You’ve heard their bellowing on the subways. If you’ve been unlucky enough to be in Times Square, you’ve also heard it there, in Union Square, in Herald Square, and at a few other strategically selected street corners in Manhattan. And if you’re anything like me, you’ve wondered, “What is the deal with the United Homeless Organization? Should I feel guilty for not giving them some change or is it OK to feel contemptuous of their imposition on legitimate charities, my eardrums, and this subway ride?”
So, here’s the deal: A quick glance at their 2006 income tax returns tells us that what we see is what we get. They provide “outreach services to the homeless community,” “work experience and advocacy roles for currently homeless individuals,” “referrals to the homeless for rehabilitation and social services,” and that they “distribute clothing to the homeless,” and advocate “for [the] homeless to the general public.” Yes, the UHO *does* give out “sammiches” to anyone who asks for them. I recently witnessed a very non-homeless man on the subway ask a UHO volunteer for one of his bologna sandwiches, which was enthusiastically handed over. I feel fairly certain that any donated blankets or clothing would go the way of the sammiches, provided the UHO volunteer to whom you donated didn’t need them. And the New York Times reports that UHO requires its volunteers to work in a soup kitchen one day per week.
As for your donations, however, things are less clear-cut. UHO volunteers, most of whom are themselves homeless or formerly homeless, are required to give over $15 per shift to the organization. They may then keep the balance of their collections, or if they’ve grossed less than $15, they may (by one account) be indebted to the organization for any deficiency.
So the pink elephant in the room is: where does the $15 go? A more careful look into their tax returns confirms that they have no programs (which we already knew, but hoped that maybe we were wrong) and that their revenues (those $15 volunteer fees, totaling $84,561 for 2006) are offset by $33,412 in “support stipends” for president Stephen Riley (his vehicles, computer, utilities, credit card fees, etc.) along with $46k in management expenses. Management expenses? $46k worth? I’ll leave you to speculate as to what the UHO could possible spend $46k on. The bottom line is that the UHO is a scam. The UHO has managed to organize their panhandling to create a smokescreen of legitimacy, which Stephen Riley then capitalizes on. When you give money to a volunteer, you’re giving it to that particular volunteer and Stephen Riley – not so much the “homeless community.” Sure, your money may start a very, very long chain of causation that may ultimately lead to a homeless person getting a sandwich or a blanket, but it may be *the* most inefficient use of your charitable dollars. If you want to help New York City’s homeless, not to mention quiet the commute of many a New Yorker, donate to The Bowery Mission or the Coalition for the Homeless instead.