What to do about the "Pro-Life Homeless"
December 9, 2011 1:10 PM   Subscribe

Local pro-life organization is raising funds in a way that I think is intentionally misleading. Can I do anything? Should I do anything?

A sidewalk vendor appeared in my Brooklyn neighborhood a while back. They started as just a book table, but have expanded and it's several tables set up lengthwise with junk spilling out everywhere: furniture, housewares, books, and other second-hand items, all sold "to benefit the homeless."

Only after they'd been there for many months did I realize that there was a little sign on the very end of one table stating that they were actually a pro-life organization. (Their website used to have more information about the "pro-life" aspects of their mission, but it seems to have been changed. Right now there's just a single mention offering aid to "expectant mothers.") Sometimes there's no signage whatsoever. Today there were just big paper signs that said "SALE FOR THE HOMELESS."

I disapprove of this sort of fundraising, specifically because they aren't up-front about who they are and what they're doing with the money. (I have the same beef with the Salvation Army bell ringers.) It irritates me to know that a lot of their money probably comes from people who would never knowingly give to any kind of pro-life organization. At one time I just resigned to leave them alone and hope they moved on to somewhere else, but it's been over a year and they've flourished, and they show no sign of being more forthright with customers about who they are and what they're doing. It's hard to ignore, I have to walk back and forth past their tables several times a day.

Also, this is circumstantial, but around the time they started up, someone began wheatpasting anti-abortion propaganda fliers all over the neighborhood, written in both English and Polish. Stuff like "Diary of an Unborn Child" or vile descriptions of abortion procedures, often posted at children's eye-level. These have been replenished just about as rapidly as they've been defaced or removed by others in the neighborhood.

So, if I were going to complain about them, who would I complain to? My city councilperson? They must have a permit for the table or they'd have been shut down long ago, but they do seem to have let things get out of hand.

Or is this a situation where I should really just hold my tongue and chalk it up to cultural differences with people in my neighborhood? I'd like to hear some opinions.
posted by hermitosis to Grab Bag (16 answers total)
Hand out pro-choice flyers to those doing business with this group.

If I were to complain to anyone, I would call 311 and call my local city council person.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 1:15 PM on December 9, 2011

Submit a complaint to the Charities Bureau of the state Attorney General.
The Charities Bureau has jurisdiction to investigate complaints that involve 1) wrongdoing by such organizations; 2) fraudulent or misleading solicitation and improper expenditure of money for charitable purposes; and 3) improper activities of executors, administrators, trustees and personal representatives responsible for honoring gifts or bequests to a charity.
Emphasis added. But the focus of their web site appears to primarily be the homeless, so you might have to do some work to make the case that this is primarily an organization that is against reproductive rights.

Also, check out their sponsor list (http://prolifehomeless.com/?page_id=39). No surprise that Domino's Pizza sponsors, but Microsoft? I'd imagine you could do a lot of good by complaining to some of their sponsors as well.
posted by grouse at 1:20 PM on December 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

Sounds like a call to 311 is the best place to start. If they don't have a permit, then it does not matter what they are hawking or who they are doing it for. They are blocking the sidewalk and that is a nuisance. Check out nuisancelaw.com. there might be something there.

If they have a permit, then you can pursue other options, but they have as much of a right to their beliefs as you do. Even if those two beliefs do not match.
posted by lampshade at 1:22 PM on December 9, 2011

Are you sure that this group is actually participating in pro-life activities of the anti-abortion kind? The "about" page on the linked site, as you mentioned, does not stress this at the current time and there's a pretty minimal Google-searchable presence for the group. The existence of wheatpasted fliers is troubling, but unless there's a clear link between them and the group, it's going to be difficult to prove.

If anything, if this is a registered nonprofit group, they should have published financial records on where proceeds from this sale are going.
posted by mikeh at 1:22 PM on December 9, 2011

It is possible to report them to someone in your area, try your city council person, but I wouldn't expect it to go anywhere. It has been a difficult battle to stop pro-life groups from misleading pregnant women into coming to them for an abortion. So it is unlikely that a couple of tables raising a fairly insignificant amount of money would get onto anyone's radar. If on the other hand you believe that they are pocketing the money, feel free to call the non-emergency line. A group of people were doing this in our city and faced very serious penalties.

The only other idea I have is to report this to a group that would care but have more power, either a local pro-choice group, or a homeless advocacy group (not a shelter, they are waaay too busy).
posted by boobjob at 1:22 PM on December 9, 2011

I would be seriously tempted to picket them with a large sign about a hidden anti-abortion rights agenda.
posted by bq at 1:24 PM on December 9, 2011

I called the phone number on the web site and spoke to Marian Meller, the fellow whose name and face appear on the website.

I asked what sorts of programs his organizations supports because I am interested in donating (I am, in fact).

- Food and clothing to those in need
- They connect homeless people with local shelters and churches and other spaces that are willing to get homeless folk out of the cold.
- They help local families who are struggling to pay their utility bills.
- Putting the homeless in touch with programs like job training and substance abuse counseling.

I asked specifically about "crisis pregnancy services" or if they did any sort of work with counseling women to choose alternatives to abortion. He flatly said "no" and gave me the names of two other organizations that I should contact if I wanted to support those sorts of things.

Based on the website and my conversation with Mr. Meller, I can't find any evidence to support the idea that they are somehow involved with anti-choice activities of any sort.

