Close to 2 million people are homeless in the United States, according to some statistics, and at some point, roughly 3.5 million people will experience homelessness in any given year. These numbers are quite grim and due to many issues, including an individual’s or family’s inability to afford housing, access to proper care for physical or mental disabilities, addiction and other factors.
There are many programs out there to help those in need, including innovative organizations that aim to empower those who would otherwise be grasping at the last strings of survival and hope. And there are maybe others, as reported by The Tampa Bay Times on Nov. 29, that hopefully mean well but have struck a discordant note with the public on account of their seeming exploitation of those in need.
In Tampa, Florida, one such program called New Beginnings operates, bringing in numerous homeless, most of whom are veterans, to work at places like construction sites, football games, fairs and race car races. People work in landscaping, home repair and upkeep, telemarketing and even grant-writing.
What these people would be paid goes to the organization that finds them the jobs. That’s right. The workers leave just as “penniless as they arrived” in some sort of scheme that the organization’s CEO, Tom Atchison calls “work therapy.”
It seems shady, and homeless advocates and labor lawyers are calling Atchison into question. The way the organization runs may very well be, not only exploitive, but illegal.
This isn’t a new organization and while the public is currently naysaying New Beginnings’ efforts, it looks as though people who have been “employed” by the organization are very much provided for. “When people enter the program, their most immediate needs are for shelter, food and/or clothing,” states the organization’s website. New Beginnings aims to cover these fundamental needs. The site continues, “Once here, they begin to address other issues that may have contributed to their homelessness,” like mental, emotional or physical health issues, addictions, and trouble with the law. As a part of the program, it looks as though the organization also provides job training and recovery programs for its residents. From the looks of the testimonial page on the New Beginnings website, there have been significant successes.
This all sounds pretty good. It’s hardly illegal to compensate workers in the way New Beginnings has been, as long as said compensation is proven to be equal to or more than what the workers would earn at the current minimum wage. It’s something that The Salvation Army has been doing for a long time, pointed out The Atlantic. The Salvation Army’s model is the one that New Beginnings claims to have based its own.
But then, there are many other glaring issues, as uncovered by The Tampa Bay Times. For one, New Beginnings hasn’t kept track of the hours that the workers have put in, nor have they commented on how much money the workers have earned for the non-profit.
The Times “reviewed thousands of pages of public records about New Beginnings, including police reports, bank statements, grant documents and court proceedings, and interviewed more than 20 current and former New Beginnings residents and employees,” and found that employees and residents of New Beginnings handed over their Social Security checks and food stamps “even if they amounted to more than residents owed in program costs.” It was also found that while the non-profit claims to supply counseling to residents who may need help in the way of mental illness or addiction, no one employed by the organization was trained or qualified to do such work.
One has to wonder. Will New Beginnings meet the same fate that a similar New York organization met in the ‘90s? “The “Pathways to Employment” program — run by the Grand Central and 34th Street Partnerships, business organizations — provided shelter, food and counseling and put its residents to work clearing other homeless people from bank vestibules,” reported the Tampa Bay Times, “While taking in hundreds of thousands of dollars, the partnerships paid their homeless employees $1 to $1.50 an hour.”
The more you look at it, the more the whole thing reeks of indentured servitude, a term that perhaps no one thought would turn up again after the last bits of institutionalized slavery had been taken out of public consciousness. But the issue at hand brings up many more questions in the realm of ethics. For example, what is a better solution that works to empower those who have been disempowered by their circumstances? Ending a program like this without supplying another answer could very well cut off someone’s lifeline. But with illegal activities coming to the fore, one has to wonder if the organization can be fixed at all.