Cuomo’s Morally Ambiguous War on a Homeless Scam

11/25/2009 11:05 AM |


Those ubiquitous guys soliciting pennies with plastic jugs on the streets of the city are involved in some shady business: we’ve known that since at least last summer, when Time Out New York ran a piece that tried to examine the operations of the United Homeless Organization, the banner under which those mendicants operate. ““U.H.O. doesn’t have a lot of information on where their money is going,” a representative of the Better Business Bureau told the magazine. “Personally and professionally, I would advise people to be cautious if donating to them.”

Now Andrew Cuomo has joined the fold of critics, and because he’s the state attorney general that’s bad news for U.H.O. His office has filed a civil suit against the group, in the hopes of shutting them down.

In the process, a lot of people could get hurt.

“U.H.O. exploits the good intentions of people who thought that their charitable donations were helping to fund services for the homeless,” Cuomo said in a statement, according to the Times. “Instead, their donations go directly to U.H.O.’s principals and workers, who abused the organization’s tax-exempt status to line their own pockets.”

It works like this: the table staffers pay the organization $15 a day, like franchisees, and in return get to pocket the rest of the money they collect that day. None of the money collected goes to support food pantries or any other social services, but most of the people working the tables are homeless or formerly homeless.

If true, it’s vexing that the organization’s two-member board, Stephen Riley (president) and Myra Walker (director), make a healthy profit off the generosity of others in order to finance their extravagant (relative to mine) lifestyle: cable television, meals in restaurants, trips on airplanes. But shutting down U.H.O. promises to cut off the modest but steady cash flow received by the indigent men and women who staff the tables.

“I only get about $25 a day,” one homeless man on 14th Street told the Times. “I give them $15 and I keep $10 for myself. It’s not that much money.”

“It enables me to have some money,” said another, who added, according to the Times that he uses the cash to buy food and rent a room in Harlem.

Now what are these people going to do?

One Comment

  • I think its wonderful that people are so moved to give back to the homeless during the holidays.

    Right now the nonprofit heroes and organizations who provide services to the millions of disconnected Americans each year, are experiencing massive funding cuts which will have devastating effects throughout the year.

    We must give more of ourselves – in the form of direct financial assistance to proven and reputable non profits agencies. Their situation is critical – and many of them actually prevent chronic homelessness by providing transitional housing and job training…

    Justin Early