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A recent investigative series by the Tampa Bay Times has revealed that a local charity called New Beginnings was sending homeless people to work unpaid at Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Rays games, among other places.
Reporter Will Hobson, who broke this story last weekend, joined Bill Littlefield.
BL: Will, please describe New Beginnings and its mission, as presented by its founder, Tom Atchison.
WH: New Beginnings, as it's described by Pastor Tom, is a work-therapy program to help homeless folks and those battling substance abuse, mental illness back to stability and employment. And they do this by taking them in, giving them shelter, signing them up for every stream of public revenue they could find and then sending them out to work. First, around the property: doing things like raking leaves and cutting the grass. And then, off the property: to Bucs games, to Rays games to work concessions, to direct traffic, to the Daytona 500 to clean up.
These gentlemen work six-to-eight hour shifts. They don't get any money. The money goes to New Beginnings. And ostensibly, that covers their $600 per month program fees, and whatever they're owed is kept for them and given to them when they graduate. However, we've heard from a number of folks that they never get that money. It stays with the program.
What is questionable is that work therapy is being utilized by for-profit companies, and it is generating revenue that is not finding it's way back to the actual people doing the work.Will Hobson, Tampa Bay Times
BL: The sports connection here is that sometimes the men and women whom New Beginnings is helping have worked concessions at pro sports events in Tampa, though the Rays have recently ended their relationship with New Beginnings. What has the nature of that connection been?
WH: The concession companies, Centerplate for the Rays and Aramark for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, they both have fundraising programs where they let local non-profits send work crews to volunteer their time at concession stands. And these volunteers don't get paid, obviously. A percentage of the revenue from that stand then goes back to the non-profit. These concessions companies were not aware, however, that in New Beginnings' case, the volunteers were actually homeless people working for their shelter.
Centerplate concessions company, according to them, explicitly prohibit sending volunteers who are dependent on the charity for shelter, food or other necessity of life. So Centerplate has canceled their relationship with New Beginnings and Aramark is reviewing the relationship.
BL: Is anybody claiming at this point that the Bucs, the Rays, the Tampa Bay Lightning and other organizations with which New Beginnings has been associated bear responsibility for the way the workers have been treated?
WH: Nobody's made that specific complaint or criticism, but it's certainly one that could be made. I mean, they're not being employed directly by the Bucs or Rays; they're employed by concessions companies. However, I'm sure the concessions companies pay the Bucs and Rays a good amount of money for the right to operate. Of course, what is questionable is that work therapy is being utilized by for-profit companies, and it is generating revenue that is not finding it's way back to the actual people doing the work.
BL: Pastor Tom is also the recipient of the Social Security checks due to the people who are living there as I understand it.
WH: Yes. He has everyone on the way in sign a contract agreeing, first off, that they'll work to cover their costs if they don't have the money and also that any mail addressed to them will go to him. Supervising finances is common in substance-abuse treatment centers because sums of money can be temptation for relapse. But there have been a number of complaints from folks that they aren't getting their money back when they're done. When they've graduated the program, they're not getting the money they should be owed. In our first story, we documented a gentleman who went to police with that specific complaint who miraculously withdrew charges when Pastor Tom decided to pay him off.
BL: The Lightning and the Rays no longer partner with New Beginnings and Hillsborough County officials have recently suspended a $64,000 grant to the organization. There have been calls for a federal investigation as well. Do you foresee further change for New Beginnings and its residents/concession workers?
WH: I can't say. I think there are a lot of folks who want to know more about this agency and exactly how much money has flowed through there and exactly where it's gone. We're going to keep reporting on it, and if we find certain answers then there could be more change for New Beginnings.
This segment aired on December 6, 2014.
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