DIALING FOR DOLORS
If Jamey O'Donnell builds it, they will come. And that's what worries political consultant Rick Reiter.
"They" are the homeless, whom Reiter envisions flocking to a new Capitol Hill food bank proposed by O'Donnell, a 37-year-old former drug addict who founded the National Organization Against Homelessness less than two months ago.
Reiter and Associates is located across the alley from the dilapidated, two-story house at 1661 Williams Street that O'Donnell is renovating into NOAH headquarters. "He told me what a liberal he is and how he's helped elect half the politicians in this town," O'Donnell says of his new neighbor. "But basically, he doesn't want this in his backyard."
"I have lived and worked in this neighborhood for seven years, and we have never had a problem with homeless people," Reiter counters. "Now this guy tells me he's going to be bringing in a hundred people a day. If that's true, I think that I have a legitimate concern that this area will become a concentration point for homeless people."
Although Reiter currently is his primary antagonist, O'Donnell also has pitted himself against the old-guard agencies that he says aren't doing enough to solve the problems of homelessness. As O'Donnell, who's been homeless himself, told potential contributors in a fundraising letter: "After years of working with various so-called `nonprofit' organizations, I finally came to realize that very, very little was actually being done for the homeless...in spite of a seemingly endless supply of donations that regularly filter through the goodwill system each and every day. Charity has become big business...and the `nonprofit' system is now being abused."
But John Parvensky, the executive director of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, warns that O'Donnell's organization may be no better than the groups he criticizes--and possibly a great deal worse, "a front for another boiler-room, telemarketing effort to raise money that unfortunately come and go a lot in this business."
Staffers of the coalition, which represents about 200 nonprofit agencies that provide homeless services throughout the state, tried to meet with O'Donnell, Parvensky says, "but were treated rudely."
"He must have us confused with someone else," O'Donnell responds. "I don't think we're rude, and no one from the coalition came over here to talk to me."
But NOAH itself has done plenty of talking. In its first six weeks, O'Donnell says, the group raised about $21,000--60 percent of which went to pay the telephone solicitors, including O'Donnell, who take 45 percent off the top, and the drivers who pick up the donations and collect another 15 percent. The rest of the money has gone to overhead and housing a few dozen people.
According to O'Donnell, 45 percent for telemarketers is an industry standard. "It's too much, but it's what I had to pay to get this going," he says. "It makes me part of the problem, but when I get the food bank going, I'm going to hire a whole new breed of people and pay 20 to 25 percent, which is about right."
NOAH leased the Williams Street building with an option to buy if O'Donnell can come up with an $8,000 down payment by December. The main level of the building will be used as a food and clothing bank, slated to open by June 1; other parts will continue to house local and national phone banks.
Dr. O. Earl Corbin, who owns the building, says he recently received a call from Reiter, who expressed concerns that the food bank would attract homeless people who would remain in the area. "But from what I understand, it's mostly for families who will pick up food and leave," says Corbin, adding that he was impressed with O'Donnell's apparent sincerity and dedication.
Reiter, who also has taken his concerns to a variety of homeless service organizations, says that if what O'Donnell says is true, "I wish him well and will even send a contribution. But everyone I talk to says this guy has no experience running a food bank. No one knows if he can keep it from being a hangout, where people live waiting for the doors to open. And once a problem starts, it will be impossible to stop."
Reiter says he asked O'Donnell if he would be willing to participate in a neighborhood meeting at which a representative of an established food bank could assess the NOAH operation.
"But he said no, he didn't have time for it," Reiter says. "He's out there taking shots at everyone, refusing to get involved in community outreach. It makes me wonder what's he got to hide?"
"That's not what I said," O'Donnell replies. "The way I took it was that he wanted this town hall meeting where there would be a lynch mob waiting for me. I told him, `Look, what good is a meeting going to do? I'm going to do this no matter what and a meeting won't change that.'"
O'Donnell says Reiter is the only one of his new neighbors to have expressed concerns. "I met with [principal] Noble Jenkins of Wyman Elementary, which is across the street," he adds. "She didn't have any objections and, in fact, said the food bank would be good because many of her students come from homeless families.
"But then I get a call from Reiter, and it shakes me. It reminds me that no matter how much good you think you're doing, how righteous, there's always someone out there to take you down a peg."
According to a school secretary, Jenkins met with O'Donnell for only ten minutes and doesn't feel she knows him well enough to comment on his plans. "But it is very true that a high number of our students come from high-risk families that rely on things like food banks," the secretary adds.
Even the "few good" agencies have established their food banks and other services in suburban areas, O'Donnell says, "while you and I both know that most of the homeless are on Capitol Hill and downtown."
"He obviously doesn't know what he's talking about," Parvensky counters. Of the hundred or so homeless services agencies in the metro area, he says, "the greatest concentration is in the downtown area."
And O'Donnell admits the food bank isn't NOAH's primary purpose. Food banks "are a bone to toss to the homeless," he says, "a political thing that addresses the effects of homelessness but not the causes." NOAH's food bank is another such bone, he acknowledges, but a necessary one if the organization is going to qualify for nonprofit status, which is pending.
"But we're different from the others because we're going to be out there on the streets, taking care of people," he continues. Money raised by NOAH will be used to purchase property for housing to help people get back on their feet; the group is eyeing a property on Pearl Street between 16th and Colfax, he says. Other projects include establishing programs for job training and financial management skills.
Parvensky agrees that more must be done to get at the roots of homelessness. Toward that end, he says, the coalition has been working with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to develop a "continuum of care" to change the underlying causes. Some of those efforts resulted in last week's HUD announcement that Colorado may receive $12.6 million to combat homelessness, "which includes prevention so that people don't become homeless," Parvensky says.
The coalition has no objection to well-meaning organizations that see a need and start programs on their own, Parvensky adds. "Diversity is welcome," he says. "But we've also had a lot of experience with fly-by-night organizations that continue to raise money and never develop the programs they promise. It really hurts the cause because people who contributed feel duped and are hesitant to contribute again."
To which O'Donnell replies, "My doors and my books are open.
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