Panhandlers for God
Not all street solicitors are created equal – some owe their souls to the company church
Local radio talk-show host Charlie Hodge was driving to work one morning in late 2007 when he first encountered the Austin Restoration Ministries.
Hodge is one-third of the three-man, four-hour KLBJ-FM Dudley & Bob Morning Show and returns to the station for an hourlong midday chat with listeners on The Charlie Hodge Half-Time Show. Just before Christmas, a few weeks after he started hosting the noontime program, he was waiting at a red light at Rundberg and I-35, brainstorming a catchy intro for that day's show. He wasn't paying much attention to what was around him: just sitting, listening to the radio, staring at the red light, and thinking.
"I do these little [introductions] every day, like [David] Letterman: 'It's The Charlie Hodge Half-Time Show, starring the man who – dot, dot, dot,' and I make up a new sentence every day," Hodge recalled recently. "And I'm sitting there thinking, and all of a sudden I feel my car moving" from side to side, "and this woman ... has been shouting at me through my window. And when I didn't acknowledge her, she shook my car. ... I thought, what the hell?" Hodge shot her a look, but she didn't back off. Instead she started cursing at him and waving a small piece of white paper in front of his face. She was doing "righteous work," he recalled her saying, for God – the details of which were printed under the banner "ARM" and "AUSTIN Restoration Ministries" in black ink on a small, scissor-cut piece of white paper that she held in her hand. "I'm trying to show you what I'm preaching about trying to get people off ... drug use," he said she told him.
Hodge was pissed – and, he acknowledges, a little scared. "I was a little bit frightened," he said. "Not to flush my man card or anything, but I was. I was like, 'What the hell is going on?'" Certainly, the encounter didn't make him feel charitable. But Hodge was minutes from airtime, and though he was mad, he tried to brush it off.
That was that – or so he thought. Instead, his encounters with ARM's aggressive solicitors in the Rundberg/I-35 area had just begun. Until that morning in 2007, Hodge admits that he just wasn't aware of aggressive panhandling, which is illegal within Austin city limits. "I was pretty ignorant of the issue," he said. Before starting the Half-Time Show, Hodge would head to work before dawn and head home just after 10am – not prime solicitation time. But as he began to look around the North Austin neighborhood where he works, what he saw alarmed him.
As he headed daily back and forth along the corridor along I-35 between Highway 183 and Rundberg, he began to see the armies of ARM everywhere – and it wasn't long before he had yet another off-putting encounter with one of the group's members. That time, a woman carrying ARM leaflets actually sprawled on the hood of his car to get his attention. On another occasion he saw an ARM solicitor reach inside a car in front of his when the driver didn't respond to the solicitation for cash.
The developing situation made him increasingly angry; he wanted to talk about it on-air, but he didn't want to come off as "the angry guy" – the noon show is about fun bits and gut laughs, not cranky ranting. In the end, Hodge decided that he'd talk about the ARM solicitors by coining a new name for their specific behavior and aggressive actions: Intimidatosaurus rex. And so it went. For months. But then a funny thing started to happen: More and more, Hodge wasn't the one describing on-air ARM's Intimidatosaurus solicitors; his listeners were. "There was a tipping point," Hodge recalls. Suddenly callers were reporting sightings of ARM solicitors all across Austin – from Parmer Lane to Ben White Boulevard, and even outside of Austin, from Elgin to San Marcos. "It dawned on me," Hodge recalled, "wait a minute, these aren't just a bunch of individuals who got together and said, 'Hey, let's get organized and make money for ourselves and make this our job.'"
Not Santa Claus
Indeed, according to the small leaflets ARM solicitors hand out to drive-by donors, the group promises "TOTAL RESTORATION IS POSSIBLE," for anyone with "family problems, problems with drugs, alcohol" – all of whom are invited, free of charge, to ARM's "restoration homes for men and women." The group accepts all manner of donations – "cash, Tv's cars, homes etc," and according to its website, the group's "target" is the "Drug Addicted," with the goal of restoring "Addicts and Their Families." The Ministries' dream? To save 1 million addicts "through the Gospel of Jesus Christ." Worthy goals, perhaps, but the visible means to those ends, thought Hodge – aggressive solicitation that runs afoul of the law – are nonetheless curious. "They claim to be a legitimate organization, and from what I can see [they] get the lion's share of their revenue from aggressively intimidating citizens and say they're going to use it for drug rehabilitation? It just made me suspicious," Hodge said. For Hodge (and, with the slow burn of radio, a growing number of his listeners) there arose one overriding question: Who and what is the Austin Restoration Ministries?
