Begging for a Living

This past March, Denver Voice reporter Harold Chapman went undercover. The newspaper by and for Denver's homeless community sent him to a house at 535 Colorado Boulevard that's rented by a California-based homeless shelter called United States Mission.

Like its branches in other cities, the mission is not located near downtown or other shelters but in a residential neighborhood, and it doesn't receive financial support from the government. Instead, the people who find shelter there hit the streets and solicit door-to-door for donations. These donations cover the cost of their rent.

At least that's the way it's supposed to work.
In the article he subsequently wrote, Chapman said that when he went to the mission one evening, posing as a man needing shelter, he was told by then-director Terry Vizinau that all residents were expected to solicit between $500 and $600 a week, most of which goes to the mission. New arrivals were given about three days to work out, according to the story. Those who couldn't bring in enough money were tossed.

Chapman split the next morning. "This place, as far as we can ascertain, is a scam," he tells Westword. "They recruit people off the streets, out of bars, to make them money."

The article in the Voice was the latest blow to U.S. Mission, which has been the target of much criticism since it opened in Denver in 1996. Its current location is the third address it has had; at the others, neighbors complained about the number of people living there and their door-to-door solicitations. The City of Denver's zoning department stepped in, as did the city attorney's office.

After Chapman's article was published, U.S. Mission officials sent Paul Siscoe to Denver to take over the operation from Vizinau. Siscoe, who had previously opened missions in Tucson and Dallas, arrived early in April. He believes the city is harassing the facility. If the mission were operating in a non-residential area or areas in which homeless people are generally expected to congregate, he thinks the city would have left it alone.

He admits there have been problems in the past with shaky management, including Vizinau and Vizinau's predecessor, Billy Joyner. "Joyner was very money-oriented," he says. "Terry was a little lazy." (The whereabouts of both Joyner and Vizinau are unknown.)

Siscoe insists there are no troubles at the mission now, and he denies that the organization recruits homeless people from bars or that residents are kicked out if they don't raise enough money. The mission's lawyer, Michael Hannan, agrees. "With respect to the present operator [Siscoe], I have instructed him how to comply [with the city's laws]," says Hannan. "To the best of my knowledge, he has complied. To the best of my knowledge, he is not violating any residency ordinances of the City of Denver."

Although the organization does possess the Internal Revenue Service's 501(c)(3) nonprofit status, allowing it a solicitation permit from the city's Department of Excise and Licenses, which gives its members permission to solicit funds door-to-door, it also has a troubled past.

In 1996, a resident phoned Councilman Bill Himmelman's office to complain that too many people--about seven--were living in the U.S. Mission residence at 1640 Buchtel Boulevard. "They went door-to-door," says Himmelman aide Jeanne Winder. "They'd collect people from downtown who were alcoholic, on the street, and they would put them to work. They had a bus--they came to my house twice."

The mission was cited for violating R-1 zoning, which does not permit the operation of a shelter, and it eventually moved out of the neighborhood. The organization later opened a new shelter in a Victorian home at 970 Marion Street in Capitol Hill.

"The city received complaints from neighbors," says Assistant City Attorney Kory Nelson. "The basis of the complaints is that a number of individuals have been going around seeking donations. The manner in which they've conducted those donations has made residents concerned with their safety." Still, Nelson points out, the office has "never had a specific case involving a violation of the law. Residents were frightened by their appearance and aggressive demeanor."

However, in 1997, the owner of the Marion Street home was cited for numerous zoning violations. He pleaded no contest, received a suspended fine and agreed not to violate the ordinance again.

The Marion house was the subject of an earlier article by the Denver Voice. Writer Rob West, who couldn't be reached for comment, stayed at the mission in the fall of 1996 and wrote that drugs of all sorts were readily available. He reported that the attitude there seemed to be one of indifference as long as the money kept rolling in. He said that he and others began cheating the mission, underreporting their donations for the day and pocketing the difference.

"That's out of our control," says Siscoe, "but we try to get people we suspect are honest." He admits, too, that it's possible that previous managers may have pocketed money themselves before sending the deposits on to the organization's headquarters in Fresno.

U.S. Mission was founded in 1962 in Los Angeles by a pastor named Robert Humphries, who still serves on the eight-member board of directors. Humphries didn't like the "in for a night, out the next morning" policy of most shelters, Siscoe says. "They were revolving-door systems. Most were dependent on government financing. Our program wasn't like that."

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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T.R. Witcher