By Kelly McCann
As one drives around our fair city, there are a variety of sights to see. The shady and majestic tree-lined avenues near Rice University, the refreshing Water Wall, and the impressive downtown skyline are all highlights on a tour of Houston. Just ask any of my out-of-town friends and relatives. They’ve seen them all.
On the other hand, Houston has its share of blight: ubiquitous strip centers, tacky billboards, and the ever-growing tangle of cars and concrete freeways. And we’ve also got panhandlers at nearly every intersection. Many of them are just folks, down on their luck, looking for some spare change to help them get something to eat or a cold beer. Other street corner solicitors are seeking funds for schools and faith-based organizations doing good work for Houstonians.
And then, there are those who misrepresent themselves and their missions in order to bilk you out of some cash. One group in particular is out in force all over our city, collecting money for HIV/AIDS . . . or so they say.
The God Bless—HIV and AIDS Awareness organization sends a small army of people out into traffic every day. They recruit them from local homeless shelters and halfway houses, promising a 25 to 30 percent take on what they collect in their buckets.
On any day, they can be spotted at various busy freeway and side-street intersections, carrying signs that read “Support HIV and AIDS Education,” and approaching drivers for donations. I’ve seen them at Highway 290 and 34th, Richmond at Chimney Rock, Memorial at Dairy Ashford, Westheimer at Sheperd, 59 and Kirby, and even at Richmond and Weslayan, just one block away from the headquarters of AIDS Foundation Houston.
To make matters worse, many of the God Bless beggars claim they are collecting donations on behalf of other entities, including the City of Houston and AIDS Foundation Houston!
Let it be known, most successful nonprofit organizations do not engage in panhandling or misrepresentation in order to raise funds. Instead, they write grants, host special events, and make personal requests of corporations and individual donors. Donations received are recorded and tracked for audit purposes, and the donors receive formal acknowledgment and documentation of their tax-deductible donations.
While I do not endorse the fundraising tactics employed by God Bless—HIV and AIDS Awareness, a bigger concern is that they seem to be collecting funds for services they do not provide.
Upon asking several God Bless panhandlers about their organization and its programs, I’ve heard many varied and implausible answers. For example, one man told me they use the funds to “buy medicine for people with AIDS.” Another claimed they “go into schools and teach kids.” Trouble is, no one who works within the local HIV service industry, nor anyone who receives assistance from any of the reputable service providers, has ever seen evidence of the work of God Bless—except their street-corner money-collecting activities, that is.
According to Calvin Tarver, director of God Bless—HIV and AIDS Awareness, they increase awareness and provide HIV education by handing out leaflets to those who donate. The leaflet is a small piece of paper with definitions of HIV and AIDS on one side, and on the other side, there is an ad recruiting people to collect roadside donations.
How can anyone honestly call that HIV education?
Defining and differentiating between HIV and AIDS is a good starting place for HIV education, but it is only the beginning. Those of us who work in HIV know real education also addresses HIV disease progression, high-risk behaviors, self-assessment of personal risk, safer sex practices and other risk-reduction strategies, HIV-testing protocols, testing locations, and treatment issues and options.
Due to my serious concerns about his group’s fundraising practices and the quality of educational material being disseminated, I have repeatedly invited Mr. Tarver to meet with me, even at his place of business or a location of his choosing. He has repeatedly refused, and now, thanks to Local 2 Investigates , I think I know why.
Amy Davis, an investigative reporter with Channel 2, conducted a report on “Houston’s Corner Crusaders” which aired on May 13, 2008. (Go to KPRC.com to view the video and read the transcript.) The report shed light on the amount of money being collected (as much as $1,000 per day, per team), but God Bless did not produce any financial documentation or other proof of how those funds were being used. Also, the reporter discovered the business address on file with the Secretary of State’s office is actually Mr. Tarver’s personal residence. And finally, Mr. Tarver refused to be interviewed.
Let’s summarize. Panhandling. Misrepresentation. No proof of services provided. Incomplete education by leaflet. Lack of financial accountability. A leader who hides in the shadows.
The signs are all there. God Bless—HIV and AIDS Awareness is not an organization worthy of your support.
Now I’m the one doing the begging. Please don’t drop money into the God Bless buckets. If you want to prevent new HIV infections, or if you wish to help persons living with AIDS, please donate to one of the many reputable AIDS service organizations in Houston.
Kelly A. McCann is the chief executive officer of AIDS Foundation Houston. For testing information, call AFH’s Prevention Services Department at 713/623-6796 or log on to www.aidshelp.org.