Door-to-door "education"

Helping the homeless or helping themselves?


In "Door-to-Door Education" [10/24/07], we reported on a group called the San Francisco Homeless Services Coalition. Our story stated that 25 percent of the group's income goes to overhead and in-kind donations. In fact, Daniel Rotman, the group's director, says 10 percent of the income goes to overhead, 54 percent to "public education" (which includes door-to-door canvassing and fundraising), 13.5 percent to financial donations to local shelters, and 22.5 percent to in-kind donations. Our article also stated that the San Francisco Police Department was considering revoking the group's charitable-solicitations permit and that department staff recommended the permit be revoked. In fact, the permit was extended for another six months while a decision on revocation is pending. The literature that the group was handing out early in its operation included the SFHSC name, address, and phone number.

While San Francisco's problem of homelessness rages in the local streets and broadsheets, a Los Angeles–based organization that raises money for homeless people has set up a new shop in town. Situated in the high-traffic area of Seventh and Market streets, where the down-and-out regularly nap, panhandle, and hawk their wares, the San Francisco Homeless Services Coalition seems perfectly placed to lend a hand.

But a recent afternoon visit to its headquarters found the gate pulled shut, the door locked, and a person inside working at a computer while half a dozen homeless people loitered outside. Nothing, save a small piece of paper reading "SFHSC" posted in the window, indicated this was a place to give money or assist homeless individuals.

During another impromptu visit the gate was open and the room full of people — potential canvassers receiving instructions on going door-to-door to ask for $150 donations, which is how the group's fellow organization, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Coalition, has raised more than $2 million in two years, according to its Web site.

When we asked for more information about the group, we were told it doesn't print brochures or any kind of literature, in order to save money. A handmade business card with the phone number and Web site was given with an aside that we were "lucky to be getting that."

Concerns about the SFHSC have reached the San Francisco Police Department, which is investigating whether the door-to-door canvassers are carrying the proper identification and if that form of fundraising violates the group's city-issued charitable-solicitations permit. The permit forbids soliciting within 10 feet of doors. A certificate of registration issued to the SFHSC on April 11 clearly states, "This does not authorize your organization to go door to door for solicitation. Public property only for charitable solicitation."

But the group has been knocking on doors in San Francisco for the past six months, telling people that "the best way to make a difference is by making a $150 tax-deductible donation," according to the script it gives its canvassers. It's raised at least $100,000 so far in the name of helping the homeless, but its work has managed to alienate some of the local leaders it intended to support.

"There isn't a relationship any longer," Erica Kisch, executive director of Compass Community Services, told us when asked about the three-month arrangement between the two groups during which the SFHSC agreed to donate 15 percent of its take to Compass. "We knew nothing about them. We met with the director. They said they were raising money for homeless services," Kisch said. "It was an opportunity, and it seemed aboveboard at the time."

Canvassers solicited with flyers clearly showing Compass's name, federal tax-exempt identification number, and statistics but lacking the same details about the SFHSC.