As it happens, Hodge and his listeners aren't the only ones asking that question. Comments and questions about ARM activities have popped up online in various places – an aside in a personal blog and another in a local atheist newsletter and, most tellingly, on the website for GuideStar, which provides information about charitable organizations. A GuideStar reviewer cautioned people against giving ARM any money: "This group puts its people back onto the streets – literally," he wrote in July.
Aside from a smattering of Web mentions, however, information about the group is very thin. According to records filed with the secretary of state, ARM was incorporated in Austin in 2006 as a nonprofit group – the IRS confirms that the group does have 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status – "organized to propagate the Christian faith and to advance a 'move of God' among all people" that would operate "charitable service centers" for the homeless and hungry and "provide rehabilitation and spiritual guidance for persons addicted to the use of drugs and narcotics." How and where those rehabilitative services are rendered isn't at all clear. The organization has two Austin properties listed as addresses for its directors – one on Lamar Boulevard, just north of 183, and one just south of Rundberg Lane – but neither is owned by the group, and on numerous visits while reporting this story, no one was observed at either property. On its website, the group says it operates two group homes – one for men and another for women – but no addresses are listed. The website lists Sheila and Lee Price as the group's pastors (the couple is also listed on secretary of state documents as ARM directors) – but neither leader responded to numerous Chronicle requests for an interview.
After several inquiries, we finally reached board member Azor Barnes, who said, "We target drug addicts and alcoholics, rehabilitate them, and bring them back to their families." Right now, he said, 42 men and 23 women are living in ARM's two group homes. Barnes said the money raised from soliciting is used to pay all the residents' costs for living, food, and personal hygiene.
More disturbing is the fact that ARM is not licensed by the Texas Department of State Health Services to operate a drug rehabilitation program, nor has it filed the necessary paperwork to operate a faith-based drug rehab program. (Barnes said he wasn't aware of the state requirements but that he will "look into it." Based on questions from the Chronicle, DSHS officials have said they would investigate the group's status.) That means that the group is not one that local agencies administering substance-abuse services – including Austin Travis County Mental Health Mental Retardation – refer clients to for treatment.
Certainly, getting addicts to the point that they're ready to undertake rehab is a difficult process, says Kenneth Placke, director of ATCMHMR's behavioral health services. On average, said ATCMHMR spokeswoman Iliana Gilman, it takes five tries over five years to "recover" from addiction. While there are certainly successful faith-based rehabilitation programs – think Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous – ARM is not on the local treatment community's radar for services. Indeed, of the people involved in treatment services contacted by the Chronicle, none was familiar with the group's treatment efforts – but several were familiar with the group, because, like Hodge and his listeners, they'd seen members on corners handing out the little white leaflets in exchange for a "donation."
So ARM claims to be helping people but, for all intents and purposes, has no public presence or reputation for doing so. If ARM's goal is getting people off drugs, is putting them on street corners to solicit money an effective (and acceptable) way to do that? And where exactly does the money go? If ARM is actually a charitable way to help people, it surely doesn't come across that way, says Hodge. "The Red Cross, their main revenue stream is not panhandling, and if it were it would be set up like [the Salvation Army's] Santa Clauses, outside a store, ringing a bell: You see 'em, and if you feel like giving, you give," he said. "They're very clearly marked on what they're raising money for."
Making the Quota
From the available documents, it certainly isn't clear what ARM raises money for or what happens to that money. Generally the tax returns of charitable organizations are available for public inspection, but because ARM is a faith-based organization, there is no public IRS trail. Still, it does appear that the group is collecting money – and doing so in a manner that violates city ordinances governing street-side solicitation.
According to city ordinance, aggressive panhandling "includes approaching or following pedestrians, repetitive soliciting despite refusals, the use of abusive or profane language to cause fear and intimidation, unwanted physical contact, or the intentional blocking of pedestrian and vehicular traffic." (Unlike other Texas cities, including San Antonio, Austin does not require solicitors for charities to obtain a permit to work the city's corners.)
As a class C misdemeanor offense, aggressive panhandling is punishable by a fine of up to $500 for each offense (plus $68 in court costs). From January through July 31, Austin Police handed out 297 citations for aggressive panhandling at locations all around Austin – how many of those were written to ARM solicitors isn't certain, because APD does not collect that type of information when writing citations. But that doesn't mean that APD isn't aware of ARM's solicitation practices, says department spokesman Cpl. Scott Perry. Indeed, Perry says that APD street officers are very familiar with ARM's activities.
