young children, older adults, and persons affected by HIV/AIDS, while they are living in temporary housing, leaving shelter for permanent housing, or at risk of losing their homes. Accepts charitable contributions, in-kind donations and volunteer services.

Brooklyn Community Housing and Services. Brooklyn-specific organization in need of financial and in-kind donations.


Project H.O.M.E.: operates street outreach, a range of supportive housing, and comprehensive services.

Philadelphia Committee to End Homelessness: Providing homeless men and women with services like showers, phone calls, and clothes. Also staffs teams of volunteers to provide basic services, information, and sometimes just someone to listen.

Image by rduta via flickr.

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Tags: new york cityphiladelphiagovernancehomelessness

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