The CEO of a Tampa Bay area charity has been exploiting homeless people by forcing them to work without pay to earn their food and shelter. And while the homeless men aren’t compensated for their labor, the Christian charity, New Beginnings of Tampa, often is.
According to the Tampa Bay Times, the charity’s CEO, Tom Atchison, has been farming out his residents as indentured servants to work at concession stands at local events, including state fairs, NASCAR races, Tampa Bay Rays baseball games, Bucs football games and Lightning hockey games.
The paper says that the men — many of them recovering addicts and alcoholics — are often asked to work food and beer concessions. The money earned working there, the Times reports, goes directly to New Beginnings. In total it earned $932,816 in such income last year. Center Plate, the concessions operator for Tropicana Field says it's unaware that its concession stands were staffed by homeless people.
Compensating labor with only food and shelter is nothing new; homeless charities, like the Salvation Army, have been doing it for many years. However, this practice requires charities to show that the workers are being compensated with services that are equal to what they’d earn with the federal minimum wage, which is $7.25 an hour. But by his own admission, Atchison does not document hours worked. Labor activists and homeless advocates say that the residents are providing far too much work for what they’re given in return.
"It needs to stop," Lee Hoffman, a former resident told the Times. "There are a bunch of homeless people who are being exploited."
In addition to working on labor crews, Atchison has had homeless people work in telemarketing, construction, landscaping, moving, and even grant writing. If a homeless person wishes not to participate in the labor program, they’re charged $600 a month for meals and rent.
And while New Beginnings refers to this labor as “work therapy” critics are calling it illegal. Even worse, New Beginnings is a faith-based public charity that gets public money to fund its operations. Atchison, an erstwhile Pentecostal pastor (the paper could not verify his doctorate in theology) is vying for the contract to operate Hillsborough County’s homeless program. The paper says that contract in Hillsborough County (which includes Tampa) will be worth millions.
The Times investigation, which included digging through police records and court records, bank statements and interviews with current and former residents and employees, paints a picture of a shady operation.
Atchison is accused of absconding with Social Security checks and food stamps belonging to residents, even if they were for more than residents owed to the program. A contractor is also accusing New Beginnings of overbilling the State of Florida some $80,000.
In addition, while part of the mission of New Beginnings is to provide counseling to its residents, the paper found that the charity has nobody on staff that’s trained to tend to those with mental illness and addiction problems.
The sports news site Deadspin reports that the Lightning NHL hockey franchise honored Atchison last year as "a community hero."
See the video (below) of Atchison discussing New Beginnings of Tampa in 2012.
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