One officer told Perry that he writes "gobs" of tickets to ARM members in the very neighborhood near the KLBJ studio where Hodge works. On the first day that the officer switched from the night to the day shift, Perry said, he wrote 11 tickets. "He constantly deals with them," Perry said. "Every shift he writes tickets." Occasionally, he takes solicitors to jail, when the fines associated with those tickets haven't been paid and they turn into warrants. Over time, Perry says, officers have learned a little bit more about ARM's operations: Monday through Thursday, ARM solicitors have told police, they are required to give the first $75 they make to the "church" – any money they make beyond that belongs to them. On Friday and Saturday the church's take increases to $100, says Perry. And arrests barely cause a hiccup in the operation: As soon as they're out, they're back on the corner.
According to Barnes, Perry's account isn't accurate. Instead, he said, "All of the funds donated to the church are used to meet the residents' needs."
Given the setup, it is hard to imagine how working for ARM would help individual solicitors get a leg up, when the church appears to be amassing most (or all) of whatever wealth is generated from the street corner activities. Indeed, it is hard also to know how standing on street corners requesting donations has any connection to, or would actually help, individuals to kick addiction.
In response, Barnes said that he himself had been rehabilitated by the ministry and that the church maintains an "open-door policy – anyone should feel free to come in and see how the ministry operates."
On the street at least, the policy doesn't seem quite so open. Approached at the intersection of 183 and I-35, an ARM solicitor among a group working the corner responded, "We're not allowed to talk to reporters."
The Order of the Corner
None of this particularly surprises Hodge, who says ARM's Intimidatosauruses don't behave like other individual solicitors. Sometimes Hodge will "decide to fold up a dollar for a guy to come take who holds up a sign that says, 'God Bless, I'm a Vet.' He's standing there, and when he sees you with the money, it's an activated response," he says. "He comes to you. But going up to each car and forcing them to pay attention to you and soliciting a response or getting more and more aggressive when you attempt to ignore them, which is your right ... that's kind of the differentiating point, [from] the silent contract we have" with solicitors. That observation mirrors comments individual solicitors made to researchers from the University of Texas' Center for Social Work Research, which did a study on public solicitation in Austin, submitted to the city in December 2008. The study was of individual solicitors and not of those soliciting for "charitable organizations"; still, the authors noted that "there appeared to be one organization predominately engaged in this activity. The Austin Restoration Ministries was the organization most frequently observed at the solicitation sites and comments from respondents indicated that there was some tension between solicitors from this organization and individual solicitors."
Indeed, Beth Bruinsma Chang, a post-doctoral fellow who worked on the study, said that researchers did not "specifically ask about ARM. People, of their own volition ... just named ARM. ... It just kept coming up." Researchers were told that when ARM solicitors come to a corner, they aren't mindful of the "etiquette of soliciting," and that causes tension. ARM solicitors "disrupted the social order" by jumping in, failing to respect or follow the rules of the corner, Bruinsma Chang said.
That observation clearly fits Hodge's experience – and those of his listeners, who have continued to call in with stories of encounters with ARM members. "Part of the reason I keep harping on this is ... it takes real emotion. I actually got a bit frightened, and I feel a bit unsafe about the way they operate," he says. "You know, honestly, when I think about it with a cool head and I haven't just been ... intersection-assaulted, I think if they want to stand on a corner, fine. If they want to hold a sign that has the information from their organization, fine. But just stand there. ... And if people choose to give you money, that's their own ... mistake," he continued. But he also finds it hard to believe that ARM and its members certainly don't already know, "every single one of them," that what they're doing is "against the law ... and they're doing it anyway."
'An Attitude of Christian Love'
From the Austin Restoration Ministries' articles of incorporation:
"By avoiding evil of every kind, such as profanity, intoxicating liquors, harmful world pleasures, dishonesty, immorality, and all sinful habits; by seeking to do good to both the bodies and souls of men, feeding, clothing, and visiting those in need as the opportunity presents itself; by being faithful to the known ordinances such as regular Church attendance, the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper, consistent with Bible Study, daily Family prayers, and private devotion; by faithfully supporting the Local Church through God's financial plan of tithing and offerings, and by contributing, according to ability, to the various Missionary Programs of the Church, with the desire to lead people to Christ; by working together in harmony and unity with the fellowship for the advancement and growth of the visible church, in all things showing forth an attitude of Christian love until Jesus comes."