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Begging for a Living

U.S. Mission supports a network of professional beggars who go door-to-door to pay their rent.

Instead, Humphries brought people in for the evening, then sent them back out to beg for donations. Since then, U.S. Mission has opened more than a dozen shelters in seven Western states, including Washington, Arizona, Oregon, Hawaii, Texas and Colorado.

"Everyone starts out as a resident," says Siscoe. "It's designed to give you a stable place to live. You don't have to wait in line, hoping to get in."

According to Siscoe, residents arrive at the shelter and are given a day to just settle in. From there, they work several hours a day, six days a week, for a month, walking door-to-door to ask for donations. There are also house chores to perform, and there is a curfew. After a month, residents are allowed to search for jobs during the day and raise funds at night. At that point, they can move into a room at one of two hotels that has a deal with the mission, and the curfew is eliminated. If they find jobs, they are allowed to spend another six to twelve weeks in the program while mission staff members help them find housing. For every ten permanent residents--those who have lasted at least a month--four have found jobs and places to live, Siscoe says. The other six remain in the program.

Siscoe says the solicitations bring in about $1,500 a week, of which 85 percent goes to pay the rent at the house ($1,500 a month), the rates at the two motels (about $3,000 a month) and groceries. Residents get a daily allowance of between $5 and $10. The rest of the earnings go toward staff salaries and into a special emergency fund that all of the missions pay into.

Aside from the zoning hassles, however, many people who work with homeless shelters find the whole approach of U.S. Mission to be flawed. Tom Lures, director of the St. Francis Center shelter near LoDo, ran into U.S. Mission representatives a few years ago when they came to his shelter looking for recruits. "I found out they were disreputable," Lures says. "They came in again, I asked them for their papers, they got mad and just left. They take advantage of people who are homeless. It seems like a real underhanded group. I think it's really terrible."

Jess Gonzales, who used to work at St. Francis and is familiar with shelters in Denver, thinks it's a "tremendous scam" and says the people at U.S. Mission are not trained to do anything productive. "Their job is to beg for money. They're required to bring back that money and turn it over to U.S. Mission. I just don't see it's a good idea, advocating begging as a means to an end."

U.S. Mission is now in violation of another zoning ordinance that prohibits more than two non-family members from staying at a private residence. (The mission has three or four recruits in the house.) The reason for the ordinance, says city zoning administrator Kent Strapko, is to prevent too many people from clogging up a block with traffic and noise.

But Siscoe says the rule is arbitrary, and he's thinking about challenging it. "Who are you as a city to tell me how many people I can have living in my house?" he says. "That's unconstitutional. You're not paying my rent. I'm paying my rent."

Since April, several police officers have paid a visit, but no citations have been issued, Siscoe says, because no one has complained. The neighbors say they don't have a problem with the mission, although one was "generally opposed to having questionable people in the neighborhood."

As it turns out, Siscoe is looking for a new location outside of Denver with plenty of rooms to house all of the mission's residents and enough yard space so that folks can make some noise without the neighbors throwing a fit.

Right now, he says, it's like walking on eggshells. "Because of things that happened in the past, people are against us.

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