Door-to-door "education" - Page 2

Helping the homeless or helping themselves?

That caused concerned citizens to call Kisch. "We were getting inquiries from the community about what they were doing, their tactics. They were kind of aggressive, going up to people's doors asking for a lot of money.... It wasn't really clear to the people they were soliciting that money was going to direct services," she said.

In fact, most of it wasn't. The SFHSC says only 15 percent of the money it raises makes it to the shelters and service centers. Most of the money raised goes to raising more money door-to-door — either to canvassers or their support staff — an effort the group calls "education." Kisch did some more research and ultimately decided "it wasn't worth it to us to be attached to a controversial organization like that." Compass ended up receiving a total of $11,250 from the SFHSC.

Daniel Rotman, founder and executive director of both the SF and the LAHSC, said of the breakup, "Maybe they didn't realize we'd be reaching so many people. I think we were just too new for them."

Rotman, a 27-year-old LA resident and UC Berkeley graduate with a degree in political science, used to work for the Democratic National Committee but decided politics wasn't for him. He transferred the grassroots machinery of fundraising for politics to the particular issue of homelessness, he told us, "because I care. I've always been taken by the issue."

He confirmed to us that the SFHSC does not interface with needy folks — it just gathers money in their name. Homeless people who stop by the office are referred to other locations in the neighborhood and escorted out. Rotman said 15 percent of the net money raised is given to local groups, 60 percent goes to education, and 25 percent is for overhead, as well as a plan to buy delivery trucks for ferrying donated goods from homes to shelters.

"Our main goal is educating the community," Rotman said. "We don't just raise money and give it to other groups. It costs money to set up speaking engagements and pay for field managers." But he admitted the SFHSC hadn't done or set up any speaking gigs yet. The 10 to 11 canvassers employed at the SFHSC are paid minimum wage and earn a 30 percent bonus if they exceed a weekly office average. "They get that for going out into the community and informing people about the issue and about us. At the end we ask them to make a donation," Rotman said.

So the point of the canvassing is to educate, not raise money, but those who have received the pitch are dubious.

"It was not educational at all," one Bernal Heights resident said of her interaction with an SFHSC canvasser. "My husband works in that field, and I was surprised I'd never heard of them." She asked for a business card so she could do more research, but the canvasser had no printed materials. "Just a clipboard with names and addresses and a very vague petition." No envelope, no card, no pamphlet. "Basically, he was just asking for donations. I didn't know what to think."

Besides the soliciting foot soldiers and an office at 1135 Market that's so discreet it's easy to miss, the group's only public face is its Web site, — a copy of the LAHSC site. "Who is homeless in San Francisco?" the Web site asks, but its answers don't inspire a lot of confidence — they were clearly imported from our southerly neighbor. "50% of homeless adults are African American, compared to 9% of LA's total population."

Paul Boden, executive director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project and former head of the Coalition on Homelessness, said he found out about the SFHSC from people who thought its canvassers were from COH. Boden, who's been working on homeless issues since 1983, said none of his peers in LA had heard of the group, further raising his suspicions.