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.
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While San Francisco's problem of homelessness rages in the local streets and broadsheets, a Los Angelesbased 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. 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, www.sfhsc.org  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. "This group has to have one legitimate provider," Boden said. "One pimp group as the basis for all this funding it's a scam that's as old as poverty."
Boden and Seth Katzman, director of Conard House, filed complaints with the SFPD that the SFHSC was vioutf8g the terms of its charitable-solicitations permit. An SFPD permitting officer confirmed the department had received concerned calls and a revocation hearing was held Aug. 15. Capt. Tom O'Neill said a backlog of work has kept him from releasing the final decision, but his staff has recommended the permit be revoked.
"Find out more before a gift is made," Bennett Weiner, chief operating officer of the Better Business Bureau's Wise Giving Alliance, told us. He said legitimate nonprofits should make their annual report and other financial details publicly available and posted on a Web site.
And at the very least, they should have some flyers. "Not to have any literature available does raise potential concerns in donors' minds," Weiner said. "It is something we encourage people to ask for."
Rotman told us the lack of literature was a fluke and the SFHSC always sends its canvassers out with four packets of envelopes to give to citizens. They're required to knock on 75 doors, so it's easy to imagine they might run out of envelopes.
The BBB also recommends that any such group be overseen by a board that meets three times a year, composed of at least five members, who should not make more than 10 percent of the organization's total take. Rotman told us his board has three members the IRS's minimum legal requirement and that he makes $36,000 a year. He could not provide annual reports or financial statements, explaining that the SFHSC is new and has had to rely on partnerships with fiscal sponsors.
Lisa Watson, executive director of the Downtown Women's Center, said her group's 17-member board of directors decided to terminate its relationship with the SFHSC after receiving $30,000. "Our board decided they didn't think the canvassing was the way they wanted to go, because a certain percentage went to canvassing. Only a certain percentage went to us."
The LA Youth Network is the LAHSC's current beneficiary, and director of administration Katherine McMahon expressed satisfaction with the relationship. "We work with homeless teens, and they've been an awesome advocate for us." The group has received more than $600,000 during the past two years.
Both Watson and McMahon said one of the benefits of the relationship with the LAHSC had been access to a new pool of donors, something that can be as important to many groups as money. "It's more than raising money. Its building brand identity," Rotman said. In this case the "brand" is the problem of homelessness. "We have found more than anything that people in the community, based on our canvassing and talking to people one-on-one, there's a general aggression from citizens and residents in the Bay Area towards the homeless." He wants to "talk to people on a one-on-one basis and say, 'Hey look, it's not necessarily what you think.'<0x2009>"
He said they're raising empathy and support for public policy measures and "try to build up a little support for homeless services themselves." The SFHSC now partners with a different group every month, which will receive 15 percent of the net of its canvassing fruits.
"That specific setup, going door to door ... this isn't the way nonprofits in San Francisco raise money," Kisch said. "They're pressing people to give $150 off the street. I would never give anyone that kind of money without more background on them. We were getting 15 percent after expenses. Where's the rest of it going?"