Take that for what you will.
posted by DWRoelands at 1:25 PM on December 9, 2011 [15 favorites]

Everything on their website and in the news articles I can find about them indicates they focus on helping homeless people. I'm not sure what basis you have to complain.
posted by BurntHombre at 1:28 PM on December 9, 2011

Well, if their primary source of funding is selling secondhand goods from a tabletop, this suggests that they're not, perhaps, the most sophisticated organisation. This makes quite unlikely that they've fully complied with the letter of the law on charitable solicitations -- you could certainly look into filing a complaint with the state AG, for example, maybe even the IRS, if you wanted to tackle it that way.

But if I were you I think you'd get more juice simply voicing the same concerns you've voiced here in whatever forums might actually get seen by the peeps in your neighbourhood. Throw up a yelp review with the name of the charity and the usual corner of the table for the hipsters who might google its name, or maybe a Wordpress blog. Ring up whatever the free/local neighbourhood paper there is and tell them the same stuff you mentioned here, or post whatever Patch or other local news blogs/forums etc. are focused on your nabe. After all, what you want is to make sure people are making an informed choice about what to give to right? I think in a few hours of googling and letter writing you could make it so that anyone who cares about where their money's going will find out the truth. And that's about all you can do.
posted by Diablevert at 1:31 PM on December 9, 2011

"Also, this is circumstantial, but around the time they started up, someone began wheatpasting anti-abortion propaganda fliers all over the neighborhood, written in both English and Polish. Stuff like "Diary of an Unborn Child" or vile descriptions of abortion procedures, often posted at children's eye-level. "

This is a sort-of side-on strategy, but if you spoke to some of the more respectable, institutional pro-life organizations in the neighborhood (i.e., Catholic Churches, etc.) and mentioned that this was going on and it was effectively alienating parents in the neighborhood, sometimes the more formal, institutional presences can provide a moderating influence on the more crazy or inappropriate members of the movement. There's no guarantee they'll have any influence or even connection, so it might be a useless effort that you don't want to bother with, but if most of the pro-lifers in the area at least know who each other are, the more moderate-voiced members can put pressure on the radical members.

Around here a fairly looney pro-life group used to give out these horrifying aborted fetus BALLOONS at parades, and a group of parents complained to many local churches and the churches were able to pressure the loonies to cut it out and stick with pamphlets. Many of the protesting parents were pro-life Catholics themselves who were extremely offended and threatened to take donations elsewhere, which probably helped give their complaints weight. So I don't know, it may be worth your effort or it may not.

I don't know why getting to CHILDREN is such a popular strategy, because it really does offend parents, even the ones on your side of the issue. Ugh. I am with you on hating that kind of thing.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 1:43 PM on December 9, 2011 [3 favorites]

Have you talked to them? Are you really sure that they are not using this money to help the homeless?
posted by jacalata at 1:43 PM on December 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

Another resource - IRSSearch for Charities, Online Version. But they could very well be part of a larger group.

However, their link to donate seems a little skeevy to me. They go so far as to want a bank acct # and routing number. Kinda weird that a sidewalk operation would be so wired into the banking world that way.

And I see nothing that talks about it being tax deductible. Which does not make it not a donation, but when you put a church name in your org name, one would expect it to be that way. Weird.
posted by lampshade at 1:44 PM on December 9, 2011

I would try to dig up their 990 (the tax form that nonprofit organizations are required to submit) and see how they spend their money. This might give you more evidence than their website. The Foundation Center's 990 Finder didn't turn up anything, but I've actually used their library in the past and they've been helpful at tracking down 990s for research that I was doing - you might want to give them a call.

If that's a dead-end or if you want to find someone to make a big deal out of this, then I would try to get a journalist/blogger who loves muckraking involved. Here in Seattle, I'd start with The Stranger's political blog, which loves this sort of thing - not sure what the Blooklyn/NYC equivalent is, but I'm sure it exists.
posted by lunasol at 2:02 PM on December 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I'd think your first step is to talk to them. If they are doing pro-life stuff, it's right there in the name... so it's going to be hard to claim they've mislead anyone.
posted by Jahaza at 2:32 PM on December 9, 2011

They must have a permit for the table or they'd have been shut down long ago, but they do seem to have let things get out of hand.

Maybe things are different in your neighborhood than...well anyplace I've ever lived... but I'd really question this assumption under the 'if everyone assumes someone else is doing something about it, probably nobody is' rule. And since they seem to simultaneously market them as sort of religious seeming and sort of helping the homeless that might be the type of thing that people are letting slide because it doesn't feel right to shut them down, especially if the nasty fliers have been separate from the alleged fundraising.

Yes, 'alleged' just came out as I typed, but I think it was a Freudian typo. Totally separate from the anti-choice angle, I find the whole organization as you've described it super shady shady, and following the links seems much more. There's just something off about it. Perhaps that's the angle you want to take. Because it sure looks to me that it was something that was organized at some level a few years -- enough to be interviewed about one event -- but has done nothing but find new ways to ask for money since then. Of course, this is probably my 'being on the 'correct' side of the Digital Divide' showing, but maybe not.

(Okay, I was multitasking and forgot to hit post...so others have sorta made the points I was making here. tl;dr -- don't assume they can be there; also they seem shadier than they seem pro-life.)
posted by MCMikeNamara at 2:39 PM on December 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

I don't mean to undercut your concern, but this is the Mission Statement on the site you linked to:

The purpose of St. Vincent de Paul Pro-Life Homeless Inc. is to serve as an advocate for the homeless, increase public awareness of homelessness and its social impact, and develop strategies that effectively, efficiently and comprehensively address the needs of the homeless.

The term "pro-life" has been co-opted by the far right, but most of us are indeed pro-life - I would prefer homeless people not die, as would most people regardless of their political preferences. Is it possible they named their organisation in this context and are indeed solely dedicated to the aid of homeless people?
posted by DarlingBri at 10:38 AM on December 10, 2011

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