The New York State Attorney General's office shut down a well-known organization that worked the streets of New York City asking for money to help the homeless, saying the group takes advantage of good-willed passersby and misuses donations.
Anyone living in New York more than a month likely has seen the vocal front men of the United Homeless Organization, who for 25 years manned folding tables all over town and solicited change for the needy. The workers collect the money in recycled, 5-liter water jugs marked with the UHO logo and set up shop in high-traffic Manhattan locations.
But an investigation that began last year found donations were not used to help the homeless or to support soup kitchens, shelters and detox centers, as the collectors claimed. Instead, the group's founder and director used the bulk of the money for personal expenses and the workers took the rest, according to the state's lawsuit.
A judgment issued by the New York Supreme Court orders the not-for-profit group closed, and bans its leaders from running any charities within the state. The judgment follows the organization's failure to respond to a complaint the Attorney General's office filed last November.
The state alleges UHO founder Stephen Riley, once homeless himself, and its director, Myra Walker, used the money they charged workers to rent the tables -- about $15 per shift -- as their personal slush fund. They pocketed "hundreds of thousands" of dollars of charitable assets over the years, the complaint says, and used it to pay for premium cable TV service at Riley's apartment in the Bronx, which doubled as the group's headquarters. Restaurant meals, purchases from video game vendor GameStop, the Home Shopping Network and the Weight Watchers web site also were put on the charity's tab. The workers, who were also mostly homeless, were allowed to keep the remainder of the day's donations for themselves.
"This organization's bad behavior should not undermine the public's willingness to donate to legitimate charities," said New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo in a statement.
UHO also allegedly failed to maintain any records of revenues and expenses, and lacked independent financial oversight, as required of all charities in New York State. The organization has been in business since 1985.
A phone number associated with the organization has been disconnected and its web site, www.unitedhomeless.org, has been taken down. A hearing date will be set to assess the specific amount of damages and restitution the defendants may be ordered to pay.
The homeless scam is the latest target in Cuomo's wide-ranging investigation into charities that seek donations under false pretenses.
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